The Manly Art of Expertise: Part I -- What is an Expert?

Every direction a modern gentleman turns, he is bombarded by the opinions of "experts". These "experts" guide his decisions with endorsements of products, lifestyle suggestions, politics, money, medicine, and any other part of a man's life. Many go along through life listening to the "experts" rather casually, adopting some suggestions, ignoring others. But frequently, these "experts" lack credentials, are paid off sponsors, are opining in a field beyond their knowledge, or outright lying to push their own agenda.

I've been using the quotation marks because it seems that anyone today can proclaim themselves an "expert", and the news media gives credit to this. They will interview a medical doctor with an MD, a PhD, and two decades of work in immunology and vaccination, then turn around an interview Jenny McCarthy, and hold up both their views as equally valid. Climatologists and ecologists who have spent the better part of their lives studying the Earth's climate are given the same level of media attention as a politician who writes a book denying climate change. Talking heads on television may give their opinions on foreign policy, but they are usually never as well-informed as those of a scholar that has spent twenty years studying the issues at hand.

The point of all this is that identifying a real Expert, rather than some self-proclaimed "expert", can be difficult. This is especially true if you are not all that familiar with the field being discussed yourself. My goal in this series of posts is to outline what an Expert is, how to spot one, and then how to become one yourself. This post will discuss the easy part, defining an Expert. I hope the definition is sufficiently broad that it can equally be applied to the medical profession, your auto mechanic, or your financial advisor.

For the purposes of further discussion, I will use the following two-part definition of Expert. An Expert is someone who (1) is sufficiently familiar with a discipline that he is capable of identifying and expanding the frontiers of its knowledge, and (2) is familiar with the limitations of his own understanding of the field.

The first is easy enough to understand. If we're talking about scientists, these are people who are actively involved in research in their field, and have produced in the past original works that contribute to the field, usually in the form of peer-reviewed publications. If we're talking about a carpenter, this is someone who is capable of coming up with innovative new solutions to building problems. If we're talking a chef, then the chef invents new dishes by combining his culinary knowledge in novel ways. The key thing to understand is that not every professional that works in a field is an Expert, and not every Expert is an Expert on everything related to his field. A master electrician is an Expert on electrical wiring; he may not also be an Expert plumber. A renowned physicist is an Expert in physics; he may have next to no real knowledge of biology.

The second is a little more difficult to discern, but is equally important. A true Expert in a field does not make statements that extend beyond his level of competence. Physicists are very sub-divided (I speak of this because I am one), and so a physicist that studies atomic physics may not be suited to give strong opinions on cosmology, for example. A doctor that specializes in adult oncology may not even be well-suited for his diagnosis and treatment options for children (there is a mantra I hear among my medical school acquaintances that "Children are not just smaller versions of adults"). To be an expert is not just to know what you know, but to also know what you don't know.

For my second post, I hope to apply this definition for how to spot an actual Expert amidst the sea of "experts".

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Comment by Stephen Webb on April 27, 2010 at 9:06pm
Alone2, I would argue that most people don't have a mile's worth an inch deep, they have maybe a foot's worth an inch deep. Similarly, an expert might have miles of material but only depth in a few locations.

However, my point was to set up a working definition for an expert for the second and third parts, coming up soon.
Comment by Carl M on April 27, 2010 at 12:00am
Just a humorous post about an "expert"
ex=has been
pert (usually sounds like spurt in the word)=drip under pressure

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