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A manifesto for credibility

The emergence of the Information Age has given most everyone access to an unlimited wealth of knowledge. More recently, as social online media have flourished, there is an even greater rate of participation.

With that, curiously, has been a trend to claim expertise. Tim Ferriss’ book, The Four Hour Work Week (which I recommend with some reservations) has a section on how to transform yourself into an expert at something. Among the suggestions: get yourself published, get interviewed by the news media, add your name to ProfNet and so on. Follow these tips, and you too can become an expert.

Not so fast. While, in theory, each of these is true to some degree, and defining one’s self as expert is merely the act of doing so, the reality is that the term expert is being bandied about too loosely, now apparently more than ever.

What about those who spend years upon years building skill sets and specialized knowledge? Those with master’s degrees in a particular field, or those who hold a doctorate – don’t they technically have more expertise than these new, self-proclaimed experts?

In my day job I have the occasion to sit in on contentious and high-stakes water rights hearings. There, the legal definition of “expert” rules. I remember one witness had nearly completed his master’s degree in biology and was just now being allowed to testify as an expert witness.

So how is expertise determined? Here is one source that I found to have a thorough but easily understood definition of how courts determine what constitutes an expert.

“The qualifications of an expert witness must be carefully scrutinized by courts to guard against charlatans who may give erroneous testimony without a sound foundation. Most courts will more closely scrutinize the qualifications of witnesses seeking to testify as experts if they have never been found qualified to give expert testimony on a prior occasion. However, primary reliance is not placed on the fact that it may be the expert’s first time on the witness stand. Conversely, the fact that a witness has been previously qualified to give expert testimony on the subject matter in question is typically irrelevant to his or her qualifications for giving such testimony in a subsequent case.”

This is not to say that “expert” testimony or opinion can’t be flawed. Frequently, it is. At the same time, there is a significant difference between a phenomenon tested with scientific methods and lay opinion.

The refinement and validation of that scientific expertise is also critical.

“The U.S. Supreme Court further observed that the reliability of a scientific technique may turn on whether the technique can be and has been tested; whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication; and whether there is a high rate of error or standards controlling its operation.” (Source.)

The aim of the (now defunct) Bridge2Science project was to provide free, quick access to credible expertise, which is why we targeted higher education institutions, research think tanks and the like. To us, those in the research fields, particularly at established institutions, are the best providers of expert information. I think the legal world would tend to agree.

Researchers, scientists, policy analysts and professors devote lifetimes to their particular areas of expertise. For somebody to come along, publish a few articles in lay publications, start a blog about a topic and then claim expertise is a trend that treads in dangerous waters.