Don’t mistakenly conclude that “experts” are wise.

January 2, 2008 | By | 3 Replies More

Edge.org has just released it’s Annual Question.  This year’s version: WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?”  I’ve read a couple dozen answers so far. As always, the answers are intellectually stimulating, challenging to common sense and entertaining.

Television producer Karl Sabbagh weighs in this year with his realization that expertise has serious limitations.  I agree with him that expertise is not necesarily an indication of all-round wisdom, yet there is a general tendency to think otherwise:

I used to believe that there were experts and non-experts and that, on the whole, the judgment of experts is more accurate, more valid, and more correct than my own judgment. But over the years, thinking — and I should add, experience — has changed my mind. What experts have that I don’t are knowledge and experience in some specialized area. What, as a class, they don’t have any more than I do is the skills of judgment, rational thinking and wisdom. And I’ve come to believe that some highly ‘qualified’ people have less of that than I do.

I now believe that the people I know who are wise are not necessarily knowledgeable; the people I know who are knowledgeable are not necessarily wise. Most of us confuse expertise with judgment. Even in politics, where the only qualities politicians have that the rest of us lack are knowledge of the procedures of parliament or congress, and of how government works, occasionally combined with specific knowledge of economics or foreign affairs, we tend to look to such people for wisdom and decision-making of a high order.

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Category: Education, Language, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Alison says:

    That's an observation we'd all do well to make note of. At one point, I spent a good deal of time with people who were knowledgeable enough in their various fields to be quite financially successful in them. (This was when I was a church member in an Upper-Middle to Upper-Class town.) The longer I knew these people, even though I liked most of them quite a bit, the more it became clear to me that their obvious expertise in a particular field did not spread out to other areas. In some professions, a serious time commitment to the job and keeping current with new developments precludes doing anything else except some recreational pursuits. For some people, the expertise rises from an interest in their field that excludes almost anything else. Among the successful experts, I was not finding too many Renaissance Men (or Women).

    I once had a friend who said that she wanted a man who was truly erudite, so she was going to look for a Doctor. Several of us insisted that the Doctor would be smarter in medicine, but would not have the time to get up to speed on the other issues that interested her – classic American Literature, current events, graphic art, and so on. I told her that I'd socialized with Doctors, and I'd socialized with Plumbers, Bookstore Clerks, Starving Artists, and found the latter to be more well-rounded and mentally stimulating, but she wouldn't budge.

    I would take the word of an expert, regarding something in his field of expertise, over the word of a layman. Outside of his field, though, an expert's opinion is just that, and no more valid than anyone else's (maybe less so. . .)

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    I've always been a generalist. I read omnivorously and follow random turns in the alleys of ideas until they might eventually meet up again with whatever subject I may nominally be studying. I was amazed to discover in college at how little most professors knew about subjects outside of their own fields. Many experts I've known in the "real world" are expert at accomplishing particular tasks, but are unaware of even the evolution of their own fields. They know the formula to use, but not where it came from or what it means.

    I've been the resident expert in several fields at various jobs. All I had to do was know 1% more than the next most knowledgeable fellow (engineers, forgive the gender). This was easy to do, because the arcana of a specialty usually had analogues in another field that I had already studied, but with different words for the same ideas.

    I've also known quite a few medical doctors of various specialties. Few had an understanding of health as a holistic practice. Many were essentially salesmen for pharmaceuticals and test equipment. They listen to a list of symptoms, and match that to the product they had.

    Piet Hein puts it nicely:

    My faith in doctors

    is immense.

    Just one thing spoils it;

    their pretense

    of authorized

    omniscience.

    The problem here in the blogosphere is to guess at the credentials of everyone who makes a proclamation. I am not an expert Bible scholar, for example. I only read each complete verse that I am discussing, plus a few on either side of it in context, in a variety of translations, plus at least one discussion of that verse for each side of the issue, before declaring my own opinion. I might also look up some bibliographical earlier sources for the idea or quote, and maybe wander into some changing interpretations of the quote over time.

    My bet is that this is more study than many self-proclaimed online "experts" put into it.

    But, I'm no expert.

  3. bassmanpete says:

    Many years ago I was told that the word expert is derived from 'ex', a has-been, and 'spurt', a drip 🙂 Not sure if you use that word in the US but a drip in the UK is a stupid, dull or boring person.

    Round about the turn of the century gold was US$250 an ounce. The financial 'experts' were saying that gold had had it's day and was no longer important in the modern economy. Have you checked the price recently? US$869 an ounce.

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