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)

Education is like the weather . . .

When the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large scientific method in most cases fails. One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible.
– Albert Einstein

You are here 2
A frequent criticism I heard throughout the time I was involved in politics concerned the political “system”. Repeatedly I was told that the system was broken, that it doesn’t work, that it has failed – you get the picture. I mention this, not because I want to begin a defense of our political system; rather, it serves as an excellent launching point for an examination of the notion of “system”.

I’m fairly confident that most people don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about what words mean. Most of us reach for words in conversation, ordinarily confident that whatever word we’ve chosen is appropriate for the context in which we are employing it. Using the wrong word can lead to laughter or to embarrassment, by times, but, for the most part, all of us conduct the business of our days secure in the belief that as native speakers of a language – English for most of us – we’re on pretty solid ground.

And we’re right about that, inasmuch as language, for the sake of day-to-day discourse, is a fluid tool that we use with varying degrees of confidence. Any one of us, when confronted with someone who is more articulate or has a larger vocabulary, can feel intimidated and perhaps be less inclined to have our say but that, I suspect, is more the exception than the rule.

I bring all this up to make a point. As a matter of habit, we rarely spend time examining how words are used or what they mean. I began with the political example simply because it is the “system” that most people are likely to criticize. In response to such criticism, consider the following definition: “system: A set of detailed methods, procedures and routines created to carry out a specific activity, perform a duty, or solve a problem”.

Canadian political system
In other words, to strip the definition somewhat bare, a system is a structured undertaking seeking a specific result. As I said, I don’t want to get into (at the moment; I will later) a lengthy defense of our political system. Consider, however, Canada’s legislatures in light of the above definition. What is the political system of our country supposed to achieve? While a great deal can be said about the conduct of those involved and the limitations, flaws and imperfections of the day-to-day application of the components of the system, surely the system is successful in the big picture? After all, Canada has managed to go 200 years or so without a major war occurring within its borders. Canadians, by and large, conduct themselves without fear of tyrannical dictatorships foregoing elections, or of military leaders undertaking coups and/or rebellions. Ours is an ordered society and, I would argue, our political “system” has had a very important role to play in ensuring that such is the case.

Politics and business share a certain good fortune in that regard. Again, looking at the big picture, the desired RESULT of the system operating effectively is clear: in the political realm, the enactment of laws that ensure justice and good order; in business, policies, structures and practices that aim to make the business profitable. Again, I’m not suggesting that either is perfect – we all know that the devil is frequently in the details. Nevertheless, the overarching, desired result is pretty clear in either instance.

Unfortunately – and now we arrive at the point of this latest missive of mine – the same cannot be said for “education”. We live in a time when the word “education” and the term “education(al) system” are tossed about as though the meaning or the intent, in both instances, is clear. That being said, try this some time: ask anyone who is either praising or maligning education, or the system as it currently exists, what it means today to “be educated”. Or, ask instead, “what is the education(al) system seeking to achieve?”

Please don’t imagine I’m suggesting this out of some deep-seated desire to alienate people or to simply criticize for the sake of criticizing. I contend, with absolute conviction, that the mess we call the educational system today has arrived in its current state entirely as the result of good intentions. If you read my blog yesterday, then here we are at the “road to hell being paved with good intentions” moment.

human rights
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the last few centuries is, arguably, the development of the concept of universal human rights, rights which have come to include the right to an education. Problems have arisen within public schools because of how complicated that simple “right” really is. If “education” could be reduced to a simple checklist, wouldn’t the task be simple?

As it turns out, seeking just such a checklist goes along nicely with the predominant techno-faith that I’ve railed against in earlier blogs. Increasingly, a system which claims to be “child-centred” is focused on measurable “outcomes” and the success or failure of a school (and the system of which it is a part) is determined by an analysis of data and research. What I would think of as intrinsic differences in ability and in aptitudes among individuals are barriers which can be “accommodated” so that all those who participate in the system can achieve to the same degree in every pursuit.

Extreme, you say? If your view of human beings is fundamentally mechanistic, then it only makes sense that, with the proper adjustments, the deficit in a particular area of achievement can be overcome if the right “fix” is identified and applied. Again I remind you, these ideas are not malicious; they arise out of a sincere desire to provide real advantages to those perceived as lacking something, seldom identified clearly, that makes it difficult for he/she to acquire a particular “learning”.

As an example, a frequently quoted concern in education these days is “learning styles”. Good enough. I know that I am more likely to learn something well if I read it on my own. Someone else might learn the same thing better through conversation and/or interaction. Perhaps a third would benefit from a video presentation. And so it goes: we process things differently and certain things can help each of us learn BETTER.

Learning style 1

Learning style 3

Learnig Style 2
This well-intentioned understanding goes wrong when the theoretical concept becomes a would-be guarantor of a particular result, a “technology” in other words. If I don’t learn “concept A” well, the criticism might be heard that whoever was teaching concept A failed to take into account sufficiently my preferred learning style. In other words, I, the student, am the object waiting to be adjusted and the teacher is the technician doing the adjusting. To say that such a model is dehumanizing only scratches the surface. (to be continued)

Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.
– Albert Einstein