Saturday, March 5, 2022

An Observational Exegesis of Popular American Epistemology and an Explication of Expertise

(Go ahead and read this despite the title!  I’m using it to make a point.)   


If I can use language like in the title above, it’s clear that I can throw around big words.  I generally don’t talk like that, but it seemed that the topic of this essay needed some words that I know from my professional life to help make a point (more on that later).  To translate, what’s written here are my observations about how we Americans relate to knowledge, truth, and expertise – a relationship that is currently strained and teetering toward a break up.  I hope folks don’t read the title and decide to click past because it all sounds foreign and not something worth taking the time to read.  I hope you read the first sentence of this paragraph and decided that maybe the rest of the paragraph is worth reading.  If the first paragraph is worth reading, then maybe the second one is, too.  And maybe you’ll make it all the way to the bottom and see the whole point.  Anyway, I promise that there isn’t any more specialized language like the title. 


To get to my point: 


I recently read a news account about a religious leader in my community who refuses to get vaccinated.  This isn’t a rabid fundamentalist like I’ve written about elsewhere.  This leader claims a connection to one of the oldest strains of Christianity.  And he believes that the COVID-19 vaccine is a step toward the “mark of the beast” that the biblical book of Revelations suggests will be the antichrist’s brand on his followers.  The priest also further suggested that the government is exaggerating the COVID-19 death toll to create more profits for the medical profession, and CDC statistics are not to be believed.  This leader cites, as his source, an unnamed scientist friend who claims that other scientists are afraid to speak out against the vaccine.  The religious leader making the claims in the news account offered no data, primary research, or credible sources – just a reported friend with whispers of a deep conspiracy that involves the entire medical profession and the entire government.  Because I’m someone who has expertise in an area (though not medicine), these sorts of ambiguous proclamations trouble me because as I understand expertise in any area, it’s never so vague and hidden. 


Expertise?  Me?  As the language in the title of this piece might suggest, I have a college education.  But those years of learning aren’t why people who know me will be able to see something I’ve said as having value.  My education, especially my advanced education, prepared me to begin developing knowledge and expertise in certain areas.  The work I’ve done since I completed those degrees gave me additional knowledge and expertise.  I don’t know much about quarks or cellular biology because that’s not what I studied.  But in my field of knowledge, I do know something.  When I talk or write about those topics, it’s because I’ve developed expertise to do so.  I like to say that “I know stuff.”  Like other experts I know, I openly share my expertise, and I don’t pass it along in whispers only to a few people I know.


I appreciate and value all levels of knowledge, but let’s acknowledge that there are levels of knowledge.  The meteorology course that I completed as an undergraduate helps me understand what downslope winds are and how thunderstorms develop.  But taking a course or reading a book doesn’t make me a meteorologist who can predict the next hailstorm.  In my area of expertise, I know stuff because of what makes me an expert.  Specifically, I’ve:

  • Conducted my own studies and explored the ideas by looking critically at the ideas of others who also study my areas of knowledge;
  • Developed systems and processes that put my ideas into practice;
  • Tested those ideas and have information that tells me whether those ideas worked or didn’t;
  • Regularly exchanged ideas with others who do similar work;
  • Remained in current conversations that challenge my ideas and force them to evolve. 

So my expertise isn’t a fixed body of information; it’s a living experience that I expand all the time.  I am continually learning about my field of knowledge and continually finding new ideas to explore in that field.  That’s what an expert does.  You can’t claim my level of knowledge or expertise without having similarly undertaken steps.  Maybe not exactly the same steps I’ve taken as an academic researcher, but certainly you would need to go through the same level of rigor that I’ve followed by following those bullet points above.  I know expert playwrights who do that by learning to write plays through struggle and focus and time and effort; I know expert beauticians who’ve stood over the heads of thousands of people and gained expert skills; I know truck drivers who’ve spent so much time in the cab of a semi that it feels more at home than their house does. Expertise comes in multiple ways, but it does come, and every expert I know experiences those bulleted points.  As a result, there are people who are experts. You would miss taking advantage of that expertise by dismissing what I or other experts say in our areas of expertise because you disagree with it.  I’m not an expert in everything, and sometimes my opinion is just that:  my ideas that are the same as anyone else’s.  But in my field of knowledge, I’m worth hearing before you reject my ideas.  That’s not boasting or expecting that others should see me as special.  It’s a factual a statement that defines part of who I am.  In my area, I know stuff. 


Why should anyone care whether I am or anyone else is an expert?  Unfortunately, with the proliferation of talk shows, social media, and “influencers,” Americans seem to have lost the idea that there are experts who know more than the typical person.  And no matter how overwhelming the expert testimony, if some of us hear just one contrary voice declaring knowledge on a matter, we can sometimes ignore the overwhelming expertise and follow the idea that agrees with our opinions.  In the pre-COVID-19, anti-vaccine world that meant some people continued to follow discredited Andrew Wakefield who falsified his research to falsely claim a connection between autism and vaccines – and, as a result, lost his medical license.  In the current pandemic, there are people who would follow leaders who call on their followers to follow medical quackery over the advice of infectious disease experts who tell them to wear a face mask, keep distant from others, and get vaccinated.  Or there are others who look askance at the massive amount of data and reports on climate change.  The list of topics goes on.  Some have stopped listening to expertise and decided that any idea merits belief if it agrees with what they want to believe.


I’m not suggesting a blind following of experts.  That would be as wrong as ignoring them.  In case you haven’t guessed this (or known it already because you know me), my area of expertise is around people’s engagement with new ideas.  I “know stuff” about how people learn and how people teach.  I live into the bulleted points above in my professional life.  And something my expertise has taught me is that people often follow the path of least resistance to access knowledge, especially if that knowledge challenges what they already know.  Blindly following a belief is often the easiest path when the better (and harder) approach is to seek out many sources of information, to weigh those sources of information, and decide which source is most accurate.  For example, if 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real, then, at the least, you need to question whether you should be following the advice of the other 3%.  The responsibility is to weigh experts’ ideas and determine which ideas are worth following.  And that’s become especially important when we have so many sources of information. 


Those sources are sometimes difficult to understand because any area of expertise has its own language that helps experts discuss ideas in their field – like the title of this essay.  It’s important that people in an area of expertise have a language that they can use among each other so they can talk in the shorthand of that language.  I used to teach my graduate students to use the language like the title of this essay so we could have a common language to discuss the nature of knowledge.  It’s the language that they encountered while reading other experts in my area.  However, while some experts are writing in a language meant for each other, it is critical to find those experts who also share their ideas for those of us outside their world.  There are folks in every area of expertise who’ve worked hard at translating their work to an audience beyond their narrow group of fellow experts.  I don’t mean the charlatan quacks who have their own talk shows or YouTube channel and offer opinions on everything.  You know, the ones who insist on being called “Doctor [Insert First Name Here]” and build a marketing brand around that name.  In contrast are others who reach a wide audience and really do develop expertise through careful inquiry and the kind of first-hand exploration that provides them with the mantle of expert (remember the bulleted list I included above). 


Think Michael Eric Dyson, Shirley Ann Jackson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Nell Irvin Painter.  These and many more have learned to be translators of their big ideas to make those ideas accessible to an audience beyond their own profession.  These aren’t folks who’ve pandered to a wider audience while losing their drive to gain new knowledge.  These public intellectuals have continued to contribute to their field while learning to communicate their ideas.  While there could be more of that expertise and knowledge made publicly accessible, it is available; and we all need to go looking for it.  If you’ve been on Facebook or Substack lately, you’ve most likely encountered the daily posts from historian Heather Cox Richardson.  She’s the perfect example of what this looks like when done well.  In addition to writing highly respected books in her field of knowledge, she writes a daily summary of current events that places the day into historical perspective.  Her daily comments are free of jargon, and they’re also written in the conversational tone that a letter is written.  As a result, her posts are daily must reading for thousands of readers.  It’s experts like her who are worth finding.


So how can we be better at consuming information and looking for experts we can trust? 


That was easier 30 years ago when there were fewer sources available.  Today, the answer to that question isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if we’re going to be able to navigate the complex world in which we live.  Like I wrote above, my expertise is in my field of study, so I have to do this, too, with other topics all the time.  We all need to have the skills to evaluate the expertise and information that come to us.  The place to start is by questioning the qualifications of the people offering the information.  My favorite example of misplaced expertise was when Nobel Laureate and chemist Linus Pauling declared almost-magical powers of Vitamin C, to the consternation of medical researchers who understood its limitations.  Pauling’s pronouncements had people taking massive doses of Vitamin C that medical researchers agreed had little curative purposes. 


Look, also, to see what viewpoints that the expert uses, so that you can understand the biases that the expert brings.  Take some time to see if there are other experts who agree or disagree with the expert.  In both social sciences and the natural sciences, experts always seek to have our work examined by other experts.  The idea of “peer review” means that other experts in our field have looked closely at our work and have determined it meets the standards of our profession.  That process has limitations, but it does offer some protections.  I mentioned Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccination, falsified research above.  His study was originally peer reviewed and published by The Lancet, a major British medical journal.  Over time, though, other medical researchers weren’t able to reproduce his results, and that led to his work being examined more closely.  While his falsified data originally passed initial review, it was through further peer review that The Lancet discovered his fabrication and eventually published a retraction of their original publication of his work.  


Whenever I hear someone complain that “experts never agree, so I’m not listening to any of them” on a topic, I realize that I’m hearing someone who believes that maybe having expert knowledge isn’t possible.  That’s not true.  In the rapidly evolving information world that surrounds us, we have to sift through that knowledge and educate ourselves how to know which of that knowledge makes the most sense.  The challenges in determining the worth of expert advice, however, doesn’t mean that we should give up on assessing it – or that we should accept all ideas as equal.  It means that it’s going to be harder to make the judgments.  There’s a balance between cynicism and blind acceptance, and we all need to strive toward that balance.  I think of it as informed skepticism.  You don’t have to be an expert in order to assess the value of expertise or of someone who’s sharing their expertise.  After all, you just got to the bottom of this essay that had a title that you may not have fully understood because of the specialized vocabulary I used in the title.  If I’ve done my job, I’ve conveyed the complexity of my ideas without relying on that vocabulary – so you didn’t have to become an expert to understand my thoughts.  You can look at other sources to see if I really do have the expertise I claim, and you can read other materials that’ll tell you about my perspectives and biases. 


Where can you start developing a process that’ll help you develop skills in informed skepticism?  Here are some guides to help:


These resources offer you the opportunity to develop your informed skepticism by developing your own processes that allow you to evaluate information.  Doing that is the only reasonable alternative to accepting information blindly or ignoring it without assessing its worth. 

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