Chauffeur Knowledge vs Planck Knowledge

Charlie Munger, in one of his talks, tells the story of famous scientist Max Planck –

I frequently tell the apocryphal story about how Max Planck, after he won the Nobel Prize, went around Germany giving a same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, “Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine, if I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?” Planck said, “Why not?” And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, “Well, I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.

Well, the reason I tell that story is not to celebrate the quick wittedness of the protagonist. In this world I think we have two kinds of knowledge: One is Planck knowledge, that of the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude. Then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They have learned to prattle the talk. They may have a big head of hair. They often have fine timbre in their voices. They make a big impression. But in the end what they’ve got is chauffeur knowledge masquerading as real knowledge. I think I’ve just described practically every politician in the United States. You’re going to have the problem in your life of getting as much responsibility as you can into the people with the Planck knowledge and away from the people who have the chauffeur knowledge.

On a lighter note the chauffeur had some Planck knowledge of his own, being clever enough to turn that question around!

But in the real world, it is critical to distinguish when someone is “Max Planck,” and when he’s just the “Chauffeur.”

Building Planck knowledge takes deep commitment and large amount of time and effort. Chauffeur knowledge comes from people who have learned to put on a show. Their talks sound impressive and entertaining, they have good voice and may even ooze great charisma but their knowledge is not their own.

In fact, the more eloquent and articulate someone sounds the higher the odds of him having chauffeur knowledge.

Richard Feynman beautifully describes the difference between knowing the name of something (chauffeur knowledge) and knowing something (Planck knowledge).

 

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