What Is Expertise?

An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.

- Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond : Encounters and Conversation (1971).

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At a talk he gave at TAM 8, Massimo argued that non-experts in a field aren't qualified to reject an expert consensus, such as that on anthropogenic climate change. Most recently, he has taken Jerry Coyne to task for making a philosophical argument without having the necessary expertise. This raises a number of questions: Are there fields that have no experts, or that have pretend experts? If there is a lot of disagreement among experts on a topic, should we take any individual expert's opinion less seriously? How much consensus is required before a non-expert should say, "OK, looks like this question really is settled"?

Perhaps noted expert George Carlin had it right when he said: "I have as much authority as the pope, I just don't have as many people who believe it."

Listen to the Rationally Speaking episode on Deferring to Experts

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Short Article of the Day

In 2002, a distinguished historian wrote that the widely told tales of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs in the late 19th-century United States were myths. Richard Jensen at the University of Illinois said that such signs were inventions, ‘myths of victimisation’, passed down from Irish immigrants to their children until they reached the unassailable status of urban legends. For more than a decade, most historians accepted Jensen’s scholarship, while opponents were dismissed – sometimes by Jensen himself – as Irish-American loyalists.

In a 2015 story that seemed to encapsulate the death of expertise, an eighth-grader named Rebecca Fried claimed that Jensen was wrong, not least because of research she did on Google. She was respectful, but determined. ‘He has been doing scholarly work for decades before I was born, and the last thing I want to do was show disrespect for him and his work,’ she said later. It all seemed to be just another case of a precocious child telling an experienced teacher – an emeritus professor of history, no less – that he had not done his homework.

But, as it turns out, she was right and he was wrong. Such signs existed, and they weren’t that hard to find...

Continue reading Tom Nichols' article: The Crisis of Expertise

Further Reading

In every society there are topics on which some people have substantially greater expertise than do others. When it comes to medical matters or financial investments, some people have special training and/or experience that most people lack. An expert in any domain will know more truths and have more evidence than an average layperson, and these things can be used to form true beliefs about new questions concerning the domain. In addition, laypersons will commonly recognize that they know less than experts. Indeed, they may start out having no opinion about the correct answer to many important questions; and feel hesitant in trying to form such opinions. They are therefore motivated to consult with a suitable expert to whom they can pose the relevant question and thereby learn the correct answer. In all such cases, one seeks an expert whose statements or opinions are likely to be true.

But are laypersons in a position to recognize who is a (relevant) expert? Even genuine experts often disagree with one another. That is why a wise layperson won’t necessarily accept the first piece of testimony he receives from a putative expert, but will often seek a “second opinion”. But what should he do if the second opinion conflicts with the first? Can a layperson justifiedly identify which (professed) expert to trust?...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Social Epistemology by Goldman and Blanchard

Related Topics

 Ignorance | Knowledge | Testimony | Uncertainty | The Value of Knowledge | Wisdom

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