Two kinds of experts

Roger McPherson left a wonderful comment on Experts will fade away yesterday. First he challenges the proposition that improved information access is the determining factor in the decline of our reliance on experts:

But I do not agree that access to information solely made or makes an expert. The world is vast and the body of human knowledge grows exponentially. History is expanding in both directions, as we become able to peer deeper into our past and more extensively document our present. Scientific knowledge has exploded. Our understanding of the very small and the very big is expanding in both directions.

I agree the information explosion makes us more reliant on someone who is willing to focus his/her curiosity, time and energies into one facet of this enlarging expanse of knowledge. People with a cursory understanding are of little use to us. We need to rely on others' depth of understanding as well as our collective breadth of insights.

Yet this explosion of information also renders experts obsolete, clueless and unreliable. A physician cannot keep current in all the developments in each disease s/he treats. A managing editor cannot make wise choices about the content of every story in the magazine or newspaper under her/his privileged eye. The experts contributing to a encyclopedia cannot keep up with the staggering rate of innovation in our world.

It's the long tail of unique contributors, users, gamers and participants that get the job done right. The patient with the disease can research the latest research as well as the archive of past solutions created by experts. The citizen journalist can aggregate the RSS feeds and searches on a particular story of interest. The encyclopedia can emerge from a mass collaboration, argumentation and dispute resolution dynamic. The experts cannot provide the best choice at the right time for each vested interest, only the stuff that becomes useful when it's found, aggregated and put to the test of actual deployment.

Roger continues:

Experts are individuals with certain talents, which they have developed, that dedicate their lives to gaining a deep understanding of a particular subject area. The more unfettered access to information has made it easier for a person with the requisite talents and development to become and maintain expertise in a given field, but it does not facilitate an individual, lacking those requisite talents and development, to become expert in that field.

I think there will always be individuals who are driven to gain a deep understanding of a subject area, and when they do so, others will rely on them because they do not have another lifetime to become as knowledgeable as the expert.
The same is true in art. The virtuoso performer is an expert that has dedicated his life to the mastery of his art.

It takes something, that we don't all have, to succeed in starting a business, designing effective instruction, performing a violin solo or healing a chronic health condition. It's very possible to fail, merely go through the motions or make a condition worse. It takes experimentation and experience, combined with concepts and models to understand and reformulate solutions. As Roger is saying, it depends on a commitment that remains sufficiently focused and productive.

This is helping me discern two kinds of experts:

  • grandiose or humbled
  • in silos or networked
  • controlling us or contributing to us
Some experts are having lots of trouble with our increasingly unlimited access to digitized information. They fear a sharp decline in quality brought on by amateurs, dilettantes, wanna-be's and hypocrites. They idealize their own exclusivity and demonize the citizenry as "superficial snackers". Other experts "float all the boats", share their expertise, and welcome the unforeseen diversity of uses. They value the end use, look through the eyes of their customers and develop context for their specialized content. In this light, only the grandiose, controlling experts will fade away.

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  1. The debate on experts takes me to familar debates on stock market efficiency. An efficient market for information makes it possible for several anonymous users of the stock market to contribute collectively to the process of price discovery. This ensures that prices reflect value, unlike a credit-officer driven loaning system, where the dependence on the expertise of the officer is too high. Thought I have worked for long years in the capital markets and am a newcomer to the e-learning space, this similarity is too striking to ignore. WiKis and open source are the tools to anonymous markets for knowledge and learning, and will thrive when information is public, low-cost and easy to access. The discounting of expertise, centralised in one or few individuals is therefore a natural outcome of this process.

  2. Thanks for the great example Uma. Collective wisdom replacing expert control -- is showing up all over the economic landscape