The rise (and fall) of expertise

Incestuous, homogeneous fiefdoms of self-proclaimed expertise are always rank-closing and mutually self-defending, above all else.
― Glenn Greenwald

Expert 1
Following from yesterday, I want to focus on the idea of expertise and the expert. Definitions of either tend to focus on excellence – in a specific, identifiable area or pursuit – of technique, skill, judgement and/or ability, ordinarily obtained through study or practice, or some combination of the two. If we happen to be interested in a particular sport, for example, and enjoy watching that sport on television, we might look to the opinion of those who have played the game, or been involved in it in some other way for many years, as more informed or thoughtful than we might expect ourselves to be. So it is that networks commonly empanel former players and coaches for commentary during intermissions or in the course of the game itself.

Don Cherry
Part of the entertainment inherent in such a process is the potential for disagreements that arises among the “experts”. We at home might weigh the merits of one commentator vs another with an eye to determining which one best supports our own assessment. No one would question your right, as a viewer, to think that any one – or even all – of those opinions expressed is wrong. Any sport, whether team or individual, involves too many factors for the result to be accounted for with absolute certainty. Yes, a game or a match between opponents adjudged to be in the same “league” can be subjected to a brand of expert scrutiny, but conflicting opinions of outcomes are what keep bookies in business.

The sports example stands in stark contrast to how we regard expertise in a field such as physics or, perhaps, cosmology. In either of those cases, if you are like me, I will acknowledge that I have some sense of what either pursuit is concerned with, but I would never presume to have anything to offer by way of insight or understanding in either area. Granted I took physics in school, and both physics and cosmology have been of interest to me throughout my life, but interest and familiarity, when it comes to things requiring deep and very specific knowledge, are entirely unlike expertise. I think most would readily agree with me.

Medicine is a more complicated case, as current controversy over vaccinations indicates. When it comes to things such as surgery, for any number of ailments, few would dispute the need for sufficient experience and training being required by the person performing the operation. If we know that Dr. ______ has performed _________ surgery 100 times and has a 99% success rate, we are liable believe he/she is a good choice for the procedure. Such considerations are not unlike the choice of a quarterback in a football game: the one with the best “stats” and proven results through many games will, no doubt, be the starter.

When it comes to treatment and diagnosis, however, in many instances these days, we are operating more in the realm of the commentators sitting around at intermission, i.e., everyone has an opinion and one person’s expertise is not necessarily the expertise of someone else. Practitioners of holistic medicine often find themselves at odds with university educated MDs. “Alternative” treatments for this and that can be found over the counter in most pharmacies and grocery stores, online, or advertised in magazines and on television. Claims are made for the efficacy of products and approaches too numerous to mention. And, routinely, the purveyors of these products are described (usually by themselves) as “experts”, sometimes because they have credentials (an MD, PhD or some other degree or certificate) that seem to support such a designation or simply because they have worked long and hard to develop whatever it is they are offering.

alternative medicine
The current concern over the anti-vaccine movement, and the parallel reemergence of diseases thought largely eradicated years ago, suggests that diluted notions of expertise and/or competence can have grave consequences. I’m sure the previous paragraph reveals my particular bias in this regard. While acknowledging that traditional, historical medical practices – as exemplified in our public health system – can be imperfect, I would still rather place my future in the hands of my cardiologist than those of my Naturopath (no, I don’t actually have one). Ideas of expertise, in this instance, are largely validated by the SCIENCE of medicine and the data that clinical trials, and other such experimental methods, provide. Certain “alternative” activities gathered under the umbrella of ”medicine” may be fine and good, but I view all such alternatives skeptically.

The examples I’ve used to this point, regardless of their differences, do have a common thread that differentiates them from my real concern: education. However much I might agree or disagree with the commentators, coaches and players of a sport, the desired end result is clear: to win the game. Similarly in “hard sciences” such as physics, cosmology, et al, even if “the answers” are, themselves, sources of ongoing debate and disagreement, the SEARCH for those answers is understood and shared. Even in medicine, where there can be so many disagreements regarding proper and improper treatments, diagnoses, approaches, drugs dispensed, etc., all are united in their understanding of the end goal: good health or health as good as is possible in the individual case.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
-Shunryu Suzuki

Education is a far more complicated beast. Repeatedly we hear the mantra that virtually all of the world’s persistent problems – poverty, war, injustice, disease, social inequity and unrest, _____(fill in the blank)____ – can be solved through education. The thing is, I don’t think you need to be an expert to believe in the fundamental truth of that claim. That being said, problems arise when someone is tasked with the job of ensuring that education is deliberately applied to the achievement of very specific ends. And, in my experience, the insistence that education equals training leading to the completion of a specific task is just the beginning of a decline that continues to this day. Unfortunately, the continuing insistence that “experts” have problems in our educational system in hand, regardless of the many complaints parents, businesses and other groups within society might have, obscures that decline to the detriment of the system and to those it purports to serve. (to be continued)

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