On Listening to Experts

I recently did something I’ve never done before. I moved a thermostat from one point on my hot water tank to another. I did this based on the advice of a plumber, an “expert” in these matters. Five minutes after I had done the work, my brain started to function, and I wondered why I had done it in the first place.

I am not a plumber, nor do I play one on the Internet. I do have a basic education in physics, though. When I moved the thermostat, I was operating under a bit of pressure. My wife asked if I had completed the job I had forgotten a couple of weekends in a row. I didn’t want to disappoint my wife, and I did the work. As a result, when I moved the thermostat, I felt I had accomplished something. Shortly after that, I started to question the advice we had received.

Hot water rises in a tank, so having the thermostat moved to where the plumber recommended didn’t make sense. When I mentioned it to my wife, she looked it up online and confirmed that the appropriate place for a thermostat on our tank type was the original position. I had cut holes in the moulded lagging on the tank for no reason. Ultimately, I moved the thermostat back to its original position and patched the damage as best I could.

This whole situation is an example of something I like to think of as expert bias. Someone who appears qualified gives us advice, and we assume they know what they’re talking about. Unfortunately, it happens a lot in the workplace. We hire consultants. They do extensive analysis, produce a bulky document, and we attempt to follow the advice within. Or we ignore it completely; the document sits on a virtual or physical shelf and gathers dust.

Either way, we’ve spent a sometimes considerable sum of money to get advice that we hope is well-informed. It may change the direction of a project or an entire organisation. It may solve the original problem described or not. In the case of the advice received from the plumber, the challenge was my teenage girls complaining about having cold showers. I have very short showers because I’m mostly bald. My daughters, by contrast, have showers that seem to last for days and apparently drain the equivalent of the Mariana Trench. I didn’t notice a problem with the amount of hot water available while they did.

The root problem we were trying to solve was the mechanism we used to heat the water. We were using the immersion to heat the water, whereas we should have used the central heating system. Unfortunately, the immersion didn’t reach far enough into the tank to fill it with hot water.

So what have I learned from this little expedition into the land of ill-informed DIY? First, while expert advice can be helpful, we cannot afford to outsource our thinking entirely. Once I thought about it, I knew that the advice I received didn’t make sense. When we are under pressure to make a decision, it is sometimes tempting to simply accept the advice of experts. For what it’s worth, I advise you to do your most critical thinking in those moments. Don’t succumb to real or perceived pressure just to make a decision. Take the time to think for yourself and avoid an unnecessary repair job.

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