Discover more from Random Minds by Katherine Brodsky
If you must trust the experts...
I came across a quote from Alexander Pope recently: "A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
I think this danger is particularly relevant these days. On the one hand, we have more knowledge available to us to access easily than ever before and that’s a wonderful thing, but I do fear that it can also give the illusion that we are more expert at knowing things than we really are. There’s a reason why some things take years and years to master. Not everything, but some things. The rest of Pope’s poetic passage continues:
“Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again."
As well-read and as curious as we may be, there are some topics that we'll never be knowledgeable enough to fully grasp unless we dedicate our entire lives to their study. Some people do. Indeed, some people might choose to spend their days monitoring a single sub-species, a bacteria, or even an atom. That’s not most of us.
That's why, from time to time, we should go to experts.
I know, I know. “Trust the experts” is a phrase that has been riddled with ridicule and skepticism these days, but just because there are issues there, doesn’t mean that we should override the knowledge and wisdom base that has been cultivated by our society in favor of just Dr. Google and our own self-sufficiency.
Of course, not all experts are alike. Gibson’s Law states: "For every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD." So how do we know who to trust? Here are some of the things that I look at:
First of all, there should never just be ONE authoritative voice. Find several, and see where they agree and disagree with each other.
What are their educational backgrounds? Real world experiences? Reputations?
How free are they to speak? Do they have institutional or financial ties that might limit them from being able to speak freely and openly?
Do they have any agendas or something that they might be wanting to promote (eg. product)?
How flexible are they with their views when presented with new evidence? I don't tend to trust anyone that's too dogmatic.
What is their track record of being correct? Even more importantly, when they've made errors, how did they react? Did they try to cling to their positions and play defense, or did they voluntary concede that they've made errors and quickly corrected them?
Google Scholar is a good resource for checking on papers that they may have published. How often are they cited by others? What's the quality of the publications? Do the subjects that are covered in their publications match the claims of their expertise?
How recent is their experience? They might have an incredible background and past achievements, but are not up-to-date with all the latest changes because they haven’t kept up with new innovation and developments.
Pay attention to how they conduct themselves when making arguments. Are they rational? Are they specific and factual? Do make appeals to emotion and make vague claims? Do they switch subjects quickly when asked difficult questions?
Assess whether their statements are consistent or if they frequently pivot. Do they admit when they don't know something? Do they continue to speak as an expert on things that fall outside of their domain of expertise?
Ultimately, there's no such thing as a "perfect" expert, but these are some of the parameters that I look for in figuring out whose opinion I find particularly valuable.
What are your tips for evaluating who’s a trustworthy expert? Or do you believe that there’s no such thing? Leave a comment below.
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Who am I? I’m a writer with an overactive imagination and a random mind. Outside of Substack, you’ll find my work in publications such as Newsweek, WIRED, Variety, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Esquire, Playboy, Mashable, CNN Travel, The Independent, and many others.