Ask the Experts

Expertise. That’s what I wanted. To know that I was really good at something, to have it confirmed, and then to use that knowledge to appropriate ends.

And in my (now several) careers, I worked hard to attain the practical skills and experience as well as the degrees, certifications, and reputation to back up my authority. I enjoyed being knowledgeable – an expert in my field – and it bears noting that this required me to constantly update my qualifications.

But I was an expert in specialized fields, and a generalist in others. Somehow, the notion of “expert” has evolved – or should I say devolved – and we would be wise to examine the distinctions between authority, authenticity, credibility, credentials, and a voice.

If we don’t? We’re asking for trouble.

Social media has muddled these definitions in dissemination of information (I hesitate to use the term “journalism”), and I wonder if the ripple effects run deeper. I would turn to the experts to ask, but then – who might they be? And how do I – how does anyone – authenticate their expertise?

Gone are the days when “Doctor” in front of someone’s name and a sheepskin on the wall meant undisputed authority. Academic credentials remain important, but in my opinion, much less than twenty years ago. As for the term “author?” Don’t be fooled. The vanity press can make anyone with a checkbook into an author. And so can the web.

Contemporary (Pop) Cultural Commentator?

In a contemporary culture where people become famous for being famous, where memoirs (in our thirties?) are increasingly the norm, where we claim experience by virtue of, well… claiming it – on the web, perhaps we should all wear the mantel of Contemporary Cultural Commentators – and call it a day.

But we don’t. And I worry.

I worry about how easy it is for someone to exercise their right to voice an opinion, and for it to be assumed as authoritative. For someone with a single experience (their own) in, say, divorce… to posit that their way is plausible for tens of thousands of others. For someone who coaches on relationships to speculate as to single parenthood or divorce aftermath – without having lived it, studied it, researched it, or supporting it with detailed and authoritative data.

I worry about opinion overtaking the value of vetting, the accountability of credentialed journalists, the authority of genuine expertise – whatever the field.

With a voice comes reliance – of others. Behind that voice there needs to be credibility and more importantly, accountability if we are to rely on it as anything other than one individual’s opinion. Of course, the topic up for discussion makes a difference, as do the consequences of relying on the discussion. For example, I use an experienced and credentialed C.P.A. for my taxes, and a Board-Certified specialist when I have a medical issue.

Don’t you?

Columbia Journalism Review on “Experts”

Recently I read Alissa Quart’s “The Trouble With Experts” in a Columbia Journalism Review, published last summer. The article raises the issue of expertise, as we grow accustomed to the breadth of sources we rely upon on the Internet. The clout of the expert quote – once the cornerstone of a journalistic piece – is diminished, as we accept anything and anyone with a byline, without realizing we shouldn’t assume qualifications where they may not exist.

Or perhaps more to the point, as we ignore the issue of qualifications altogether, and take everything with equal authority.

While I find it encouraging that our voices may be heard (always a good thing to speak your mind, in my book), I’m concerned when individuals speak or write as if they are experts when, in fact, they have no more authority or credibility than you or I, or my next door neighbor. And quite possibly, less.

Am I an expert on parenting because I’ve spent the past 20 years raising children? Am I an authority on French men because I’ve known my share, on French fashion because I enjoy writing about it occasionally, on post-divorce dating because I’ve been at it for years?

Am I an expert when other trusted authorities or voices confirm as much? Should I proclaim it to be true? Should you who read me decide?

Authenticity vs. Authority, Credibility vs. Credentials

A few definitions to consider, plucked from Dictionary.com:

Authenticity:

Of undisputed origin or authorship; genuine; accurate in representation of the facts; trustworthy; reliable

Authority:

An accepted source of information, advice, etc.; a quotation or citation from such a source; an expert on a subject.

Credibility:

The quality of being trusted or believed; trustworthy, worthy of belief or confidence

Credentials:

Evidence of authority, status, rights, entitlement to privileges, or the like, usually in written form; anything that provides the basis for confidence, belief, credit, etc.

Vetting (to vet):

To appraise, verify, or check for accuracy, authenticity, validity, etc.: An expert vetted the manuscript before publication.

Expert:

A person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority.

Who do you believe?

So who do you believe? Can you distinguish between someone who is addressing an issue with authenticity and even sincerity, but without expertise? Do you put your faith in data – without digging into its source or applicability?

As for me, I have credentials in various fields, along with years of experience. I am a writer; I write about what I know, what I learn, what I research. I write to inform, to provide commentary, to entertain, to provoke dialog and discussion.

I also say clearly, that I voice my opinions, rather than claiming expertise where I do not consider myself qualified. To do otherwise, I believe, is irresponsible.

  • When vetting does not take place to verify a person’s voracity, knowledge, or authority, shouldn’t we be concerned?
  • In a world that bombards us with social media news and noise – TMI – do we know how to pick out what is reliable as well as credible?
  • What role do we play – as journalists, writers, writers who blog, bloggers, as interested parties in a variety of communities - in clarifying who we are and what expertise we do or don’t possess?
  • Shouldn’t we always consider the source (and the agenda), use common sense, and think for ourselves – raising a skeptical eyebrow, particularly on the web?



© D A Wolf

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Comments

  1. I love this post. It’s a book.

    Even in medicine, which is a field I know something about and am presumably an “expert” in, I’ve come to see that what passes for knowledge is often really fashion. All we really have to rely on is our experience, which is so limited. There is a saying I learned while a resident that applies this to medical practice: I’d rather have experienced something before than to have read about it. But more than that I’d rather be lucky.

    There is also a John Ruskin quotation I love. There are so many false quotations on the Internet that, to be sure, I downloaded the text of the book it’s in (Modern Painters) and searched for it. Yup. It’s there. Here you go:

    The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, all in one.

  2. That’s exactly what my teachers would say, the information on the web is their worst nightmare because students would google everything without checking credibility on the matter. It’s interesting how teachers have websites now where they can upload the student’s paper to check for plagiarism.

    For me, I think I’m pretty good at checking the authenticity and credibility of the materials that I read. I’m glad I learned in school how to carefully read Journal Articles, etc. to make sure their numbers aren’t skewed. :) Just because it’s a “scholarly” article, doesn’t make it right.

    Also, I find it amusing and disturbing how people who happen to be opinionated feel like they have the right to publish their thoughts on the web, like they’re doing some kind of community service. Lol.

  3. Amen! So much ‘information’ is regurgitated everyday. So much mis-information is taken as truth in many social media outlets. I am a blogger, and would love to be a writer. But they are two different paths entirely. My blog is more of a diary and outlet of my own feelings and thoughts and I certainly hope it is received in the same way.
    I love your writings here. It is obvious to me (or so i hope) immediately upon reading online fodder, whether the writer has researched, whether it is written with emotion and personal views only or if it is just a soundboard for some anger, or emotion which is not fact based.
    Be wary of the easy writers.
    Great post.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      NAS – You’re very kind. Thank you. I think those of us who share our words and thoughts and stories on the internet – journal-like or creative, or something else entirely, are generally respectful and appreciative of others who do the same. We feel the sense of community. What concerns me is the blurry territory between expert opinion and personal opinion, and the fact that too many of us don’t use common sense to discern the difference. You said a mouthful: be wary of the easy writers.

  4. The web is a public forum, so I have no complaint about folks voicing their opinion there. But I don’t give it much credence unless the source is clear and “authoritative.” I find it useful to check something quickly on Wiki, but when I check in my special areas of “expertise” I often see things that are factually incorrect. For research, I try to figure who’s paying for it. BigPharma has done some particularly shady things in that regard. On my syllabus I note that web answers are not necessarily correct answers for my courses.

  5. Best thing I’ve read about experts since Hayek’s “The Intellectuals and Socialism” — http://bit.ly/jdK3KL — which should be required reading regardless of one’s politics. Even the credentialed, “vetting” experts are given far too much authority outside of the specialties in which their expertise is genuine — they become society’s gatekeepers and popularizers — “second-hand dealers in ideas” — in fields where they haven’t learned anything new since undergrad, thus preserving bygone conventional wisdom that’s been long since discredited by the real experts.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Happy to have you join us, John. I appreciate the comment and the recommended reading. I’ll check it out. Please stop by again.

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