On Expertise

My mom has a bit of a problem with experts. If you asked her, my mom would tell you that the problem with experts is that they don’t have to justify their opinions on the basis that they have implicitly earned that trust, and, in the reverse, other people who are not experts have not. She argues that people who are not experts should be trusted to form and express opinions on a subject, and moreover that experts should be challenged to support their opinions better. I can’t say that I fully disagree. And yet when it comes to the concept of an expert and, by extension, expertise, I’m torn. On the one hand, experts should not have a monopoly on informed opinions. On the other, expertise is not just knowing the facts, but about understanding the context, methods, and unarticulated information surrounding those facts that contribute to interpreting them. This push and pull between formal expertise and informal knowledge is something I’m constantly struggling with as a junior academic.

Right now, I am struggling emotionally with editing my dissertation. One of my advisers seems to think I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I do not have adequate expertise in my subject matter. They have made variations on this point to me repeatedly over the past 6 years, so none of this is new, but every time I have to go through the 5 stages of grief to get past it. Right now, the main issues are whether I can use the word “science” in my dissertation (even though it is a dissertation on the subject of the history of science and science is in the title) and whether I display sufficient mastery of the literature on material culture (humanistic inquiry that focuses on objects as sources of evidence, more so than texts). I won’t go into the details of this debate. The end result will be me receiving my doctorate, and I’m confident we’ll find a way around these particular disagreements. But it is so painfully frustrating that at this stage, three years after I was declared proficient enough in these exact subjects (history of science and material culture studies) to write a dissertation engaging with these subjects, I am still having to prove that I know enough to do so.

I imagine that a major contributor to the problem my adviser has with seeing me as an expert is, ironically, the degree of confidence with which I assert claims. Other advisees of this scholar are free to explore these subjects without the same kind of challenge (but also without the same degree of expertise that I have) because they are not attempting to make strong claims. The are just asking questions. They are tentatively dipping a toe into the waters of the overlap between humanity’s formalized investigation of the natural world and its production of tools, ornamentation, and commodities. I, however, have the gall to assert my claims. My attitude is partially the product of my argumentative nature and upbringing, but it’s also encouraged by the practices of my field. When we apply for funding for our research as graduate students, we are told to banish words such as “ask”, “investigate”, “wonder”, and “explore” in favor of stronger language such as “argue” and “show”. Why we do this can probably be chalked up to the macho standards ingrained in academia, as well as the practical difficulty that faces funding institutions, which have so little money and so many applicants, and have to choose whose projects to fund based on their degree of confidence that a given project will result in anything of importance. In my case, I know that part of my adviser’s difficulty with me is my language, since I have also been told to scale back some of my claims. And I agree with this critique – I can’t confidently draw conclusions in the way I hoped, and I need to get rid of some of the overconfident language that I got used to using in funding applications. But that doesn’t change the fact that I am confident enough – and rightly so – to analyze objects as sources or talk about medieval science.

As much as I feel unfairly maligned in this debate, I also have to recognize the importance of maintaining standards of expertise. Once I deposit my dissertation, my advisers have no ability to directly restrict my actions anymore, no authority to tell me that I am overreaching. I will be on my own, a free agent in our field, making whatever claims I want. They want to make sure that what I say is of substance, that my reputation for expertise is well-earned, and that I don’t represent them as my teachers poorly. And yet, despite this inclination to protect the status of expert, there are so many people in my field who use only their name recognition in one area as currency to be able to speak about subjects that they have no training in. This is particularly common among historians claiming expertise in material culture, because it is a hot topic among historians who rely more on texts, and so the audience is not necessarily in a position to judge whether one of their own really has anything interesting or even valid to say about other kinds of sources. There are several very famous older men in my field who tout themselves as archaeologists, when in reality they have simply signed onto projects with archaeologists. Now, these men could indeed have gained new skills later in their careers, especially through productive collaboration with their colleagues in other fields. They could have, but they didn’t.

The concept of expertise is often used as a gatekeeping tool, a way of electing a qualified few to speak and be heard on complex, important, or controversial subjects. As such, measures of expertise can be hoops to jump through rather than real tests of knowledge or understanding. This is often the complaint surrounding comprehensive exams for PhD students – these tests are how we advance to candidacy for our degree, how we receive approval to begin researching a dissertation. It’s also the last time we tend to develop concrete skills as scholars, because we typically stop taking classes entirely after the exams. So while we might pick up another language or hone our archival reading skills through practice, we don’t tend to learn entirely new bodies of literature or techniques after this point. But at the same time, when we take these exams we are knowledgeable idiots. We are just starting to understand the undercurrents of academic debate, gain mastery of the many arguments that have already played out, and put those pieces of information into practice. So while we don’t tend to pick up any new skills after achieving candidacy, we also aren’t really considered to have any skills at that point either.

I have just received my MA

This casts a bit of a shadow on academic expertise, because every time we reach a new level of achievement, our slate is cleared and it’s as if we know nothing again. When I earned my BA, I was an expert in the Black Death, architecture of Norman Sicily, and the politics around cultural heritage preservation in archaeology. But I also knew nothing about these subjects, because I didn’t understand the scholarly debates that were taking place – I only knew the raw sources. And as argumentative as I could be, I couldn’t anticipate every possible interpretation of these sources, or how they might be used differently by someone alive in 2012 vs someone alive in 1912. When I earned my MA, I was an expert in medieval European medicine, silk production in Norman Sicily, and Muslim/Christian exchange in the medieval Mediterranean. But I still didn’t understand so many of the complexities of these subjects, including the medical basis for evidence around medieval health practices, or what the medieval economy looked like. There was always another layer to my studies that took me back to square one. I could tell a narrative about each of these subjects, but it might only be one narrative, I might not be aware of other possible narratives.

Expertise in academia is not just a volume of known facts, or an ability to string those facts together into a story, argument, or explanation, but a critical perspective on a multitude of interpretations of those same facts that is based in precedent – it’s not just important to anticipate how someone might read the information, but rather how people have read that information, and how those readings have shaped subsequent readings. This critical perspective of the literature, the historiography, is aided by a knowledge of critical theory and method – the establishment of a set of guiding principles or tenets that outline any particular approach so that each approach doesn’t have to be reinvented from nothing each time. For instance, one debate in my field of Siculo-Norman studies surrounds the use of hybridity theory – whether we should try to fill in the many enormous gaps in our knowledge of Norman Sicily with a model of interaction between different racial/cultural groups based on modern ideas of blended societies. It’s easier, then, to talk about whether Norman Sicily was a hybrid society than whether Norman Sicily can be understood in terms of a tension between an imposed macro-societal identification and sub-group identities that are drawn along racial, linguistic, or religious lines. If I am trying to communicate this concept to someone outside of my field, or even someone outside of academia, knowing the theoretical model can help me to explain the concept in simpler terms, or even pick what level of complexity to speak at. In this way, mastery is a helpful well of knowledge for communication, outlining paths for productive debates.

But expertise can also be a smokescreen or a badge that learned people hide behind so they don’t have to justify themselves. One of the moments that helped me identify that my toxic abuser was not just an occasionally difficult relationship was exactly this raising of the smokescreen. That person was at the time working toward an MA in Religion, which they were using to receive an education in social justice on issues of race and (occasionally) sexuality. They had just come back from a luxury hiking trip in Europe on which one of the other parties was a lesbian couple. This taking place prior to the legalization of gay marriage, my abuser complained that the lesbians gave themselves a bad name with their poor arguments in favor of their own expanded legal rights, and that this couple should have just listened to the arguments my abuser was making on their behalf, on the basis that they were going to have “those two little letters after my name”. This was obviously a delusion of grandeur, since no one has ever shut up in awe and deference to an MA degree, but the core sentiment, that an expert is more qualified to speak about an issue than someone with personal experience in that issue, is exactly the crux of the debate over elitism. What my abuser was failing to articulate, both to this apparently unlucky lesbian couple and to me, was how expertise in the formal study of a subject is any help in having debates, conveying information, forming an opinion, or taking meaningful action on that subject.

We have been seeing a terrifying display of the problem of expertise play out over the course of the pandemic. The general public has a very hard time trusting the information coming from medical experts, even when that information is largely unanimously expressed, when it doesn’t in some small (or very large) way agree with their own personal experiences. The most surprising way I’ve witnessed this distrust is in public facebook mommy groups, where people ask for personal experiences of side effects from the vaccine, acknowledging the studies of the vaccine and the severity of those side effects, but still stressing that they need to hear it “from real people”. Somehow, the people who participated in the vaccine trials stopped being real when their results were aggregated and reported by the drug companies that made the vaccines, the governments that approved them, and the doctors and nurses administering them. I don’t think the concern among most people who have trouble believing experts is that the experts are outright lying, but that the information the experts are trying to convey is so complex and so requiring of interpretation that no one is necessarily capable of determining objective truth: that these issues are too subjective to be interpreted.

Is it valid to claim from a position of ignorance that experts are not qualified to interpret information in which they ostensibly have expertise? It’s here that the irony of expert confidence returns – if an expert isn’t able to convince an ignorant person (someone who is uninformed on the subject, not a euphemism for stupid or mean-spirited) that they are an expert, either through compelling logic at the right level of discourse or by commanding a confident air, then they effectively are not an expert. The emperor has no clothes.

For myself, learning to win over my advisers and convince them through my rhetoric that I know what I’m talking about is part of the process. Maybe it’s my final test before they’re willing to grant me the title of Doctor. But the issue of whether the general public is open to believing experts when they inform them of the severity of the pandemic or climate change or hate crimes is not just a hoop to jump through. It’s a real loss of confidence in the value of education and the ethics of public figures. A certain amount of skepticism is necessary, and when the question at hand is about buying a car or choosing the right cancer treatment, each individual has to be an informed advocate on their own behalf. But when it’s a matter of public importance, we can’t be sitting around squabbling over our personal concerns. And to get past those squabbles, experts have to be better at convincing people they are worth listening to, and then maybe people will start trusting experts again.