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In Praise of Experts

December 20, 2017

Leonardo da VinciExpert On Every Thing:

There was a time, I’m told, when it was possible for one person to know just about everything about everything. Now to be sure, that so-called “knowledge” had to be incomplete and even incorrect in many cases. Nevertheless, one could be a “Renaissance Man” (a term which may refer to a Polymath, a person whose expertise spans a significant number of various subject areas).  And yes, it was usually a male given that title.

Expert: noun

1. a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority:
a language expert.

2. Military.
the highest rating in rifle marksmanship, above that of marksman and sharpshooter.
a person who has achieved such a rating.

Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is a prime example of a Renaissance man. He was a painter, sculptor, humanist, scientist, architect, philosopher, engineer, and more. He was considered a universal genius by many.

Experts In One Field:

Human knowledge began exploding as technology allowed us to learn more and more about ourselves, our planet, and our universe. Significant advances were made in the sciences and magnified by the advance of computing technology. Humans began specializing in Biology, Physics, Math, etc. Today, we are on an exponential knowledge growth curve.

All of this continued learning required rigorous peer review of scientific findings. The important thing to remember is that the only antidote to “bad science” (meaning wrong answers) is more science.

I like to think about how the medical profession got it wrong about eggs in human diets. It took better science and deeper understanding of the human body to realize we had gotten it wrong. Science prevailed. Humans benefited. And now I can eat my eggs in peace!

Expert In a Slice of One Field:

Because there is simply too much to know about our highly complex interdependent web of existence, experts keep narrowing down their area of focus. As a consumer of information, I now have to consult many different experts in the same field in order to understand that topic more completely.

I see that the new challenge is for experts from increasingly narrow fields to come together and share knowledge to help me build a comprehensive picture of my world. The more we learn the more questions there are and the more expertise we require. The danger in all of this is that we have a tendency to build information silos.

Complexity:

I wrote about the Complexity Curve in a previous post. What is important to me about that concept is that it emphasizes how critical it is to carefully pick the experts to follow. I cannot possibly be self-informed about everything of interest to me. Nor, for that matter, can I be an expert in every aspect of my professional responsibilities. If I’m not careful, I find myself on the wrong side of the complexity curve — simplicity without understanding.

To be able to wisely choose an expert, I must be willing to accept information that may be contrary to my beliefs and/or assumptions. I must also be a critical thinker — reading opinions contrary to “my” expert as well as contrary to my own beliefs. None of this is easy, so obviously, I cannot go through this effort for every aspect of my life.

In Praise of Experts:

What I am finding in the public press on any number of topics is a denigration of experts. It is class warfare against the educated; the “elites” in society. Not through critical thinking, but through a sense of denial. Folks seem to have no tolerance for inconvenient truths. Rather than question their own beliefs and/or assumptions, they launch personal attacks on those who express opinions different than their own.

“Philosophers are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything. Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.”Konrad Lorenz

Perhaps it is because I spent my professional career in technology; but I cannot imagine a world without experts. As an example, we are getting ready to fly to the east coast for the holidays. There are millions of things that must go right every time we make a successful flight. From physics to engineering to piloting to air traffic control we will be depending on experts in their fields. Literally, my life depends on innumerable experts.

Not Transferable:

Since growing knowledge continues to reveal the complexity in our world, we must be skeptical of any claims to be a modern Renaissance Man. You may be my trusted expert on astrophysics, but that doesn’t qualify you to also be my expert on geopolitics or genetics. Just because I am successful in one field does not mean I will be successful in another. I will not necessarily be successful running an automotive company just because I was successful running a large specialty metal company.

Who I chose as my experts in fields other than my own area of expertise will shape my world view. They will either put me at odds with reality or help me see reality more clearly.

Conclusion:

The trend I see to label educated experts as elitists who cannot relate to workers or those with less formal education is dangerous for society. And I believe it to be just as wrong as the educated to “look down on” those without formal education.

Whether we like it or not, all of us in the developed world depend heavily on expertise from many disciplines for even the simplest of things in our everyday lives. We cannot stop the march of scientific discovery. We cannot stop the advance of technology. Our only choice is to educate ourselves on critical thinking, choose experts wisely and be willing to learn new skills. Others will be willing to do so if we are not, and we will be left behind. The universe and the global economy are indifferent and unforgiving. It’s up to us.

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