Being an Expert
Congratulations! You are an expert. You may be extraordinarily modest or have some degree of impostor syndrome, but you are an expert whether you like it or not. There are few people with the perseverance, intelligence, work habits, and collective wisdom of all your teachers to have developed expertise in a specific area the way that you have. As you complete your Masters thesis and doctoral dissertation you have read every paper, all books, and contacted every expert in the field. There is nobody who knows more about your topic than you. Now that you are an expert, what are you going to do with this magical designation as expert?
As I am sure you have read, these are difficult time for the experts. There is a lot of talk about the death of expertise. The public clearly would prefer to accept comfortable untruths than face uncomfortable truths. Your expertise will be challenged repeatedly by your peers, colleagues, editors, and your family. You will be referred to as a “so-called” expert by those who disagree with you, are jealous of you, or are insecure in your presence. You will hear, “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich.” Your family will remember every stupid thing you did as a child and remind you that you are not that smart. Moreover, discovering that the only people influenced by your research publications are other people who are experts and publish research can be frustrating and lead to existential crises.
Sometimes, your expertise is recognized and you will be invited to consult, testify, lecture, be interviewed, or appear on radio or television. This sounds exciting and flattering. However, there are times that this can be more frustrating and fruitless than trying to convince your beer swilling uncle that you should be called “Doctor.” The frustration arises because no one truly cares about the details of your expertise, but they care about how they can use your expertise as a commodity. Businesses may want to provide information to reassure stockholders. Lawyers may wish you to provide expert testimony that supports their side of the case. Television and radio may look for entertaining information. Everyone is looking for a way to use your expertise to their advantage and they get you to provide that expertise with the compelling combination of flattery and money.
There are multiple pitfalls. Expert creep is an issue. The chances are that your true expertise is quite limited in scope. Those using your expertise will frequently ask you to make statements or answer questions beyond the scope of your expertise. You have something like a halo effect in that they assume an expert in one area must be an expert in all related things. And our ego is such that we rarely can utter the words, “I do not know” without fear of losing your status as an expert. Selling your soul is another issue. There is an extremely prominent person in my field who makes significant money providing expert testimony to major corporations with a history of environmental pollution — and given my field of study, this is problematic. He keeps this part of his work private. The third major risk is attention seduction. This happens when you begin to crave the attention of interviewers and audiences at workshops. You prefer putting on a show and showing off your expertise to learning more and increasing your expertise. You may have been seduced by the attention if you prepared one-liners that will appear to be spontaneous, had a spray tan before an interview, and worry more about the audience reaction than the quality of the content that you deliver. When you engage in these three pitfalls you become simply a provider of a commodity. You are like any other salesman. There is nothing wrong with selling and promoting yourself, but to become little more than a salesman means that you have lost the special rarefied position as an expert. I would argue that the widely reported death of expertise is in large part the fault of experts experiencing the pitfalls of using their expertise as a commodity.
There are five ideas that can help you avoid pitfalls while sharing your expertise and spreading knowledge in ways that can be useful to others.
- Negotiate terms carefully. Once you understand that most people want to commodify your expertise, then you need to understand exactly how it will be used. What deliverable information are they expecting from you? Often you must do your homework to understand exactly what information they are looking for. Once you understand the goals of the people who would like you to share your expertise, then you must be very comfortable saying no. This is difficult, because when people approach you to share your expertise it validates that your work is valuable. If there are potential pitfalls that you are not sure how to address, then you are better off declining the opportunity.
- Define the scope of your expertise. Ensure that anyone who wants your expertise is extremely clear on exactly what you are expert in and what is beyond your expertise. Inevitably, there will be expertise creep where you are asked to provide information outside of the parameters of your expertise. This is where you need to have the discipline to swallow much of your ego and say, “I do not know.” Even if you may know the answer to their concern because it is adjacent to your expertise, it is still best to say, “That question is a bit outside of my area of expertise.”
- Define loose terms. Nonexperts who wish to use your expertise frequently use non-scientific terms that are difficult to interpret for people with narrow subject expertise. For example, “What is the best method of using X?” These types of questions cannot be answered simply. Often, a true expert will say, “it depends.” Although true, that type of equivocation makes your expertise less useful and enhances the reputation that specific expertise may not be particularly useful for any important decision making or policy. The secret is to ask your interviewer or consultee to define the term “best.” A reasonable request for clarification would be, “by ‘best’ do you mean the largest effect size, greatest efficiency, cheapest, most acceptable to people implementing the ideas, most popular with parents? There are many ways to define best.” By putting the onus on the person using your expertise, you reduce the probability of speaking incorrectly, reduce equivocation and losing your expert power, and help your interviewer or consultee gain the exact information that they want.
- Define science. Often there is a belief that your expertise is defined by having access to a fund of information that no one else does. This is only partially true. Usually an expert in any area has a firm understanding of the process by which information is learned. This confusion is part of the death of expertise. It is common for people using expertise to note that one study concludes X and another study concludes Y. Often people infer that science must be useless because two papers using scientific methods yield very different results. You may have to explain to people that science is an evolving process and results are functions of sampling, methods, procedures, analyses, and many other factors. There is a risk of being pedantic. However, there are a great many people who are surprised that science is a process and not a collection of facts to be discovered. Of course, there are multiple philosophies of science — but sometimes an explanation of why science can be so maddening to scientists and non-scientists can be helpful and provide information that is much needed.
- Focus on process rather than results. The emphasis of any presentation should be on what you did, how you did it, why you did it, and how the information is important. Related to the previous point, science is a process. If you have managed to find some results that are flashy and exciting, then the next step is to de-emphasize that result and focus on the next project you will be undertaking. This seems counter-intuitive. Information about the process (even when it is something ugly such as the phrase “how the sausages are made”) provides inside information that many people appreciate and find valuable. Flashy and exciting results will speak for themselves, your real value and expertise is focusing on how you found those exciting and flashy results. This approach further defines science and minimizes the possibility of running into major pitfalls.
So congratulations on becoming an expert. Now it is time to develop the next phase, which is how to use your expertise for the benefit of others without running into pitfalls that can derail your reputation, your ability to share your expertise for the benefit of others, and your work in science.