Citrus, Pain, and Experts

We started composting last year. Again. But this time we seem to be better at it than the last few times we tried. Our system is simpler. We put fruit and vegetable waste and coffee grounds in a gallon-sized, airtight, plastic container that sits next to our sink. When the container is full, I take it out to the back yard and bury its contents in the ground during the six warmer months, and during the six cooler months I put it in a trash can-sized tumbler we keep near the back door.

So far, there has been only one point of disagreement. My wife found out that it’s a bad idea to put citrus in a compost pile, but I kept insisting on putting the citrus in our pile anyway because it didn’t make any sense to me that it would be a problem.

Her argument was stronger than mine, given that her information came from smart people whom we also happen to love. One of them is a landscaper and landscape designer. The other is an engineer who seems to know everything, including a lot about organic farming. These aren’t people I typically question, especially not about areas in which they have so much expertise and I have so little.

But I couldn’t stop myself from questioning them, so I did an internet search and found no reliable sources that said citrus was a problem for compost piles. I did find several that tried to figure out how the myth had originated.

I was right, but it was a fluke, a semi-random bit of bad luck. My experts were wrong.

We like when the experts are wrong, but not our experts. This is why we love writers like Michael Lewis and Atul Gawande and Gary Taubes and James Surowiecki: when we read them, we don’t necessarily feel smarter than the experts in the establishment, but we feel like we’re right and they’re wrong. We feel like we see the world more clearly than they do.

We also have our local experts. As a librarian, it’s my job to be one of those. Also, as a son and brother and husband and friend, I get to play that role on occasion. People will ask me about their computer, or what book they might want to read, or where to take a friend to dinner.

In those instances, people want me to be right. They don’t want to have to turn to Google or Yelp or Consumer Reports. They want an expert to save them from having to personally research every little thing.

Being right about the citrus, and being disappointed about being right, got me thinking about what I want in an expert. For empirical questions, the answer is relatively straightforward: I want an answer, I want an explanation I can understand, and I want reliability. For non-empirical questions, it’s more difficult.

This question comes up, fleetingly, in a recent 99% Invisible podcast, the one about the the backlash against the proposed branding for the University of California. Do design experts know more than non-experts? Sure, it’s something of a tautology. But it also reminds me that auditioning behind screens leads to more women musicians getting hired by orchestras. Training can be useful: it sharpens our perceptions and provides us with useful heuristics, whether it’s in developing an eye for logos or an ear for virtuoso performances. Still, for most of us, our biases persist. And, in some cases, the process of becoming an expert may itself instill biases that are neither relevant nor helpful.

For instance, the idea of pain has been on my mind since I started running more consistently over the past several months. Like most sometime runners, I long ago had an injury that kept me from running regularly for quite a while. Even after I healed, I figured it wasn’t worth committing to running because I would probably just hurt myself again. It wasn’t until I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run a couple of years ago that I decided to commit to running more regularly once again. I started with minimal running and liked it, and then tried barefoot running which I like even more. The idea is that pain is your friend, because it teaches you what not to do. If you pay attention to little pains, you avoid injury.

During the warm months, on roads or simpler trails, and on short or middle distances, barefoot running seems to be ideal for me. If I push too hard or my stride is off, I know it immediately. But now it’s cold, and I sometimes want to run over craggier surfaces, and I sometimes want to run farther than I can currently run barefoot. So I bought some running sandals from Luna, and I like them quite a bit, but now the pain is asynchronous. When I run barefoot, any pain I might feel is generally limited to the run itself. When I run in sandals, I tend to feel great during my run, and usually for a while after, and then I’ll find myself feeling sore hours or days later.

Runners understand pain. Scott Jurek’s new book, Eat & Run, is as much about pain as it is about ultramarathon running or food. He is an expert in all three, but he’s the sort of expert I rely on more for inspiration than practical advice, like Marco Ament when he writes about photography. They have resources I appreciate, but don’t anticipate possessing.

David Morris’s sublime Culture of Pain brought me as close as I’ve ever come to understanding how people experience pain. Reading it changed my life. But it’s not the place to look for answers about running, about distinguishing between sensation and discomfort and pain and injury. Morris provides explanations I can understand, but not answers, and in the process calls into question the possibility of reliability. For Morris, pain is real, but it is also personal.

What we are left with is a scientist’s serenity prayer, a wish for the ability to accept sensible empirical explanations, the courage to question empirical explanations that don’t make sense, and wisdom to know the difference.


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