Experts and Pseudo Experts
In a few very narrow topics I am a genuine expert. In a good many more topics (though still rather small in actual number), I am highly knowledgeable. On the vast majority of topics that come up I either have a basic working knowledge, or can bluff my way through a conversation by knowing what questions to ask. Then there are those things that I can’t even begin to discuss without looking like a rube.
I think this pattern is true for most people.
There is simply no way anyone can spend the time and energy necessary to become truly an expert in more than a small group of things. To get to that level one must have both the theoretical understanding of the topic coupled with years of practical experience to work out how the theory behaves in the real world. This is equally true for educational policy as it is for plumbing. Simply knowing about something from books or classes cannot make one an expert, unless we are talking about being an expert in the theory alone. All too many college professors believe they are experts in things at which they have little or no practical experience. On the other hand it is very difficult for most practitioners to see beyond their immediate surroundings to the larger, big picture, concepts. It is this myopia that formal education/training is very useful in correcting. That education need not be in a formal classroom, but the larger perspective of why things are done in a certain way is imperative if one is to be a real expert.
Most people (including me) only occasionally have an opportunity to speak on the topic in which they are expert. In the real world few conversations have any party that is highly knowledgeable in the topic, let alone expert. Most conversations between people exist in the world of conversational knowledge. Conversational knowledge does not require any real understanding of the philosophical or theoretical underpinnings of the words or even experience in the field; but simply knowledge of the jargon. For instance, I can carry on conversations regarding economics or football, yet in both fields I mostly draw from what I have read or heard rather than from what I truly grasp. I can talk and seem rather intelligent in a conversation of Keynesian economic policy. However, the key word there is “seem”, for in fact I do not have a real understanding of economics that would justify either endorsing or condemning John Maynard Keynes. What I could do is to recite what others have said. I could even pretend that they are my words and beliefs. To do so might not be dishonest exactly in that I might choose to believe what others say, but I am doing so more out of faith in that person rather than out of real knowledge and understanding.
Now since none of us can be a real expert in more than one or two things, we do have to trust others who do claim to be experts. For instance, if I had read Adam Smith, Milton Freedman, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes it would be quite fair of me to judge who I believed was right. But, I have only read Marx, but none of the others. Further, I suggest not many who talk about economics in the media or in politics or even those just standing by the water cooler have done so either. In practice nearly all people who talk all so passionately about economic theory have not read these foundational authors, nor did the person who told them about economic theory. We have a world of passionate defenders of economic theories that are several generations removed from anyone who is a real expert.
I am not just picking on economics, but on virtually all topics of importance from crime to avian flu’s impact on the price of eggs in Milwaukee.
This lack of expert knowledge surprisingly does not create an environment where people are willing to consider their outlook is wrong. In fact, if anything, the opposite is true. Real experts are careful to qualify nearly everything they say because they actually know the holes in the theory and the gaps in their knowledge. People who have only read summaries of summaries of what the experts said nearly always loose that caution and treat these often tenuous ideas as unassailable truths. Worse yet, what I find is that rather than looking for a full and rounded understanding of the issue, nearly everyone simply is looking for sound bites to toss out to sound smart and to win arguments.
I recall an entire course I took on Christian evangelism at my Christian fundamentalist undergraduate college. No, the class did not delve into actually helping hurting people, but how to convince them we were right. We learned techniques to “close the sale” and significantly we spent weeks learning how to refute any arguments against our brand of Christian doctrine. We were actually required to be able to recite the sound bites that answered any of a whole range of objections. I actually became very good at it and was able to personally lead hundreds of people “to accept Jesus as their savior” while in college. Did this make me a theologian? Of course not, it made me an effective salesman.
When 20 years later I began my doctoral work at Clemson, I was quite disappointed to find that many of the professors used very much the same method to help the would-be professors of education to “evangelize” their future students to the religion of critical theory. No, they were not as blatant as they had been at Hyles-Anderson College, but the substitution of soundbites for real reasoned understanding was exactly the same. This really hit home when I went to the largest educational research conference in the world, and found that most of the so-called researchers were also just dealing in the very same soundbites. It was then that I realized that most people who espouse critical theory have no more understanding about what they are advocating than does the average person who hands you a religious tract has about the Bible or theology.
While the short form soundbite is rather new, the concept of pseudo experts substituting rhetoric for expert understanding to sway people’s opinions is not. For generations some of the most powerful shapers of public opinions have been newspaper columnist who often barely had a working knowledge of the topics they wrote about with vehemence. Today, the newspaper columnists have mostly been replaced by bloggers, and the bloggers speak with even more vitriol and even less knowledge.
Thus we live in a world where experts are few and pseudo experts are many. This, I think, is helping fuel the polarization of society. Pseudo experts are pushed to act as if they are deeply versed in subjects for which they barely know the soundbites. It is the very fact they know so little that presses them to act as if they speak with authority; and their readers all too often assume they really do understand what they claim they understand but do not. In all this, any possibility of finding consensus, let alone truth is lost.
I’ll close with this. Not long after the Baltimore riots last year, I saw a piece from CNN where two Baltimore community leaders were supposedly looking for common ground and a way forward. What happened instead was they both just talked right past each other. Both made good and valid points, and there was clearly room for consensus, but while they were spewing their soundbites, neither was in any way actually looking for common ground. Instead they were looking to win the argument. Sadly, I believe this scenario is played over and over again in venues large and small.
I implore my readers not to fall into the trap of acting like an expert when you are not one. In doing so one dismisses other views in a way a real expert would not and cling to one’s own biases with a tenacity that is not warranted. This is not how to make the civil society we all want.