NOTE: This post is Part 7 in my month-long deep dive into exploring "expertise and authority." Get the whole series (as it progresses) here.

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Finding a pure definition for expertise has been a challenge, and there may be a good reason for that.

I'm not the first to explore this topic by a long shot. People have been trying to pin down what it means to be an authority on a subject for thousands of years. In The Crito, Socrates argued that experts should rule society, which was a reflection of Plato's philosophy on the topic. Socrates doesn't give a pure definition of an "expert" either, but he does describe them as people with "genuine knowledge." 

Again, not exactly a strict and unambiguous definition.

But the dialogues of Socrates and Plato are part of the rhetoric of expertise—the effective, persuasive communication that attempts to define what expertise really is, and its place in the world. Our discussion during this deep dive would also be considered part of this rhetoric. Hopefully a meaningful part. 

Talking and writing about what it means to be an expert is historically a common practice, and I think I know why. As we learned earlier, it's sometimes easier for us to outsource our decision making and our assessment of the world around us to someone who knows better than we do. It makes it easier, if we can hand off the hard thinking to someone who has already done it. 

But we also learned how dangerous that can be. If we pick the wrong expert, if they aren't as knowledgable about the topic as we need them to be or, worse, they aren't really an expert at all, bad things can happen. Jobs can be lost. Opportunities can be missed. People can go to prison, or even die. 

So it becomes vital—super, stupidly, ridiculously important—that we have a means of discerning good experts from bad. 

Imagine if Socrates and Plato had gotten their way, and experts ruled. Only an expert could be elected President of the United States, or crowned King or Queen of England. Only someone who was a bonafide authority could be in office and make policy decisions that have an effect on the world. How would we determine if someone were actually qualified to be in that position of power?

The best tool we have for that qualification is rhetoric—our ongoing discussion of what an expert is, and what responsibilities he or she may have.

Out of context

In her 2008 publication, The Rhetoric of Expertise, E. Johanna Hartelius, PhD, writes—

"All definitions of expertise are the function of particular motives and have
different implications. Anyone who offers a definition shapes that definition to serve
his/her interests. For example, academics may define expertise as synonymous with
knowledge and accreditation. Notably, theoretical knowledge and accreditation are
precisely the qualities that characterize academic expertise. In contrast, an artist may
place more emphasis on lived experience as constitutive of expertise. This might
deemphasize the importance of a certain degree or title. To her colleagues and followers,
a body of works attesting to the life of an artist may be more compelling. Additionally,
this may work in the artist’s favor. She may be compensating with experience what she
lacks in official certification. Whatever the case, any definition of expertise has social,
political, and material consequences. It does rhetorical work for the person creating the
definition."

SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Expertise," Hartelius, E. Johanna, 2008-05. http://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/3857/harteliuse22571.pdf?sequence=2 

This idea—that the definition of expertise is dependent upon not only the "audience" but on the one creating the definition—is exactly the sort of "thorny problem" we've dealt with since the beginning. It's clear that there can't be a definition of expertise that doesn't consider context.

In fact, context is the key to all of it. We have to know that our expert is an expert in all the ways that matter for our problem, our question, our exploration of a topic. We have to verify, somehow, that the expert we're outsourcing our decisions and analytical thinking to is qualified within the context of our needs.

Autonomous vs Attributed Expertise

But, as it turns out, context isn't necessary in all cases of expertise. In fact, there may be two different types of expertise—autonomous and attributed.

As Hartelius puts it—

"One of the most frequently recurring themes in expertise research is that there
exists a tension between autonomy and attribution. ... For some, expertise is entirely comprised of a person’s relationship to her subject matter. ... Expertise is the term for superior competence. For others, expertise exists entirely in the signs and symbols of a person’s relationship to her environment and audience. It is an attributed state of being-with-others where one’s performance is evaluated irrespective of so-called 'real knowledge.' When expertise is autonomous, other people’s recognition is irrelevant. A person can possess expert knowledge without the others’ acknowledgment. ... However, when expertise is attributed, it exists only as a symbolic relationship. One can be an expert only in so far as one is recognized as such."

Hartelius uses a proverbial astrophysicist to illustrate her point. If the astrophysicist has accreditations and certifications, and a body of work developed from her knowledge, she's an autonomous expert. She can continue using her expertise more or less "in the background," independent of anyone's opinions or perspectives. She doesn't need anyone to recognize her expertise in order to use that expertise in her work.

As knowledgable and good at her work as she may be, however, she may not be trusted for her opinion on the workings the universe. If she tells a layman, "We can determine that there is water on a planet a hundred thousand lightyears from Earth by observing it through the Hubble telescope," the layman may actually distrust that information. It may seem impossible. It may seem ridiculous. 

And that's where "attributed expertise" steps in. As Hartelius puts it, "The astrophysicist may know her stuff, but it does not matter if she fails to persuade others. As long as she is symbolically persuasive, it may be of no consequence whether or not the expert possesses superior knowledge. "

In other words, we may have our symbols of expertise—degrees, published papers, a body of work— and we may really, really know our stuff, but we may not be considered experts until someone says we're an expert.

Social Proof

When we're looking for experts to trust with our outsourced decisions and analysis, we depend on criteria and qualifications that have meaning to us, and that we see as proof. Sometimes, that will be social proof rather than academic or professional proof.

In light of any other evidence, or the lack of any prior knowledge on our part, we will often fall back on a time-honored method of determining someone's expertise: Do they look like an expert?

Social proof sounds like it might be entirely superficial, but it actually goes deeper than we think. Ultimately, it's building on certain cues and signs we've learned to recognize as we grant authority to someone. We look at someone's website to see if it looks "professional" (another subjective term). We look for typos, or bad photos, or a gaudy color scheme—signs of an amateur. We look to see what they've written about in their blog, to determine if it agrees with our expectations for an expert in their field. We look to see if anyone else has given this person a testimonial—the holy grail of social proof. 

If other people respect their expertise, that's a sign that we can too.

At that point, we are giving this person attributed authority. When we decide to trust them, to value their opinion and their advice, to take what they say at face value, we are attributing expertise to them.

Viral Expertise

Social proof is a powerful influencer in our decisions. It has to be, because it's hard wired into us from conception. We are born with a dependency on others—we trust the fuzzy-looking giant blobs to feed us, keep us warm, and provide love and a comforting touch. And that need for others to provide what we need continues on into our adulthood. We are constantly seeking aid and support from our community.

So if your brother says Joe is a good plumber, you'll likely choose Joe. If your buddy tells you that Mark knows how to build a website, you'll likely turn to Mark. If your respected and wealthy colleague tells you that a particular book can help you get a grip on investing, you'll probably start reading. 

In that way, attributed expertise is sort of viral. It moves from one person to the next. And, like a virus, it's subjected to the "immune system" of each new body it encounters. At any time, it may well be overcome by the antibodies of doubt and skepticism, and its vector will weaken or cease altogether. But if it's strong, if each of the "infected" tends toward strengthening it rather than dampening it, your attributed expertise can spread farther and overcome antibodies easily.

For the expert, that's good. But also challenging. Because it means "starting over" with each new exposure. However, that restart can be refined as you go. You can keep tuning your expertise—your specialized knowledge as well as your ability and resources to convey and communicate that knowledge—until your autonomous expertise is almost instantly converted into attributed expertise. It takes a commitment to being persuasive. It takes the development of good communication skills.

But what about those of us on the receiving side? How do we determine which autonomous expert deserves attributed expertise?

Social proof is one method, but is that the best we have? If so, it puts us right back at the ambiguous and subjective definition of expertise we've used since the start. We can only define expertise based on criteria that we, ourselves, choose to believe is credible. We can analyze what we see and hear from the expert and from our peers and social groups, but the authority is still, ultimately, granted by us. Degrees, certifications, publications, accolades—those things can be sufficient for autonomous expertise, but only attributed expertise matters to us in the end.

Still no Unified Theory

So, no closer to a "unified theory" on expertise and authority. It's as subjective and ambiguous as ever.

And maybe that's a good thing. Because if Socrates and Plato had their way, and we lived by rule of the experts, it would mean that the component of "choice" has been removed from the equation.

Socrates himself was no fan of majority rule, but what other method could we possibly have for defining criteria for expertise? By its very nature, a single, pure definition of expertise would place an unbearable burden on the experts themselves. They, alone, would be responsible for every thought, every decision, and every action taken by every individual who turned to them for guidance. Their supreme rule would mean turning off the expert in all of us—the one that analyzes an autonomous expert to determine if we should attribute authority. 

At that point, we're no longer autonomous ourselves. 


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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