With the advent of the internet, and more recently the widespread availability and influence of social media, what constitutes an expert has been challenged in the media and in the public sphere. The online dictionary, dictionary.com, defines expert as follows:
- a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority: a language expert.
- the highest rating in rifle marksmanship, above that of marksman and sharpshooter.
- a person who has achieved such a rating.
- possessing special skill or knowledge; trained by practice; skillful or skilled (often followed by in or at): an expert driver; to be expert at driving a car.
- pertaining to, coming from, or characteristic of an expert: expert work; expert advice.
verb (used with object)
- to act as an expert for.
That definition is in keeping with other more traditional dictionaries, but in practice why does it matter?
In this information age, anybody with a connection to the internet can search for answers to any question imaginable or pontificate their own claims on myriad publicly visible platforms.
Just because somebody writes or speaks with assurance doesn’t automatically mean they are an expert or even that they necessarily know what they are talking about. Possessing academic credentials alone doesn’t guarantee that the speaker or writer is an expert either. Further, having purely academic credentials isn’t always necessary for somebody to gain proficiency or even expert level knowledge in a discipline. Mentoring and apprenticeships can be effective ways to learn and hone expert level skills in areas as varied as the performing arts to vocational trades or even some more academically oriented pursuits such various types of engineering. It depends on the quality of the mentor, the aptitude and dedication of the mentee or apprentice, and the educational requirements of the discipline.
Licensing can provide an additional level of oversight to help ensure that practitioners follow approved ethical standards and demonstrate competency in disciplines where public health or safety are concerned, but those standards are only valuable if they are enforced. Numerous fields require extensive formal training and licensing such as those in medicine, law, the financial industry, and various engineering disciplines, but there are also abuses which have become far more publicly visible in the current data jungle.
Reputation matters as long as it is built on actual accomplishments and facts. On this I’m reminded of one of my mentors from early in my career as a software/systems engineer. I had more than entry level academic credentials having received baccalaureate and master’s degrees from the University of California at Davis and San Jose State University respectively. What I lacked was program-specific domain knowledge which wasn’t taught in school. My mentor was 16 years my senior, and while his academic background stopped at the baccalaureate level, he had extensive domain knowledge. He was also looked upon as one of the system gurus in our corner of the world having designed numerous complex systems and having solved some of the most challenging problems along the way. He was the guy everyone sought out when they needed help, and I was fortunate to have been assigned to work with him.
He was going to leave big shoes to fill. In our work together, I had an intimidating amount of material to internalize and master before he left leaving our area of responsibility to me alone. I was acutely aware of how much I didn’t know as I tried to learn as much as I could as quickly as possible while often feeling like Sisyphus. Unlike many others in our field, my mentor didn’t hide information to elevate his position. He shared freely helping others to understand the technical details to whatever level they were comfortable. After working together for a few years, he left our program and moved back home on the opposite side of the country, but we stayed in contact.
One night when I was on an extended trip to his location on his old program, we met for dinner. I commented that while I had very much enjoyed working with him, I never felt like I really understood enough about our system. I knew that I still had so much to learn which of course was much more challenging now that he was on another program. He looked at me dumbfounded. While he was more than willing to share and help anybody however he could, he wasn’t one who handed out compliments very often. This made his response all the more stunning. He told me that when we were working together, I learned so fast that it was scary. I could see so much that I didn’t know, I hadn’t understood how much I truly had mastered until that conversation.
Part of the reason I was on this particular trip was to staff a tiger team to tackle a massive multidisciplinary technical issue. I had carte blanche to tap whoever we needed, and my mentor introduced me to all the heavy hitters in our division no matter their program at that time. It took us a few months, but we ultimately solved the problem. As an added benefit, the connections I made from that team were invaluable on many other endeavors down the line.
My mentor was an expert in his field as were the other experienced engineers we pulled onto our tiger team. Their expertise stemmed from their training, their work experience, and their proven unique abilities to adapt and extend the system in ever new and ambitious ways. I learned a lot from them. While I was good, they were great, yet they treated me as one of their own.
In my engineering work, experts were recognized as such over a period of time based on empirical data. In today’s ever more intrusive information ecosystem including traditional media, social media, and personal platforms, expert claims across all manner of disciplines abound. The problem of course is deciphering the factual claims from the fantasies. To make matters worse, bad actors often attack those on public forums whose claims counter their fictitious ones with facts.
Even if we accept everyone’s credentials as valid, that still doesn’t automatically mean their “expert claims” are deserving of any note. We have to look beyond the surface of the claim at their motivation for making it and at factual data supporting it. As always, the facts matter. There is no such thing as “alternative facts.” If a self-proclaimed expert makes a claim that is not supported by reputable, fact-based sources, then that claim should become suspect as should the person making such a claim.
My personal experience in dealing with experts runs across multiple fields including engineering, music, and even writing. I’ve written about some of my other mentoring experiences from the mentee side in Part 5 of My Magical Musical Journey and from the mentor’s side in this profile piece.
Through my personal experiences, I’ve noticed a couple of interesting things about the experts I’ve encountered. They all seem to be willing to share their expertise to help others, and they don’t belittle people. While I’m sure that’s not any kind of absolute characteristic required to be an expert, it seems like it might be a good prerequisite.