Experts: On Whom Should We Place Our Bets?

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The following is a response to Tom Nichols’ article, “The Death of Expertise”:

In theory, sure. But I actually find it remarkably difficult to define the domain in which someone may claim expertise. For instance: Is an education researcher who taught for ten years in a rural setting an Education Expert? Do we broadly label him an expert on education? Or do we stay conservative, and call him an Expert on Particular Tenets of Social Behavior as They Emerge from Adolescents Ages 13 to 16 Within the Context of Public Education in a Discrete Range of Rural Communities?

The latter seems to limit the pedigree of his degree, doesn’t it? I suspect the writer of this article would probably recoil at my diminishing his scope of mastery. But the reality is that our education and our experiences – while tethered to a particular domain (or intersection of domains) – do not imply that we have mastered the entirety of that domain (or even of that intersection).

I do get Nichols’ larger point: We are not all equally versed on particular subjects, and it behooves us to heed the collective wisdom of expertise. That I can agree with – if 99% of experts belonging to a domain advise me on a life decision relevant to their expertise, I should certainly consider their advice. Expertise – in the aggregate – is not the problem. The problem is who – in a disaggregated world – we label as experts, and of what they may claim to be experts about. Where things break down, I find, is the notion that a discerning gulf exists between individual laymen, enthusiasts and actual experts. In reality, that line is not so clear, and just because we have degrees and CVs to draw a distinction doesn’t mean those distinguishing factors will precisely parcel out Who knows What. Intellectual capital is not intelligence itself.

And in the day-to-day, where conversations play out not between 99% of Experts and one proven Know-Nothing, but rather between humans wielding incomparable sets of degrees and experiences drawn from multi-various domains, on whom should we place our bets?

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