Experts are social facts

Clay Shirky has some interesting discussion of expertise in a larger article on a new wiki-like experiment, Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the Problem of Expertise:

[E]xperts are social facts — society typically recognizes experts through some process of credentialling, such as the granting of degrees, professional certifications, or institutional engagement. We have a sense of what it means that someone is a doctor, a judge, an architect, or a priest, but these facts are only facts because we agree they are. If I say “I sentence you to 45 days in jail”, nothing happens. If a judge says “I sentence you to 45 days in jail”, in a court of law, dozens of people will make it their business to act on that imperative, from the bailiff to the warden to the prison guards. My words are the same as the judges, but the judge occupies a position of authority that gives his words an effect mine lack, an authority only exists because enough people agree that it does.

In other words, I can tell you that I am an expert in knowledge management, but that doesn't mean much unless this is verified both by my demonstrating expertise as well being validated by the larger context around me: can I provide client references; do I have a definition that meshes with yours; do I participate in KM communities; do I have credentials of some sort...  Depending on your own needs and perspective, you will explore some variety of these. 

In the comments, Clay clarifies that he is talking about the designation of being an expert, not about expertise or skill. 

This leads me to another article that has been sitting in my back pocket, The Expert Mind by Philip E Ross in the August 2006 Scientific American.  This is very clearly about expertise (with a focus on chess).

Without a demonstrably immense superiority in skill over the novice, there can be no true experts, only laypeople with imposing credentials.

This articles covers the research into how people develop and demonstrate expertise.  At the root is what one researcher calls "effortful study" of the skill in question.

So, an expert is defined by how the world sees her expertise.  Clear?

4 Comment(s)

Patrick said:

Interesting post, Jack... I see some connections with Charles Tilly's distinction between technical accounts and codes - he focuses on the contents of what is shared, and essentially what experts communicate, where your post focuses on the people that communicate these things.

bob handwerk said:

Perhaps my observation is semantical nitpicking: but the author says that "So, an expert is defined by how the world sees her expert".
The term "sees" gives me pause... An expert is judged by their cosistent,quantifiable creditable performance in a specific realm demonstrated (usually) over a period of time.

jackvinson Author Profile Page said:

Thanks for the thoughts, Bob.

You are probably right. I was being rather casual in the use of language. But that was because I was trying to move away from the more formal definition that you suggest. Experts certainly must demonstrate their expertise, but I have known many technically-knowledgeable people who could not (or would not) communicate with the larger community. How are people to know she is an expert, if they don't know about her?

Jack, this is a good one. I like posts that make me think about something i take for granted in a different way. Experts, finding them, relying on them, taking whatever they say or challenging them, are very important to our survival!

I work in a Big Company (over 100k employees) and there is an elaborate formal system we can use to identify 'experts' and then there's a less formal one --most of us tend to rely on the latter, a 'word of mouth' type system (especially when we're looking for an expert in a topic we're unfamiliar).

But does an expert mean i am getting the "right answer" or the one i need --especially if my selection is biased for an expert whose opinions are more like my own. In that case, i tend to reinforce my assumptions i had on the topic.

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