All Experts Start Somewhere: But Not Everybody is One!

Ummm lets tackle the elephant in the social media room now and a lot of this applies to me too. These days everyone is an expert even on topics that real life experts in that field disagree about. Everyone’s opinion is held up as fact and it’s easy to find an expert that agrees with your point of view. Look at people passing themselves off as experts on something or even believing in crazy theories like conspiracies. But we’re living in a really cool age too where using the greatest side of the internet you can become an expert in anything if you want to, even crazy stuff like engineering. You might not get the credentials but you can learn just as much. I wanted to tackle this topic because I think it’s time we acknowledge that just because you or someone has an opinion even if it directly relates to that doesn’t make them or you an expert, it also doesn’t make the information useless either. Just because you spend a lot of time doing something it doesn’t make you an expert either and that’s okay.

What am I an expert in?

So let’s get my expert credentials out there right up front. I am definitely an expert in Artemia franciscana or sea monkey’s. I’m also an expert in RNAi in that species I created the technique to do it actually. I would call myself an expert on the expression of heat shock proteins in a metabolic state call diapause and here’s the paper to prove it. Beyond that I would less comfortably can myself an expert in researching a topic in the scientific literature, motivating myself to accomplish goals within my real possibilities because I’ve done it a number of times now. You might notice nothing in the fitness world is in there that’s because I don’t think I am. Maybe if pressed I would say I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable person in the world of fitness mostly in continuing it over time.

There’s lots of things I do that I’m pretty good at though like resisting the urge to want things, staying fit enough to stay healthy and photography. Then there’s this whole big category of things I’m good at and yet another category of stuff where I spend lots of time at it but I’m still not even really good at. Things like sewing, knitting, running, cleaning or waitressing. Hell I’m not even an expert at being me yet!

What makes someone an expert then?

There is this theory of 10 000 hours which basically states that once you spend 10 000 hours of time actively trying at something you will become an expert at it. It was coined in the book outliers by Malcom Gladwell. It closely mimics the amount of time people spend in a degree or something you do everyday for three hours for 10 years. One of the keys is that you actively try to improve the whole time. The theory is that once you spend that amount of time on something you can reach world class status. But that’s not always the case. I usually try to do things the right way and actively try to get better at what ever I do but just because I’ve spent 10 000 hours doing something it doesn’t make me an expert. And yes these are all things that I’ve actively tried to get better at, however I failed to reach anything close to expert status:

  • Cooking
  • Writing but I do okay in scientific writing in the field of cell biology
  • Driving
  • Fitness
  • Sleeping (for sure)
  • Eating 
grad school grad

Let’s take a look then at some definitions of expert then:

  • one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject
  • having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience

But I think it’s more than that too. I think an expert understands all sides of a given issue and is able to weigh all those sides and evaluate them at the same time. I don’t necessarily think you have to have credentials in a given field to be an expert in it or having those credentials makes you so. I also think that you should be able to push the field forward at least if you really are an expert in it. Along with all those things I think respect from your peers in the field comes along with that. Even if you are otherwise a despicable person most other experts in the field will agree that you know your stuff.

There are many fabulously knowledgeable generalists out there and that’s a great thing to be, maybe even more useful than being an expert in one field. These people know quite a bit about about a lot of things and many field necessitate this kind of knowledge. Where this gets dangerous is believing these people to be experts on all of the things they are knowledgeable about. A real expert backs up their opinion with a wealth of facts from reproducible evidence. A generalist perhaps just relies on their own experience or generalizations.

For me the mark of a real expert is the ability to agree with or acknowledge something along the lines of this quote:

“The more one learns in any given field and becomes an expert in that field the more one realizes just how little they know.”

Which is paraphrased from memory and I’m not sure of the origin though I did look quickly. For example I’m comfortable saying that I’m an expert on a certain type of protein (hsps) expression in diapause and most species that exhibit diapause are insects. I am not however an expert on diapause generally, insects, proteins in general or even hsps. I am however very knowledgeable about number 1 and 4 and can hold my own on the subjects. The more I learned on my subject the more I came into the edges of other fields and started to realize just how wide those fields are. Or put another way the world’s best knitter might know very little about crochet, the best roofer might know little about rafter design and the best economist may mishandle his or her own money. These all seem very related to us non experts in those fields but for a real expert they know enough to know just how vast and different that other field is.

But why does this matter

We’re in an age now where anyone really can be an expert in a given field and anyone can present themselves as one. Add a dash of charisma, confidence and maybe even some dark motives and that person can be dangerous. We also live in a time where for some reason there is a mistrust of academia and where a bit of shine goes along way on a message. This allows toxic ideas to permeate and spread and more people to swear that they know all about the issue and know that they are right:

As evidence let me present some ideas, some of which will make you laugh, that can’t both be true but if you are wrong it could be dangerous

  • Either the earth is round or it’s flat
  • Either vaccines are dangerous or life saving
  • Natural medicine is a hidden cure or modern medicine will save your life
  • The government is there to help you or hurt you
  • Climate change is made up or it will eventually make our lives much worse
  • Evolution is a dumb idea or it’s how we’re getting treatment resistant superbugs
  • Microwaves (or phones or whatever) cause cancer or they don’t
  • Chemitrails are how you are controlled or their just airplane exhaust

There are lots more than that out there but If you believe the wrong thing on these issues you’re in big trouble. I’m not entertaining which side of these issues I come down on other than to say it’s the side of logic and reason. Chances are you think that means I agree with you.

Of course lots of experts aren’t dabbling in the life and death side of things, or are they? If you read something everywhere it must be true right? If you like what you hear that makes the information better too doesn’t it? Here’s the thing no. That’s a form of bias most closely related to conformation bias or bandwagon bias in most cases. The next fad diet won’t cure obesity, You can’t loose 11 pounds of belly fat in a week and there is no way to absolutely guarantee that you’ll live to 100 with today’s information. The rise of certain movements like body positivity (I’m currently looking it to this), ICELs, populism, xenophobia and extreme individualism all have immediate potential for dangerous outcomes in people’s lives are already are. Just because a page or a person has so many followers or are they’re on every platform doesn’t really mean anything other than the fact that they are engaging.

What to do before you follow and expert

These messages may seem innocuous at first and you might find yourself reflected therein. It may even feel like you found the big answer you’ve been looking for. One thing you can look into is their credentials although sometimes that means very little either way. I would caution you however about setting your vaccination schedule solely based on the advice of a former playmate of the year. A great first step is to google that person’s name followed by the word ‘controversy’ and see what comes up. Then look into the subject specifically from the opposite angle. If you hear for example someone spouting anti-immigration stuff make yourself look into how immigration helps a country. If you’re an ardent climate change activist look into why people don’t seem to care. On both of those issues you’ll definitely have your eyes opened.

People who are experts understand and communicate the nuance in a given situation. You’ll rarely see them call a certain issue black and white or give that sort of solution. Let’s look at something I know a lot about and that is reading scientific literature. People will often say that you can cherry pick the literature on a given subject and conclude whatever you want about a given topic. To a certain extent that’s true but it’s not that simple. There are many tiers of journals you can publish in from top tier to practically vanity publishing. On controversial issues sometimes it really is split 50/50 but other times the deserting opinion is rare and in much less respected journals and then that sort of is a decision. Sure you could just present those papers but them you’d be scrolling past pages of content to pick yours out and that’s just not honest. Also the literature is where we work out a current problem too. Like if we’re looking for a cure for a certain disease you publish little steps forward so that someone can take that and add to it to get to a bigger step. Along the way small facts that are extra in the long run get published that essentially are true but dead ends. Which is to say not every paper and every journal is the same. If I was advising someone on how to tell generally I would say to look up the impact factor of the journal it’s published in as a guide. Though its not a perfect system an impact factor of three or more is very good but getting close to two is still better than average. Anything above 10 puts that journal in the top 2%.

Should you only listen to experts?

Hell no! We make all sorts of decisions all the time that are not all that important. For example I’ll trust a youtuber’s makeup recommendations because they get my budget and have oily skin like me. Some of my favorite running accounts to follow are just regular people like me getting out there on the regular. Like if you live in a colder part of Canada than me and you’re running in February I should get out there too and yes I would LOVE to know what pants you’re wearing. If I find someone’s story inspiring, motivating or just funny I’ll follow your content too. But there are certain thing where an expert should be consulted. Making little changes like taking a multivitamin probably won’t make or break you but don’t attempt to treat life threatening conditions without talking to a real doctor. Don’t invest with someone you don’t dig into first and get your DIY engine swap checked by a mechanic at least before firing it up. Can you give a ground level stone patio or headlight bulb swap a go based on a random youtube video, it’ll probably be fine or at least funny.

Does it mean you can’t trust someone if they’re selling something. I don’t think so. If you get value from that person listen to their advice if it makes sense to you. Nothing says you have to buy the product but if you want to support them that’s cool too. This day in age we’re surrounded by advertising and I get that some of it trades useful information for the advertising opportunity actually I prefer that to the hard sell.

I guess what I’m saying is just because something is delivered in a shiny package, the person has tons of followers or is very very pretty doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. Think long and hard about adopting an opinion because someone else has it. And seek out real expert opinions on important subjects even though it really does take more work on your part. Think long and hard about your core beliefs and where you’re getting your information in general. Maybe even think about what your definition of an expert even is. But not all good and useful information comes from experts in a given field. Where have you seen an example of this that really yanked your chain?

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