I read an interesting little story (it’s truth may be doubted) in some places recently:
“After winning the Nobel Prize, Planck toured around giving a speech. The chauffeur memorized the speech and asked if he could give it for him, pretending to be Planck, in Munich and Planck would pretend to be the chauffeur. Planck let him do it and after the speech someone asked a tough question. The real chauffeur said that he couldn’t believe someone in such an advanced city like Munich would ask such an elementary question and as such, he was going to ask his chauffeur (Planck) to reply].
In this world we have two kinds of knowledge. One is Planck knowledge, the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude. And then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They have learned the talk. They may have a big head of hair, they may have fine temper in the voice, they’ll make a hell of an impression. But in the end, all they have is chauffeur knowledge“
Source: Charlie Munger – USC School of Law Commencement – May 13, 2007
(here quoted from http://gregspeicher.com/?p=1982)
I like how the “chauffeur knowledge” gives us an easy way to refer to this phenomenon. I would actually define it further as the knowledge of the kind of techniques that can be used to make the impression of actually having the background knowledge; for example, the genius conversational trick of the chauffeur of refering this question further to the one who knew, Planck, without revealing that he himself doesn’t. Fun fact: I first read this in one of those life-enhancing advice books (can’t remember the title, it was in German and I did not buy the book…), so among a collection of “chauffeur techniques”, where it was a quantum mechanics lecture that the chauffeur held for Planck.
But as a scientist, I am actually more skeptical about the supposed “Planck knowledge”. What is the difference between Planck and the chauffeur in terms of giving the lecture? Presumably the chauffeur knew everything that was in the lecture. Well, from a superficial point of view, we could say that Planck had a lot more background knowledge, as he also knew everything that lead to the supposedly mature statements he gave in his quantum mechanics lecture. But would the chauffeur necessarily have been any wiser if he had read all the papers leading to the “facts” presented in the lecture?
I think not. The key is that the difference between Planck and the chauffeur is not only knowledge of “facts”, but “know-how”. Well, in a way, that is knowledge to, but not the kind you can put into an encyclopedia. Planck might not even have known all the little experimental facts and intermediate steps that lead to the conclusions in his lecture (although he did certainly know a lot about them, being one of the key people in the development of quantum mechanics), but he did know the scientific processes in experimental and theoretical physics as well as mathematics that lead there. That is the key difference between him and his chauffeur — as far as the lecture on quantum mechanics is concerned.