The Expertise Strikes Back


Tom Nichols writes of the death of expertise in a recent, well-received blog. When he first tweeted a reference to the topic, as he was writing it, I immediately thought he was referring to Cognitive Resource Theory (CRT) – the finding that expertise is essential in high-stress decision environments, but less so in low-stress decision environments, where we may be better served to listen to intelligent voices with little experience in the specific field.

If you need novel solutions, those with high experience are not your sources – they will rely on what has worked in the past. But in a high-stress environment, the smart guy in the back of the room with no experience may not be the most welcome voice. Left unstudied by CRT: high-stress situations where novelty is needed. The Apollo 13 scenario applies here, put the experts into a constrained environment to obtain novel solutions to an otherwise familiar problem. The experts must be jostled out of their comfortable assumptions in order to consider novelty. Never underestimate this.

Turns out – life is about more than one theory.

Anyway, Tom wasn’t referring to either of those.

So next I thought – Oh, the corollary observation that relying upon experts is often a trap, as detailed in The Longitude Problem explanation, courtesy of Dave Snowden. Yeah, experts are sometimes the problem, particularly when you’re facing problems of a complex nature; which describes most human social systems. The experts’ cognitive and social biases may prevent an awareness of new ideas, much less a fair testing of them. Expertise’s role in complicated matters is central. In complex matters, where novelty often is called for, it should be taken with heapings of salt.

Anyway, Tom wasn’t referring to that either. Turns out, even my limited expertise in the area of, er, expertise, was blinding me from hearing him. I had to work through several patterns before I understood the angle on his headline. (How expertise matters less when everyone has a voice and believes their opinion is as informed as an expert’s How some mooks believe expertise itself represents a sellout – e.g., if you spent 30 years at the National Security Agency, that amounts to an indictment, not a history of expertise that deserves attention.)

When I worked at a think tank, right out of a brief Air Force career in Intelligence, I had lots of scattered ideas and an agile mind – but no background in national security studies beyond eight years’ operational experience of a very limited scope. In ‘brainstorming’ sessions, I would muse and ponder. For me, true brainstorming. It was fun, but I realized I was failing to read the room.

The problem was: I was sitting in a room with people who had published books on the topic being discussed. They were voicing deeply researched opinions, that I could understand fairly quickly, but from which I could not make a logical next step argument. I lacked awareness of the paths that had been carved, as if I were standing at the edge of the dark woods, 30 paces to the left of the trail, arguing: “Why haven’t we looked for a path here, guys?” The conversation was a form of disruption, novelty (hopefully) emerged from conversational conflict. One real problem, by the way, is if you fail to rotate the players at that table – diversity and new members are needed to disrupt harmful patterns. If you attend a regularly scheduled staff meeting, you already know this. But at no time would it make sense to stand there saying things like: “You served in x’s administration, and I disagree with those policies, so you are useless” or “My point of view is more valid from yours, because I have no knowledge of Containment Policy, and am therefore pure.”

Put another way, while an appeal to authority is a losing debate style, it does not follow that appeal to ignorance is a successful one.

A friend and colleague – (now like a brother to me, in that we are extremely close and almost never communicate) – finally pulled me aside and told me of the library represented around the think tank’s table. These were some of the leading minds in national security policy research, and here I was inventing some interpretive dances based on the bits I picked up in conversation. The patience of those men and women is something I am thankful for, many years too late.

Once upbraided by this episode, I did my research and learned where I could add value and be heard. The people who wail at Tom and others online would not do so at a cocktail party – social norms reinforce civility and hierarchy. The question, then, may not be whether expertise no longer matters, but whether we can expect civilizing social norms among a social-media mob. Even when searching for novel answers, understanding first who and what has gone before remains of highest value.

* Regarding the photo, why are there pomegranates in a vineyard…? Shall we just brainstorm, or ask a vintner?

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Dale M. Posthumus

Expertise matters. When you go in for brain surgeon you don’t want an orthopedic surgeon to do the work. Expertise is a tool, not a solution. The problem is when it gets used as a crutch. Even in a room full of experts, you will get diversity and novelty. Ultimately, I would argue that everyone in the room has expertise – it may be in a different, but that expertise can be used (for example, how to get a room of experts to agree on a course of action). Black-and-white definitions rarely are accurate.