In praise of “incompetence”


This is a title of the book written by Michel Claessens, a good friend of EUSJA for many years. Michel is currently Head of Communication for the ITER fusion project (France), and the study trip that EUSJA journalists had last spring to Cadarache happened thanks to his great support. By the way, many of us felt his support not once, when he worked as a researcher, scientific journalist and later, when he leaded the science communication department in the European Commission during more than ten years. A master of conferences at the Free University of Brussels, Michel Claessens has published many books. He helped also journalists: my first article written in English has been edited and published by Michel.

This kind of friendship is always dear and could be a good reason to read your friend’s books. But the matter is that the books of Michel are always interesting and full of paradoxes. One may say the same about his recent publication. In that book Michel Claessens revisits a subject that we should all probably admit to knowing too well: incompetence. Especially as incompetence is probably the first of our competencies – according Michel.

“Our globalized and technological society generates what I call “systemic incompetence.” These days, we interact with the outside world through a wide set of technological interfaces and tools which we cannot escape and whose detailed modus operandi is largely unknown to us (see for example Google and Facebook). Following recent railway accidents in Europe, national authorities had to wait weeks before establishing the exact causes; competence is now subjugated to technology, and technology evolves every day”, – he says.

I noticed that Michel was master of paradoxes: his book also shows that incompetence can be creative, just as competence can be destructive. Here is what he says: “Recent examples of scientific research demonstrate how incompetence can help to sort out problems and take decisions—such as video game players who have collaborated with scientists to unravel the tridimensional structure of proteins. In reality, the notions of competence and incompetence need to be redefined. We can all learn from the practical situations described in the book which show that incompetence may become a genuine competency, whether it be at an individual, organisational or societal level. More exactly, what I call “miscompetence,” a subtle mix of tested abilities and recognized ignorance, plays today a central role, in particular in processes of creation and governance”.

Wow… I wonder if only I would like to dispute with Michel? But one must be careful: be ready to meet another good stock of paradoxes…



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