Knowing things is useful and helps us make decisions. Obviously. However, we each, individually, can’t know everything. Not only that, but what is considered correct sometimes changes over time and unless you are somehow connected to the discussion, you might miss that. So we often turn to those more knowledgeable than us to get more information.
These people are often called experts. It seems like this should be simple. Look up someone designated as an expert, tell him your situation or question and let the expert tell you what to do. What could go wrong?
Plenty could go wrong. Let’s dissect how people get designated as experts, how people actually become experts, and how we can use experts responsibly!
An expert is someone who knows quite a bit more about a subject than the average person. Unfortunately, this is not as clear-cut as it might seem. Part of the challenge is that expert status is often associated with status among fellow experts. Those with seniority or with the most influence in a field don’t respond well to other experts questioning their own expert point of view. The dissenters are frequently marginalized over power issues.
To make things more murky, government bureaucrats heavily influence what is studied, what is accepted as science, and who is allowed to be called an expert. Then, those who reach expert status under this system are the only ones legally recognized to teach the next generation of experts. Have you ever played the rumor game? People repeat what they hear, sure that the senior experts know what they are talking about and/or fearful that disagreeing will get them blacklisted or expelled.
Learning the underlying principles of a field, and then having experience applying those principles is what should make people experts. With that definition, anyone has potential to become an expert. Licensing professions and regulating who has access to certain equipment protects those who are governmentally approved experts. This way of doing things attempts to inhibit others from gaining experience that can’t be controlled.
It is also possible to have all the same facts and experiences as another expert, but come to a different conclusion. How can that be? It could be due to different basic assumptions that we all have in life. It could be that one person intuitively understands something another doesn’t. It could be that information from another field of interest provides useful information that one person doesn’t take seriously.
And so we come to face the fact that even experts disagree. We also know both historically and logically that a majority of experts agreeing does not mean they are correct. So how can anyone use an expert under these conditions?
- First of all, don’t discount your own ability to understand a subject enough to evaluate an expert. Do some research. Talk to others who have had to make similar decisions.
- Second, learn to acknowledge your own biases. Do you react strongly to certain information? Does it challenge your comfort zone or interfere with your plans? Are you more concerned about other people’s opinions than making the best choice? Are there associations in your experiences that wrongly attach meaning to information?
- Third, attempt to discern the character and motives of a given expert. Are they humble? Are they willing to let you make your own choice without derision? How do they handle disagreement with other experts? Are they willing to consider learning, even if it isn’t from other experts or if it shakes up the status-quo?
- Fourth, make your best decision, then get on with life. This will be harder with some decisions than others, but you have to give yourself permission to make mistakes or nothing will get done. Don’t let other experts make your life miserable. They don’t know everything either and they certainly don’t know the specifics of your situation nearly as well as you do, no matter how well you try to describe them.
- Fifth, if you get more or different information that convinces you that you need to change course, feel appreciative of this new choice, but don’t berate yourself for making the best decision you could earlier. There will always be some numbskull expert willing to say “I told you so,” but such a person is probably going to learn some new things along the way, too.
Experts are resources. They can offer counsel and perspective, but they cannot live your life. They don’t know everything about everything either. They frequently don’t know much about many other factors in subjects that will also affect your needs and choices. It is up to you to synthesize all the information and live your life. You are the only expert on you.