The expertise gap

Just about everyone knows how to drive a car. Very few of us know how to build one.

For almost all of history, expertise wasn’t really a factor. If you were raised with the other hunter-gatherers, you were pretty good (good enough) at building a fire, maintaining a hut, hunting and gathering…

But as we built more complex devices, expertise started to arrive. You could tell people that you knew how to sail a boat (or build one), but it was pretty easy to separate those who had hard-won experience and expertise from the others. Either the boat reached the port or it didn’t.

The one thing that everyone is the world’s expert on is their own feelings. In just about every other area that we value, though, there are people with proven expertise, who can show their work, understand the state of the art and produce testable and measurable results.

“Experts” are part of the problem. An expert is someone who has expertise, but sometimes, they forget that past expertise doesn’t mean that they’re always right. When someone with expertise blindly supports a status quo and fails to engage in a relentless search for better, they aren’t showing expertise, they’re simply being a human.

Folk wisdom is priceless. It’s the sum total of shared human experience, usually around our emotions. But folk wisdom is not the same as folk expertise.

I think that most of us, faced with a troubling diagnosis of cancer, would prefer to find the person with the most expertise, not someone who had done a bunch of googling for twenty minutes…

And yet, particularly with the amplification of social media, there’s a devaluing of expertise. Politicians, sure, but regular folks as well. People who assert insight into anthropogenic climate change, public health or the toxicity of medical interventions. People who are sure they can understand the fine print of a 10K or analyze the approach of an athlete. Everyone is entitled to feelings about things, but expertise is earned.

Does your boat make it into port?