Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Trusting the Experts

The world needs experts.  This may sound like a trivial claim, but I think we see too often people scoff at experts. Take any number of issues in the news these days and you get non-experts scoffing at the hard wrought opinions of experts.  The internet has made the airing of one's opinion on various matters both easy and ubiquitous.  And thus comes with one of the most vexing problems of the internet age: how to tell if what you read on the internet is coming from someone who actually knows what s/he is talking about. 

So, how do we even define the term expert?  Well, how about this definition from Google:
An expert is, "a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area."
That sounds like a good working definition to me. I find the terms "comprehensive," and "authoritative" to be the key words in that definition. An expert knows the breadth of his or her field and can make authoritative claims for that field.

Now, something needs to be said here about limiting the fields of expertise. The 20th century gave us the term "renaissance man," which referred to someone who had developed their intellectual abilities across multiple fields. The quintessential renaissance man was idealized in Leonardo da Vinci. Now, as noble as the idea of a renaissance man, or woman for that matter, may be, in our current world it is impossible to master multiple fields.  Human knowledge is too vast to be mastered by any one individual. We have to specialize. In fact, we have to specialize to a high degree.  For example, my Ph.D. degree is in Religion, yet I am not an expert in all things pertaining to religion.  Moreover, my focus was in Biblical Studies, but neither am I an expert in all things pertaining to the Bible.  Further, my specialization was New Testament, but I am certainly not an expert equally in the whole of the NT. I further specialize in the gospels, and my only publication is on the Gospel of Luke and Rhetorical Criticism.  One might say that I am one of the world's foremost experts in the extremely narrow field of rhetorical figures of speech in the gospel of Luke (but who cares).  In our world, to truly be an expert, means one has to narrow the focus of one's expertise.

Once one has achieved a level of expertise in a subject, his or her hard wrought conclusions ought to be trusted, at least by those with no business questioning them.  We ought to trust that those who have put in the hard work of learning the depth and breadth of their field know what they are talking about when it comes to their conclusions in their field.  Yet, since the internet seems to democratize all voices, many feel it their duty to inform the public that the experts are wrong.  This is a shameful practice and one that ought to be ignored.  Yet, all too often people listen to those spouting on about things they have no business spouting on about. Is there a good solution to this problem, or is this the price one pays for the convenience of the internet?  What do you think?

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