The People Worth Being Called Experts… Are They?
Because knowledge is the best treasure that mankind will ever possess, the theory of knowledge is nowadays as popular as ever. Both in the times immemorial, in the Medieval epoch, and the modern world with its technical and computer progress spreading worldwide, knowledge has always been the necessary means to survive. Because of this fact, the so-called experts, people who are supposed to be the most competent in the given sphere, are so appreciated by mankind. the question is, what makes an expert and what it takes for a man to become an expert in this or that sphere.
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We call people experts because they possess the knowledge that we do not. As Popper puts it, “I am not a specialist or an expert: I am completely out of my depth when an expert begins to argue which words or phrases Heraclites might, and which he could not, possibly, have used.” (8) Even though the audience might not understand half of the words spoken, the latter will still think the speaker a complete expert on his/her sphere. Getting closer to our time, one could say that being an expert is not merely being well-educated, but also longing for new knowledge. However, even if John Doe is competent in the sphere of computer technology, this will not make him a good gardener. Being an expert means specializing in a certain narrow sphere.
Thus, an expert is supposed to be a person who possesses certain knowledge which the others cannot gain. However, as it can be easily understood, this poses a certain problem of possible fraud, which is rather undesirable. At this point, the theory of knowledge is closely intertwined with psychology and demands considerable psychological analysis skills from the audience. According to the abovementioned Popper,
Yet when some expert replaces a beautiful story, based on the old texts we possess, with one which – to me at any rate – does not make sense, then I feel that even an amateur may stand up and defend an old tradition (8)
However, it cannot be denied that such an approach can be considered rather inert. Thus, it would be better to presume that experts should be called such only according to the results of their activity. It seems more logical to base arguments on the facts rather than on personal impressions.
What if an Expertise Is Merely an Interpretation?
Because expertise is supposed to include a profound analysis of the facts and data, it cannot merely interpret the latter, but suggest specific results and conclusions. However, some people tend to think that expertise can involve only facts shuffling which can lead to no new ideas. Since the term “expertise” suggests competence distribution, it can possess a certain element of interpretation as well:
One means of dealing with the classification problem is to restrict usage of the term “expertise” to individuals in the highest percentiles of the distribution of competence in the given activity. (Eriksson 288)
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It cannot be argued that Eriksson suggests the scheme somehow argues the “all-or-none conceptualization of expertise” which has been practiced before. According to Eriksson, his ideas assume “that there is nearly always a continuum of competence or expertise, regardless of the absolute level of performance” (288). However, dealing with the very idea of expertise, Eriksson also creates such a notion as “Interpretation of expertise” (291). Namely, he reconstructs the idea of expertise to emphasize the importance of the problem:
An objection could be raised that an interpretation of expertise as the circumvention of limitations is merely a trivial restatement of the fact that experts perform better than non-experts in the relevant activity. (291)
Not to touch upon the metaphysical issues, it would be better to clarify once and for all that expertise has nothing to do with facts shuffling and that it suggests a deep analysis of the facts with the consecutive conclusions made according to the results of the research. As Ericsson says, the process of conducting expertise involves answering certain questions of where the problem roots and what the means to solve it are.
However, I would argue that the view of expertise as freedom from certain constraints is not simply a restatement of the defining performance differences, because it forces the researcher to be explicit in specifying what these constraints are and how they are circumvented by experts in the domain. (291)
Because expertise involves such elements as analysis of the problem and searching the ways to solve it, expertise cannot be restricted only to the interpretation of the facts. In case an expert resort to restating the problem without any further explanations of the reasons which caused the problem, his/her competence can be doubted. Once expertise has been conveyed, clear and concise results must be presented.
Some Reasons to Trust Experts’ Opinions… and Some not to
Because of the numerous ways of knowing, each corresponding to the given area of knowing, sometimes the opinions of experts are seriously doubted. People often face the necessity to choose between the opinion of an expert and their intuition which says that there could be a better way out. Nevertheless, in case the expert has proven himself a worthy specialist, his/her opinion is not to be doubted.
However, the question of the reasonability to follow the experts’ opinions blindly cannot be answered unequivocally. Taking into consideration that experts do not bear the moral responsibility for the consequences, the choice between the decision of a person of authority and one’s own opinion becomes almost impossible. Because of the problem of ethics coming very close to the issues under the discussion, the choice is rather hard. As Van Wyk says,
All forms of knowledge are influenced by assumptions made about reality and all aspects of the functioning of the world, and no one, therefore, has to be conscious of one’s assumptions, or mind maps, for knowledge to be meaningful. (239)
Whatever the aftereffects of the decision of the given problem might be, it is always the concern of the mere mortals, not the experts, which makes the decision-making process rather complicated. Because of the concept of ethics which is an integral part of consulting an expert, the result of such consultations can prove rather deplorable. Does that mean that the consequences of the decision-making process do not concern experts at all? Partially it is so. While experts are not the interested party, the results of expertise will depend on the experts’ ethics principles. As Van Wyk put it,
In any decision, there are “expert” opinions and those who will live the consequences of decisions and are therefore the experts on the ethics and morality of the decision. Hence, no decision can be made without considering, and including all possible sources of expertise. (239)
For example, an expert’s opinion on the issue of a criminal case might come into conflict with the moral principles, but, as they say, “dura lex sed lex suus”. Dealing with criminal cases, lawyers are not supposed to act according to their sentiments. What would seem humane could prove unlawful.
Where the Word of an Expert Is a Word of Honor
However, an expert’s opinion is not supposed to be the absolute truth in all spheres of people’s life. While the ideas of a competent person will necessarily prove indispensable in the spheres of work, justice, military actions, etc., the concepts suggested traditionally in ethics, morality and other spheres which rather concern people’s personal life will prove incompetent and even dangerous to apply to practice.
However, modern researches show that expertise prevails over the other means of analysis in practically all spheres of human activity. Spreading wider with every scientific research, it makes the backbone of the modern scientific world. There are few spheres of life nowadays where expertise is not used to solve problematic issues. As Stehr says,
Scientific experts dominate opinions in a growing number of spheres; their expertise and even more so their credibility turns into the ‘Achilles heel of the industrial system’. The layman (seemingly) does not have to offer anything that can compete with the specialized knowledge of the experts: the judgment of experts terminates any discussion of a problem as long as their competence is taken for granted. (214-251)
Although it is wiser to listen to the advice of an expert first, people should also consider the probable consequences. If an expert on banking puts you out of business, (s)he will suffer only a minor fine, while you will remain bankrupt. Thus, relying on the opinion of experts, people should also train their ability to analyze the situation.
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Ericsson, Karl Anders, and Jacqui Smith. Toward a General Theory of Expertise: Prospects and Limits. New York, NY: Routledge, 1991. Print.
Popper, Karl Raimund, Anne Friemuth Petersen, and Jogren Mejer. The World of Parmenides: Essays on the Presocratic Enlightenment. New York, NY: Routledge, 1998. Print.
Stehr, Nico. Knowledge Societies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1994. Print.
Van Vyk, Gerrit. A Postmodern Metatheory of Knowledge as a System. Bloomington, IN: Trafford Publishing, 2004. Print.