Here’s a fun story via Improbable Research. Harry Collins is a social scientist who studies physicists – in particular, physicists who are looking for gravity waves. He’s been doing this for 30 years and as you might imagine, has learned a lot about the field of gravity waves along the way.
So much so in fact, that in a blind test, gravity wave physicists were convinced that he was one of their own. Which has sparked some debate as to the question “what’s an expert?” What’s the difference between simulated understanding and real understanding? The Guardian article is not very good but makes the point that in general, real understanding allows you to make a genuine contribution to a field of study. A commenter defines an expert as the winner of a popularity contest, which I like.
What we’re seeing here is another step away from old ideas about academic fields, access to ideas, information and knowledge, where “laypeople” look to “experts” for guidance. I have no problem with the ability of self-educated amateurs being able to contribute to debate. It’s all part of the democratisation of information, for which we have the WWW to thank.