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.
I was an expert in specialized fields and a generalist in others. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Yet somehow, the notion of “expert” has evolved – or should I say devolved – and we would be wise to examine the subtleties and clear distinctions that separate authority, authenticity, credibility, credentials, and having a voice.
If we don’t? We’re asking for trouble.
Social media in particular has muddled these definitions, as our flood of tweets and feeds becomes a regular source of disseminating information. Do note that I hesitate to use the term “journalism.” Certainly, I wonder if the ripple effects run deeper, and 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… 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 that opinion to be deemed “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 their views 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 (and audience) comes reliance – others taking the content they hear as “fact.” With that voice there must be credibility (at least!) and more importantly, accountability – if we are to rely on what is presented as anything other than one individual’s opinion.
Of course, the subject matter makes a difference, as do the consequences of relying on theoretical or actual expertise. 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.
Take a neighbor’s recommendation on a local eatery?
Sure. Depending on the circumstances, there’s little downside.
Columbia Journalism Review on “Experts”
Recently I read Alissa Quart’s “The Trouble With Experts” in an issue of 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.
More to the point, as we ignore the issue of qualifications altogether, taking everything with equal authority, the damage we may be causing ourselves and others could be extensive in realms as varied as personal relationships, public health, and climate change.
While I find it encouraging that our voices may be heard – it’s generally a helpful exercise to speak your mind – 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, me, 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, or on French fashion because I enjoy writing about it, or on post-divorce dating because I’ve been at it for years?
Do I become 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
Consider these definitions plucked from Dictionary.com:
Of undisputed origin or authorship; genuine; accurate in representation of the facts; trustworthy; reliable
An accepted source of information, advice, etc.; a quotation or citation from such a source; an expert on a subject.
The quality of being trusted or believed; trustworthy, worthy of belief or confidence
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.
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?
Isn’t the source critical?
As for me, I have credentials in various fields, along with years of experience. I am a writer, so I write about what I know, what I learn, what I research. The reasons I write are many.
I write to provide commentary, to inform, to entertain, to provoke dialog, to encourage discussion.
I also seek qualified sources of expertise to share, and say clearly that I voice my opinions, while claiming no expertise where I do not consider myself qualified. To do otherwise is irresponsible. And when I am relying on an information source, especially when the stakes are high, I seek all of the magic four: authenticity, authority, credibility and credentials.
In so doing, whether “information” is offered in good faith or not, I also consider the agenda behind the source – what, if anything, is to be gained from the stated position.
- 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 use common sense and think for ourselves – raising a skeptical eyebrow, particularly on the web?
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