Saturday, September 12, 2020

On experts and expertise

Having reached the finish of a Twitter chat this morning under the #PLPNetwork hashtag, I felt a rare, yet familiar itch: I had more on my mind than would fit in another 280 characters or fewer. Those are the times I brush the dust off this moldering blog.

The tangent that caught my attention revolved around notions of 'expert' and 'expertise.' One participant said she eyes the former label skeptically, though she acknowledges that all people can accrue the latter. Another chimed in that she sees "expert power" as the legitimate fruit of motivation plus time spent working towards mastery, à la Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.

As for me, I took a walk and pondered fine-sliced meanings that distinguish expert from expertise. 'Expert' lands in my ear with a fixed-mindset thud. It's a label that, once earned, unintentionally encourages resting on one's proverbial laurels. In comparison, 'expertise' speaks to elastic capacity and a growth mindset. That's how I glossed it on my walk, anyway.

For those who want to split an even thinner hair, let's see what you think about this: Do you hear different connotations between these two phrases: reading expert and expert reader? That first phrase primes me to meet an authority, meaning I'm simultaneously respectful, but also a little skeptical -- particularly, until I better understand the person's expertise. The second phrase, with the adjective 'expert,' denoting 'skillful,' intrinsically suggests a practitioner with abundant experience -- from which I might learn. What about this pair: climate-science expert and expert climate scientist? And, in terms of relative credibility, where would you rank just: climate scientist?

This seems like as good a time as any to reference a cognitive bias that I've learned about in the context of backcountry skiing: expert halo effect. This misstep happens when one or more skiers attribute expertise that may not be warranted to a group leader. (Even when the attributed expertise is warranted, the attribution itself short-circuits individuals' decision making.) The group then follows that leader into territory that is more dangerous than would otherwise be frequented if the leader weren't there. Risk exposure, thus, increases. 

In writing this, my intention is not to undermine all experts at a historic moment when their expertise is regularly questioned or ignored. Rather than follow the leader, what if we redirect our attention to cultivating expertise in ourselves and recognizing it reliably in others, in order to learn from (as well as with) them? What if, after hearing from someone claiming the expert mantle, we asked, "On what expertise do you base your thinking?"