In a recent post I vented my frustration over an incompetent who considered herself an expert on healthcare policy. Although I certainly don’t view myself an expert on healthcare policy, I know enough to know she was clueless. Yet there she was, talking like she had the last word on the subject. In an article on expertise, Tom Nichols, an expert in the field, issued a warning about so-called experts and the use of the internet. Referring to the eponymous rule by Theodosius Sturgeon that 90% of everything is crap, he pointed out its application to the web.
With about a billion websites, the good news is that there are probably 100 million pretty good websites.The bad news, however, is that you have to wade through a blizzard of useless or misleading garbage posted by everyone from a well-intentioned grandmothers to propagandists for the Islamic State. Some of the smartest people on earth have a significant presence on the internet. Some of the stupidest people, however, reside just one click away.
All that, however, first caused me to ask how you can distinguish one from the other, especially with all the fake news and fake truth floating around. That’s too tough a question. So I narrowed it down to ask how you can identify an expert. Thankfully, there’s extensive research focused on answering just that question.
Two research scientists, Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia of the University of Toronto, studied that issue from a very practical viewpoint. They weren’t interested in the difference between experts and incompetents. Instead, they compared experts with those who, despite having similar training and experience, have not become experts. They called these people experienced non-experts.
Their research revealed that experts do three things that non-experts do not:
*Experts know the limits of knowledge in their field.
*Experts engage in “progressive problem solving.” Once they understand a problem at one level, they invest effort into studying the problem at deeper levels or in additional situations. Experienced
non-experts tend to reduce problems to one they can already deal with.
*Experts have a goal to advance the state of knowledge in the field.
Becoming an expert
All this leads me to ask how we can become experts. One way is familiar to many of us–that of the work of Anders Ericsson. Ericsson has spent years studying exactly this question. Ericsson’s methodology is all about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Not just practice, but deliberate practice where another person has helped you set well-defined goals and you’re getting the feedback of a coach. Of course, you could complete the necessary research and study for a PhD from a reputable school, but that’s a bit much. There are a few other ways too, but I leave that to you.