What You Don’t Know About Experts (of all fields)

I recently finished Tom Nichols’s bestseller ‘The Death of Expertise’ and felt the familiar urge to write and think, and attempt to get readers on the same page. While I believe his concerns about the erosion of expertise are over-exaggerated and almost certainly an American phenomenon, there is some wisdom to be shared around if we want our hard-earned knowledge to be relevant. Below are some recommendations that we can exercise as readers and experts. 

To Laypeople & Readers

Chances are if you read, you have things that you are passionate about in this world. Passions define a person, and experts (of any specialization) love that.

But you do not become an expert by typing keywords into your search engine and cherry picking sources that support your argument. Nor do you become one by finishing a book. You could have developed an amazing opinion, but are you able to bear that responsibility like an expert can?

Maybe think about that more the next time you express yours. Context matters.

Expertise takes years to build, and these years are spent on sourcing information, engaging in conversation, seeking reviews from peers, and applying these knowledge to real world problems. It takes more than just passion for the subject matter. Every expertise has its trials by fire, whether you are in logistics, finance, or science. Googling things has no such trials. Overcoming these trials take a set of education, skill, and talent, and on top of all, experience. The point is if someone disagree with them on whatever matter, they are still more likely to be correct than that person. Expertise exists because you can’t be an expert simply by ‘knowing’.

However, they can be wrong.

Experts have been wrong before (where laypeople had it right), and will continue to be wrong. Every field has produced their fair share of frauds and terrible excuses for experts, but that’s up for the other experts to deal with and denounce. At the end of the day, readers, consumers of information, and the public at large are in no position to overrule an entire community of experts just because of some bad apples.

If you like to be an expert yourself, do what it takes to earn it.

Otherwise, reserve some respect (and when the time calls for it, benefit of doubt) for experts. Society depends on everyone owning a piece of expertise and trusting everyone to know their stuff. 

Tom Nichols has four nicely summed recommendations for consumers of information: be humble, be ecumenical, be less cynical, and be more discriminating. 

  1. Humility simply means that even if you disagree entirely with whatever you read, always remember that the author/expert probably knows more than you. Probably.
  2. Being ecumenical really means curating a greater variety of information, and that means subscribing to a couple of sources that has a different vantage point. You have time for that, especially if you are concerned for a better world.
  3. Being less cynical means accepting that the world is not out there to get you. Everyone tells you what they believe to be the truth and the best. Even if they got every fact upside down, always remember that the human behind probably has good intentions.
  4. Being more discriminating means exercising more effort to determine the validity of the information presented. Look up the author, look up the publisher, scout for citations, and see if the claims are verified, or if verifiable at all.

P.S. Oh, and when experts use the word theory, they are not making wild guesses which are as good as you. 

To Experts

You are going to have it hard. Real hard. 

Nowadays everyone can look up and copy paste a piece of information in seconds, which you took hours to learn the material for an exam. Some of you might even spent significant time and money on an education so that you can gain your own unique expertise.

You definitely didn’t go through all of that just so that some random angry Tom can just dispute your claims within seconds of Googling. Your evidence is going to be dismissed as ivory tower elitism, not a great thing to be called when equality is a hot social virtue.

Start by accepting the fact that it is going to get harder to have these kinds of conversations. However, it is your responsibility to keep them civilized and constructive. Do not react aggressively, especially on the internet. Choose your words carefully: misinformed, mistaken, incorrect, inaccurate. They all work better than ‘stupid’. Know that an argument is lost the moment when the expert loses his or her cool.

Also know that the human mind inherently seeks evidence that confirms prior beliefs. You are not going to easily change minds by being right. Most arguments and reasons are meant to defend a point, not to seek a particular truth. One good suggestion is to simply anticipate counterarguments and formulate your own counters. Carefully understand the most common reasons and rebuttals, and if possible try to read the motivations behind their arguments. An easy method is to simply ask ‘what would make you change your mind’, you will be surprised how far this gets you.

Of course, there is also that possibility you are wrong, and that possibility that you are speaking beyond your expertise. Recognize those moments and exercise more restraint on yourself.

Changing minds isn’t easy, and frankly speaking you shouldn’t expect to. Let actions and reality speak for themselves. Watch comedy while you are at it. Respect your expertise (and others too!), but don’t take yourself too seriously.

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JY recently graduated from HELP University with a Bachelors in Psychology (Hons) and now compulsively reads and writes about psychology. His interests focus on moral psychology, psychology of the self, and all things related to the perception of psychology such as the philosophy of science. One day hopes to be a counseling psychologist and a science communicator for psychology.

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