What is an expert?
We often turn to experts for guidance in times of confusion, uncertainty and ignorance. Usually, rightfully so – this title comes with an expectation that they can offer superior advice than the majority of the population. They are a reliable source of experience, knowledge and technique.
However, this reliance on experts can sometimes be misplaced.
The Survivor Bias
For example, we turn to successful people for career advice. There are so many successful people who have made it so far up the ladder that surely they must know how we too can become like them?
As always, take advice with a pinch of salt. Successful people like to attribute their success to their hard work and persistence; not so much to luck. However, lots more equally hard-working and persistent people don’t make it to the same level as they do: they haven’t had the same amount of luck as their successful counterparts.
You would never turn to these mediocre people for career advice, but sometimes this is the best way forward – to learn from their mistakes. Instead, the advice from the successful people gives a false impression that anybody could become like them, if only you did x, y and z. This is called the survivor bias.
Should We Trust Experts?
Niels Bohr defined an expert as “A person that has made every possible mistake within his or her field.” Learning from yours and others’ mistakes is important, and that is why experts are so valuable to listen to and learn from.
However, there isn’t really an objective criteria to becoming an expert – some say that you’re only an expert when someone else calls you an expert. The idea of being an expert is relative to who else is around you. This opens some uncomfortable ideas: does someone who has spent a week at a hospital count as an expert in medicine in a room of non-medics?
Mark Twain defined an expert as “an ordinary fellow from another town”. Will Rogers followed up with “a man fifty miles from home with a briefcase”.
On the other hand, lots of experts really are very knowledgeable in their fields. The fact that they’ve made a lot of mistakes and invested a lot of their time means that they have learnt a lot, and by listening to them we too can avoid pitfalls and progress faster.
We should trust experts and their knowledge more: for example, economists are important to listen to because their analysis could help you predict what your financial situation will be like in the future. Scientists are especially important to listen to, and if we all trusted scientists more then global warming may not have become such a devastating problem.
Malcolm Gladwell describes expertise as a matter of practising the right way for a total of 10,000 hours. That sounds like plenty of time to become an expert.
What do you think? Should we trust experts? Should we trust experts more? Let me know!