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How Do You Know If You’re an Expert? How Do You Talk to One When You Need One?

Nov 11, 2020 | Organizational strategy, Short-form

Reading Time: 4 minutes

It seems like wherever you turn in our society, you’ll find an expert being held up as the fount of knowledge. Or also, regular people being denounced for having commonsense opinions on complex matters.

Alternatively, you don’t have to look far for everyday people who believe that access to Wikipedia gives them an opinion on everything. Or, as is often the case now, those dissenting experts who are routinely ignored by… everyone.

[Insert obligatory Idiocracy reference here]

And every week, an avalanche of questions comes my way on just about every topic you can imagine. The stock market and individual stocks; developments in the economy; adapting new campaigns to specific business processes; branding; infectious disease data; political data; mechanisms of fraud; the election.

And that’s just a small sample from this week. Often, they’re all very broad, and individually, highly specific. (and no, I don’t have an opinion on how the election will play out in the courts).

Despite what people think, especially politicians following “SCIENCE!,” expertise is a complex phenomenon. And no one’s sure what it’s all about, not really.

So, how do you know if you’re an expert? What do you do when you’re someone that people ask about… everything? And as a decision-maker, what should you do in seeking expert advice?

In Uncertain Judgements: Eliciting Expert Probabilities

The question of what makes an expert is an interesting one. A simple conception is that an expert is someone who has great knowledge of the subject matter. However, expertise also involves how a person organizes and uses that knowledge. For instance, Wood and Ford (1993) described four ways in which an expert’s approach to problem solving differs from that of an amateur: expert knowledge is grounded in specific cases, experts represent problems in terms of formal principles, experts solve problems using known strategies, experts rely less on declarative knowledge (facts) and more on procedural knowledge (relationships).

In reality, our definition is a good start. But it falls short in a major way for our times. And that shortfall is that expertise is a form of power. And as power, it is an extension of politics.

Rather, it’s not coincidence that talk on expertise involves the expert’s recognition and influence. And that these are also a factor in determining the quality of individual or group expertise.

At its core, calling someone an expert, even yourself, is to politicize what they know and its role against others’ beliefs.

And yet, I’m routinely shocked at how brain-dead-stupid most experts are, especially about their own intellectual pitfalls. To begin with, this is true whether we’re talking about aspects like…

  • Errors in their logic
  • Philosophical misconceptions
  • Poor data analysis
  • Strategic blindness
  • Historical ignorance
  • Or specialization bias

And we’ve probably all seen groups of experts jerking each other off by citing each other as their source of recognition or influence.

Yet, understanding the most serious problem with expertise doesn’t require you have a dual-masters in quantitative bullshitting. Or ten years’ experience in every facet of business or organizational development.

It’s simple: our world is growing ever-more complex, as organizational realities and domains of thought come crashing together. Then there’s technology. And experts are increasingly blind to this overall phenomenon. Yet, they are increasingly willing to exert their political influence anyway.

Put simply: experts have tunnel vision and overestimate their own abilities but are just as much at risk of being cronies as the next guy… maybe more so because of the very nature of expertise as power politics.

Notice how their role in our society is being continually elevated despite their inability to project accurately even in their own field?

The good news is that we’re all in this same intellectual boat. That includes me. The bad news is that most of us don’t wield the same kind of power that recognized experts do. I also suspect they have little interest in how you know if you’re an expert.

So, back to our questions from above.

Q: If you’re a decision-maker what should you do when seeking expert advice?

A: Best to be mindful and minimize the power any expert or group of experts has on your policymaking. Put their expertise in context because, remember, being an expert isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Also, seek out intellectuals from different fields who are at odds with each other. And finally, never pretend that experts are speaking from a neutral or even fully informed position. Ask about the underlining assumptions serving their presentations.

Q: How do you know if you’re an expert? What should you do if you are one?

A: Expertise is an infinite resource covering infinite topics. And you’re probably not as savvy as you think you are, in the grand scheme of things. As you become more aware of people seeking you out for your knowledge, also be mindful of your responsibility via power. Nothing says you can’t abuse your power, if you want, but you’ll hurt your credibility long term if you do. This can’t be overstated regarding the trust from that part of the general public that’s more reasonable and pragmatic.

Paging Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx. Paging Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx.

In closing, the good doctors are a perfect example. To know if you’re an expert, look beyond your own self-congratulations or industry awards. For these two, they might want to start by reading through polling on where they stand with their influence regarding the general public. In fact, you might want to take a peek yourself.


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