On Experts and Expertise | December 2, 2007

We currently live in a world dominated by experts. You only have to open a newspaper or switch on the television to see experts giving pronouncements on everything from parenting to the economy. In a world of multifarious complexities, the need for such experts is clear. We need experts to filter the huge flow of information and simplify it into something more digestible.

I experienced this recently while looking for a mortgage on my new flat. With thousands of products available and a limited knowledge of the market, I turned to an independent financial advisor for help. The financial expert helped evaluate my needs and whittled the choice down to just two or three products. With the right tools, I probably could have done this myself. However relaying on the expertise of another person made my choice much easier and helped mitigate a certain amount of risk.

The crucial aspect of being an expert is experience. We can all open a book and learn about a topic, but that doesn’t make us an expert. Expertise comes from repetition–from doing something over and over again until it becomes second nature. Experience lets us develop patterns, hone our skills and learn from our mistakes. Experience counts.

To get the most out of an expert, you need to trust their experience and relinquish a certain amount of control. This doesn’t mean that you should follow their ideas blindly without any critical analysis of your own. However when faced with a decision about which you have little or no experience, it makes sense to weight the result in favour of the expert.

Unfortunately it’s actually quite difficult to relinquish this control, especially if you’ve not worked with the expert before and can’t vouch for their results. I found this to be the case when looking for a mortgage–constantly asking the expert questions to sound out their expertise and give me enough information to make a decision. Often the real benefit of hiring an expert is in the transmission of their expertise to you.

The use of experts can help increase the chances of success, but they are no means infallible. This is because experts are simply offering an expert opinion, and while their opinions may be more informed than most, they are still just opinions. In the world of the expert, it’s not uncommon to see two experts disagree quite vehemently on a subject. This could be down to the different experiences they have had, or simply because they have chosen to interpret those experiences differently.

Sadly it seems that being an expert these days has less to do with experience and more to do with the strength and simplicity of their message and how well it resonates with the listener. We like our experts to have simple, definitive answers to essentially complex questions. How else can we explain why people listen to the advice of quacks like “Dr? Gillian McKeith over real doctors with years of medical training and experience?

If an expert pronounces something as fact, we tend to take them at face value. After all, they’re the experts right? If they turn out to be wrong, we’re safe in the knowledge that we trusted somebody better informed than us, and it was their mistake, not ours. Conversely, we mistrust experts who aren’t willing to give a definitive answer or one that fits with our own mental models. We dislike any form uncertainty and see this as a sign of weakness, rather than a true assessment of the situation.

This has lead to a dangerous form of rhetoric that values the singularity and strength of an expert’s opinion over the accuracy and validity of their assessment. People seem to admire sticking to a set of generic and intractable beliefs over the ability to critically analyze and understand a problem from numerous angles. As Albert Einstein once said, we should “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Sadly a lot of experts focus on the first part of that statement, without fully understanding the important or significance of the second part. Our craving for simplicity over complexity seems to come at the detriment of proper understanding.

Posted at December 2, 2007 3:31 PM

Comments

Matt Wilcox said on December 2, 2007 5:51 PM

Interesting post, and one where I agree with every point too. Is there something in particular that started you off on this, or just a general observation?

As a point of thought - ‘expert’ rather depends on the company you keep. What one group of people term an expert another group think of as merely well informed, and another might think of as a quack. There are loads of ‘experts’ who are actually nothing more than people better informed than the general audience, but get someone who’s life revolves around the topic and it’s easy to see that ‘expertise’ is relative.

In which case the blame for ill-advised expertie-ship belongs in part to the audience doing the listening. If the audience isn’t knowledgeable enough to differentiate a genuine expert from someone merely more knowledgeable than themselves, then the cult of ‘dumbed down experts’ will thrive.

Bruce Boughton said on December 2, 2007 6:05 PM

Another thing to consider when dealing with experts is whether their interests are sufficiently aligned with yours. To take the example of looking for a mortgage, you can expect a good expert to find a mortgage which is broadly suitable for you. The difference between a mortgage which is broadly suitable and one that is ideal can be huge though, with seemingly small differences multiplied by the length of time you take the mortgage out for.

While the incentive for you to get an ideal mortgage is huge, the incentive for your financial advisor might not be quite so big. It might be that the longer they spend with you, the fewer people they can advise per month. The incentive of increased financial turnover might, to their mind, outweigh the possible dividend they might get over time from a truly satisfied customer.

A similar example is that of an estate agent selling your home. The agent is interested in a quick sale at a reasonable price over a prolonged sale that culminates in a higher price. If the prolonged sale adds £10,000 to the price of the house, then, assuming the agent takes a fee of 1.5% for themselves, the agent takes only £150 more than the quick sale, pittance compared to what you would take. (This example is taken from Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner)

Greg Pfeil said on December 2, 2007 10:23 PM

I’m sure this comes as no surprise, but this is not a recent development. Thomas Young, a true expert in many fields, had trouble in his medical profession because he considered treatment alternatives and discussed them with his patients, rather than playing the all-knowing doctor who dictated exactly which treatment would be most likely to work (as if there existed any reliable treatments in the first years of the 19th century).

I would guess there has been some progress in modern times, both positive (with patients actively questioning treatment, and encouraging the discussion of alternatives) and negative (advertisements prodding people to ask their doctors for particular meds).

Overall I agree with your assessment. Few things scare people as much as their health, and we’re happy to have pithy answers for our less pressing problems.

Michael Dick said on December 3, 2007 5:48 AM

Somewhat of an answer to Matt’s qestion, albeit a comment of my own.

Something deep inside my gut suggests that Andy developed this post due to his experience in the web design field. Many web designers label themselves as experts. These “web designers” may know a lot about web design, however they can not practice it nearly as well as ‘us’ whom have quite the experience.

I once had a friend who could read a computer hardware book front to back twice a week and knew everything about building computers and had only build a handfull…however when it came to me I never read but had a many computers ‘on my belt’.

Great post Andy…I love these ‘types’ of posts (thoughts as this).

Dustin Diaz said on December 3, 2007 7:43 AM

Andy, you know, you did a real good job of relating this to how freelance Web Developers should interact with their clients - without ever saying it. If that wasn’t your intention, it was most definitely on my mind as I was reading this. Switching the roles around puts a twist on how we should think about business. You can learn a lot just by doing business in areas that are not in your experience (or expertise), and carry them over to your own practices.

Nick said on December 3, 2007 9:07 AM

On your point about Gillian McKeith, it’s my belief she’s 80 - 90% right most of the time. I listen to what she says because it fits my experience. This is (unscientifically) borne out by my feeling of health when others around me are frequently suffering from colds etc and visiting the doctor regularly. Conversely, I don’t disbelieve what the doctor tells me but I take everything (inc. McKeith) with a pinch of salt. I’ve realised nobody, except me, has my best interests at heart (sounds really lonely I know). Plus, I would argue that all of these people are experts at their jobs, with all of the agendas that come attached. e.g. My pharmacist friend will give you a drug that costs £10 and has potential side-effects rather than a better one that costs £100 because it dramatically increases the number of people she can treat with the same amount of money. Not so good for you as the individual but that’s her using her expertise at the job.

Ben Tremblay said on December 25, 2007 7:06 AM

It’s late, I’m enervated by the stuff I’ve been reading about HTMlWG and we haven’t talked, so allow this little blurt to stand as a “Hello”.

In email I sent about 3 minutes ago to someone who I met doing MozDocs 5 or so years ago (They’re still at it, and the WG too.) I tried to draw some attention to the social basis of what passes for discussion. I see you’re hoeing in the same patch. Let me just copy a snippet:

“What I do (“compulsively tech_doc”) is to latch onto a loose thread and hold on. When I’m told that I’m just being a pest I summon up my wry sense of humour, my grasp of social-psychology, and my appreciation of ancient history … and I hold on until I find someone who’s paying attention to existentials.
And if I find nobody? I tie the thread to a bush and go play with EXTJS or WP plugins or something else.”

“the people who control are the people who’ve won, and most victories are won by chicanery and sophistry (Note: not all.) so those folk don’t want to hear about evidence-based decision making and discourse and such. It follows … it’s a set of entailments … like trying to play tennis when there’s garden hoses and car tire on the court.”

In short: I think we’ve confounded the technical debate (which, given the substance of the project, must rule) with the subjective, the feelings and gut-instincts and intuitions that so many have honed by years of principled work: we’ve not given discourse it’s proper place … this latter gets short-changed while the former, the debate, gets frabbed.

phew!

cheers
—bentrem

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