On the limits of expertise

“Listen to the experts” sounds like good advice, but it doesn’t cover as many situations as you might like.

The command itself requires prior knowledge. What kind of expert is the best to advise on the situation? What if experts within the field offer contradictory opinions?

And that’s just for situations where an expert’s advice is called for. Every day, I rely upon knowledge that I got from non-experts. I’m writing this now in a language taught to me by high school graduates. Plenty of less qualified teachers have turned out fine language users. 

A Facebook friend shared a short video from a national defense consultant, on how ridiculous it is when people do a few Google searches and declare themselves experts on a subject. People who don’t know the difference between reading an article and conducting a lit review have less demanding definitions of “research” and “expertise,” which is just one outcome of the Dunning-Kruger effect. They don’t even know that what they’ve done does not qualify as research, or themselves as experts.

I agree, it’s annoying when people do this, and they’re often wrong about what they think they know. But I took issue with the speaker (to my friend’s great irritation) because he’d failed to address his own topic, and ironically, had not taken his own advice. The consultant, Tom Nichols, thought he was talking about “Why you should listen to experts,” but all he got out was “Non-experts are annoying and wrong.” 

The problem is, everyone already knows that. Who doesn’t feel like they have an area of expertise, some body of knowledge that when it comes up in conversation, their ears prick up? It might be the subject of how to clean your own house, or your personal filing system at work. Someone says, “Where’s that Collins file you were working on?” and you know the exact answer, better than anyone else possibly could. Or it’s a subject anyone might become an expert at, but only a few do, so when the subject of pre-Prohibition mafiosi comes up, or lacto fermentation, you jump in to share what you know and if you’re lucky, meet someone who can teach you a thing or two, as well.

So we all know the joys of knowing something, and the pain of amateurs who think they know what it has taken you thousands of hours to master. That’s great. But it’s a joke without a punchline, like a standup comedian saying, “Gridlock. Am I right, folks?” 

How do we avoid being that annoying wannabe expert, ourselves? Are there strategies for humility in the presence of the expert? 

And what about those topics we need to be able to competently research ourselves? New challenges are always presenting themselves, even in areas we think are settled and done. Norms in society, technology, our professions, are always evolving. How do you find out which new tools to use? How do you recognize expertise? Are there strategies for seeing one’s own limiting beliefs? What kind of expert do you talk to about that?

Nichols doesn’t address biases of perception and cognition in his PBS short, or epistemology, how to do research, marketing ploys, the DK effect…. instead he appealed to expertise, which is a logical fallacy anyway, but then he forgot to use his expertise to make his point. It was a failure at rhetoric, his solution is an oversimplification of a deep problem, and his approach lacked wisdom or resilience. These are newbie mistakes. He made a clickbait assertion, the kind of thing everyone already knows and would like to feel vindicated in. A thoughtful monologue or essay would use that as a starting point to explain where this universally acknowledged problem comes from and how to mitigate it. 

As a nonfiction writer, my task is to keep you reading to the end, because I’ve made the case early on that I’m not going to waste your time. I challenge the kind of common knowledge most readers are prepared to defend, beyond egg-frying to parenting and the nature of self. Every day I practice at living with anxiety and uncertainty, at questioning my own assumptions, asking myself how I know what I know. This is the creative process of my expertise.

Mastery of a subject places me in a community of knowledge, participant in a conversation among master-peers, and that kind of social acceptance is a heady thing, a euphoria the Dunning-Kruger effect emulates. It’s why humility remains so important, my biggest challenge, and one I hope never to forget, even when the subject is one I feel mastery over—maybe even especially at those times. Because the thrill of knowing is rewarding, and thinking I know something is the opiate of the dilettante.

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