Rumors of the death of expertise

By Sally Planalp and George Cheney

There’s a lot of talk these days in our country about the “death of expertise,” a phrase that has caught on, as well as being the title of a popular book by Tom Nichols. It’s not that knowledgeable and skilled people have gone away. Rather, we find that “experts” in many fields and occupations are not taken as seriously as they once were.

One of the best—or worst—examples of this is the declining confidence in scientific reports. There’s also a popular desire to have “fresh” faces in positions in government and the economy; sometimes this translates into elevating people who don’t really have a background in whatever they are supposed to be doing. Questioning what we hear and desiring change are natural responses to a complex and uncertain world, but these impulses can sometimes carry us too far.

One myth of expertise is that it is similar to intelligence. Certainly, intelligence is related to expertise in that intelligent people may be able to acquire expertise more easily; but what really matters is the expertise, not the smarts. The late great cosmologist Stephen Hawking was extremely intelligent – able to solve physics problems in a fraction of the time it took his fellow students. But he was a self-admitted goof-off until he was diagnosed with ALS and decided to work hard to acquire the expertise he needed to make a contribution to his chosen field while he was able.

It is easy to be suspicious of expertise because expertise is not easy to describe to others. It often takes years if not decades or a lifetime to develop. Writer Malcolm Gladwell’s popularization of Anders Ericsson’s “10,000 hours rule,” that it takes that much time to be truly expert at something, is hard to verify; but no one questions that many hours of deliberate practice are necessary to be truly expert at piano or golf. We can only imagine what is needed to be an effective mediator in Middle East conflicts or an accomplished neurosurgeon.

There is a reason we use the metaphor of deep or shallow knowledge because expertise lies below the surface unseen and can reach great depths. For that reason, our own knowledge can easily be overestimated even about everyday objects. When one group of psychology undergraduates were shown a drawing of a bicycle and asked to add the chain and the pedals so that it would work, only about half did it correctly. We may know basically how a bicycle works (or do we?), but odds are most of us could not build one.

Much expertise is made up of the accumulated experience of many people, often by hard trial and error, to learn what works and what doesn’t work in a particular situation. That knowledge is passed along as education and training to novices, who may add their own experience to the bank of expertise. We may think of expertise as something held by an individual, but much of it is actually a valuable collective resource.

Part of the resistance to valuing expertise may be that we balk at elevating experts above the rest of us, as well we should. Being an expert software engineer does not make you a better person. Just because you are an expert in one domain does not mean you are better able to handle other domains.

Advertising sometimes conveys the impression that if someone is successful in the sports world they would surely know a lot about cars, or home cleaning products, or pharmaceuticals. This is just one example of where we should be cautious about “expertise by association.” Because expertise is specific, we should value it specifically and not necessarily broadly.

Let’s think about the roles of experts closer to home. Do we really want to hire a plumber who hasn’t worked with others experienced in the trade and hasn’t bothered to learn plumbing in advance? In U.S. society, there has always been an element of questioning authority. This is important and valuable in motivating us to ask questions of those who tell us what to do or how things work. This is what we might call due diligence or healthy skepticism. Good teachers say “I don’t know” when they need to check on something. Good physicians are not threatened if a patient wants to get a second opinion about a recommended therapy.

Do we want a “fresh face” in the operating room who may not have the education and experience to take on our surgery? Do we want an insurance agent who doesn’t understand different kinds of policies? Of course, the answer is obvious, when we put the questions like this. Few would argue that we get a fresh perspective on bridge-building and ignore the experts.

It’s a risky proposition to celebrate lack of knowledge. Know-nothings are vulnerable to baseless assumptions, widely-rejected beliefs, ignoring the evidence, being quick to dismiss traditional wisdom, and excessive confidence that they can make better decisions because they are smart, no matter how complex the problem they are facing. Great decision-makers are made from years of developing expertise, not born.

Sally Planalp and George Cheney are residents of Moab and part-time professors of communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Opinions expressed her are their own and do not represent those of the university. A previous version of this editorial was published in the Moab Times-Independent on April 19.

From Guest Column.