What’s an expert?

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.

3 thoughts on “What’s an expert?

  1. Well, these days, we are *all* amateurs at some of what we do. After all, an awful lot of scientists write programs, and very few of us have any CS credentials. I think actions count more than credentials — instead of asking “what’s this person’s academic background?” we should ask “what has this person done?”

  2. Good points. I never thought I’d be writing “Perl programmer” on my resumé when I completed an undergraduate biochemistry degree, all those years ago. There is a tendency to judge people by their initial academic qualifications, rather than by what they’ve done since. Which is strange in science, very much a life-long learning activity.

    On that point, I’d be interested to hear from people who’ve successfully made a career change built on their “amateur” qualifications. I’m frequently tempted by job advertisements for programmers, but lack confidence to apply based on my lack of formal CS qualifications.

  3. What’s the difference between simulated understanding and real understanding?

    Just because you understand a field well, doesn’t mean you must make a genuine contribution. For example there will always be a need for science journalists, textbook writers etc. who must understand the fields they write about to the same extent to those who work in them. What I do have a problem with are people who feel that understanding the field is itself a contribution :)

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