“Don’t be buffaloed by experts and elites.
Experts often possess more data than judgment.
Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world.”Collin Powell
“The difference between school and life?
In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test.
In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”Tom Bodett
In this day of the Internet, where so many claim to be an expert on any given topic discussed in many forums, I really wonder just what the word “expert” means. I questioned this even more during times when a self-professed “expert” states something as fact, when there is a clear preponderance of evidence to suggest the contrary.
You know what I mean, don’t you?
You know the guy, the expert who claims adamantly that his way is the only way, but offers no evidence to support his claims. Or the expert who spouts off statistics, but never mentions what study or organization gathered these statistics. Or wose yet someone who perpetuates a common belief/myth (such as that Karate is from Japan) as fact though evidence suggests a totally different conclusion (like Karate actually originated in Okinawa).
Another factor I question about expertise is what qualifications must one have in order to be a true expert in any field. Can a person be a real expert in raising children if they have never had any? Is an expert on Western Medicine qualified to give expert opinion regarding whether Traditional Chinese Medicine (acupuncture) works or not? Can someone truly be an expert on race relations if they’ve never felt racial oppression or prejudice?
I guess what I’m really asking is at what point does one go from expressing a personal belief to an informed opinion to that of the expert?
Unfortunately, the dictionary definition of the word “expert” isn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity. Basically all the dictionary explanation states is:
“1. A person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject. 2. Having or demonstrating great skill, dexterity, or knowledge as the result of experience or training.”American Heritage Dictionary
Undoubtedly, there are real experts who willingly share their knowledge on the Internet. However, more often that not, I believe many individuals who profess to be experts really aren’t. I believe this because of several factors, the main one being how bent out of shape these self-professed experts get when you ask them for their qualifications, or present them with a fact that goes against their stated position.
In my opinion, I often doubt many of them have any actual professional experience in the topic they are discussing. I suspect that, like myself, they often speak mainly from what they’ve read, what they’ve learned from discussing the topic with others, and what’s been presented on TV.
Now, I’m not saying some of these individuals may not have some personal working experience on the topics they discuss. Take, for example, a person who has done Karate for ten years. He clearly has experience. However, though he may have experience, his knowledge may be only limited to what his instructor has exposed him to, or material related to his particular style. When that individual discuses Karate with others, his experience is limited to one facet of a larger collective, and I don’t believe that qualifies to talk about Karate in general, especially as an expert.
Of course, I also question if personal experience alone is enough to make someone an expert on any topic. I wonder this because I’ve met a lot of self-taught individuals who clearly exhibit expertise in their field. Instead of formal training/study they honed their craft by trail and error, and while they might not do things according to the book, their results are the same.
This of course leads to the question about how much formal education coupled with real world experience one needs to become an expert. That’s a little harder for me to determine, since there are numerous variables to consider. Such as:
- Length of study
- Real world application of studied material
- Years of experience
- Advanced study / Continued education
- Length of time since experiences were last applied
Take myself for example. I like to consider myself as educated, well-read, semi articulate, with varied interests. I like reading and studying all sorts of topics, and my mind is often full of trivial/useless facts and statistics I’m just dying to find a use for. I also like debating issues, and finding facts to support my position.
When I write an essay, I don’t just write what ever comes out of my head at the moment I actually do a lot of serious research on the topic. I do that because I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know everything. The last thing I want to do is write something that others will read which is total nonsense, or utterly untrue. I also spend a lot of time researching my topics because in all honesty I often prefer the research phase to the actual work involved to put all my research together and write the essay.
In my professional life I’ve been a peace officer (15 years), an investigator for the county court (almost 7 years), building manager (over 10 years), and martial arts teacher (going on my 15th year). During these professions I have had to study a lot, pass many exams, and have done a lot of learning the hard way: trial and error.
I have also had to testify in court several times, for various reasons related to my jobs. PPer the Superior Court of San Francisco and San Mateo County it’s on record that I’m an “expert” on determining if people are under the influence or a controlled substance, and how the body will react during a fight and to various strikes to specific targets. It has also been stipulated that I am knowledgeable enough to give “expert opinion” on the fighting arts in general, police procedure, nightclub security, and tenant right issues.
Now I’m not bragging, I about to make several points.
Point #1 –
I haven’t been a peace officer in almost 14 years so my “working” knowledge of police procedures is antiquated. Numerous changes have certainly occurred since I retired.
In addition, my knowledge was only related to local departments, and police procedures in New York may be very different than those of San Francisco, or agencies in San Mateo County, California.
Furthermore, even though I may read up on the topic and try to stay informed, is it fair to still consider myself an expert on police procedures now.
Clearly, I know more than the average person, but where does one draw the line between knowledgeable and expertise.
Point #2 –
The same is true for dealing with suspects that are under the influence of a controlled substance. I can’t even remember the last time I used that skill, or made an arrest based on my training. I believe I could still make an informed guess, but I wouldn’t lay my reputation as an expert on that assumption.
Once again while I may keep myself updated on new methods, the signs and symptoms of drug interactions within the body, and other facts related top the topic, with out putting this information into practical daily use what level of “expert” am I.
Point #3 –
As an investigator I spent a lot of time investigating homicides. I could certainly teach someone how to do the job, but I’m no expert on every facet of homicide investigation.
I may know how to collect evidence, but I’d be lost trying to process/test it. I may understand the motives that drove a particular suspect to commit murder, but I have no formal training in the psychology of killers.
Once again I may have more experience than the average person, but am I an expert on every facet of homicide investigations? Am I an expert on Homicide investigations? According to the dictionary definition I am.
My point with all of these examples is just because I’ve had experience in something and maybe even continued to keep myself abreast of new information, procedural changes, and other related information still doesn’t mean I’m an expert. Things change, old theories are replaced by new theories, and what once may have been considered science fiction (traveling to the moon) may be science fact today.
I mean how many five year old kids of my generation ever imagined there would be home computers, cell phones, or Nintendo Wii.
All that my experiences mean is that I may have a better understanding of the material compared to someone who has never been a police officer, done investigations, or been exposed to the things I’ve been exposed too.
The question shouldn’t be if I’m an expert on any topic, but if I am more credible when I discuss a point based on my life experience?
I, for one, place more weight and credibility on one’s experiences than those who just learn things from a book or TV. While some may disagree with that belief, the fact of the matter is there is a big difference between the way things are taught, and the way things actually get done in real life.
My older son is facing such a case scenario. Currently he is in Paramedic school, where they teach him things according to a certain set criteria. Everything has to be done in a specific progression from “A” to “Z.” In order to pass exams students are not allowed to deviant from strict structured protocols.
However, when my son takes ride-a-longs with the local paramedics they do things quite differently than what he is taught at paramedic school. Sure they have certain procedures to follow, but they don’t follow a set progression of questions and tasks. In other words they take short cuts, adjust to the situation, and do things in ways that if attempted by a paramedic student would cause them to be flunked.
Real world experience has taught these working paramedics that not everything case can be “handle by the book,” and at times in order to save someone one must think outside the box.
This of course leads me to another issue regarding expertise. Is someone who studies a subject, learns proper text book procedures, passes exams, and is able to spout facts and statistics more of an expert than someone with real world skills who applies this knowledge on a daily basis?
I mean who would you rather have working on you in an emergency, the A+ student paramedic graduate, or the guy who has been a paramedic for several years? Or to put it another way, the novice with no experience, or the veteran who knows what has to be done and can make adjustments as needed.
Further more, when does one become an expert? Is it a within 6 months of starting a job and applying that knowledge, after a year, or after 10 years?
The problem with the word, “expert,” is that it is subjective. Its one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, and few people who claim to be one are ever asked to put up or shut up.
Now don’t get me wrong. Like I said, there are real experts who offer their opinion on the Internet, and they have a lot of valuable information to share. The only problem is, one has to wade through a lot of misinformation/half-truths to find the factual stuff.
Basically, I try and live by the adage; don’t believe everything you hear or read. Learn to be selective, and learn to examine where the source of the information comes from.
I’ve also learned that just because someone claims to be an expert, maybe even is an legitimate expert on a topic, doesn’t always mean they are right. Human frailty being what it is, even real experts are often prejudicial and one sided. As Thomas Sowell stated, “For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert; but for every fact there is not necessarily an equal and opposite fact.”
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I’ve also learned that when ever discussing something on the Internet, no matter how much I may feel I know on the subject, or how many actual facts I may possess to support my position, it is always safer to express myself as if were only an opinion. Let others take it as fact if they elect to do so.