it’s chill. i stayed at a holiday inn express last night.

(Image from underconsideration.com)

The issue of “experts” is a tricky one. There are so many people out there who pass themselves off as experts in one area or another that it often becomes difficult to distinguish the frauds from the genuine article. And yet, when dealing with the difficult policy questions that we as a nation grapple with daily, the issue of expertise becomes an important one.

The issue, really, is how much deference to give to someone based on their “expertise” in a given field. Are a few letters after someone’s name enough to prove their point? How about 30 years in a given area?

This is a topic that’s been on my mind for awhile, but it’s recently come to the forefront for a few reasons. First, Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic had this post that comes at this idea from a bit of a different direction, wondering about the value of conversations that lack a voice of authority to frame the debate. That followed on top of the James Fallows piece that was the subject of my last two posts, which got into an area in which I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert (though a fairly low-level expert, since I’ve only been doing it for a few years). And all of this came in the midst of a minor yet ongoing public debate about the role of government in dictating children’s food choices (mostly stemming from SF’s choice to eliminate toys in Happy Meals that don’t meet certain dietary requirements, which I’ve written about previously here), a subject which could (in my opinion) benefit from a little more “expert” in the mix.”

My initial reaction to anyone who presents (credible) credentials and claims to be an “expert” on a given subject would be best described as “skeptical deference.” If you tell me that you’ve spent 10 years studying the economics of health care systems, then I will listen carefully to what you have to say on the matter. You spend that much time studying it, you’re likely to know something about it.

But if you follow by saying we need to cover pre-existing conditions but that we don’t need to make health insurance mandatory, I’m not buying it just because it was said by an expert. Based on my understanding of insurance pools and risk, that statement wouldn’t sit well. So I would make you defend it, and explain your reasoning. Maybe you’ve thought of it in a way that I hadn’t yet, or have a different set of assumptions from those that lead to the conclusion that I would draw. Your being an expert doesn’t make you right. Having a bunch of letters after your name doesn’t either. They may provide clues as to the level of skepticism your claims merit, but no matter what, your justification of your statements will be more indicative of the level of your expertise than anything else.

In the same vein, neither does being a layman make you wrong. This is the issue that Coates addressed in his blog post at The Atlantic. Does one need authority in a given area to talk meaningfully about it? The commenters on that post agreed that they were certainly gaining insight on some complex issues, even for those discussions in which there was no “expert” to serve as an authority. But Coates still had some reservations. One commenter asked why he considered an obesity doctor the authority for a discussion on obesity, rather than a fat person. Both clearly have experience with the issue at hand, but as Coates pointed out:

And, we’ve already tried having a fat person discuss obesity. Me. Didn’t work.

He walks that statement back a little bit later, saying that “didn’t work” was too strong a dismissal of that conversation. But the issue remains . . . what makes one an expert? And what role should an expert play in a policy discussion?

I would argue that experience makes one an expert, but that the expertise is often more limited than those experts would like to admit. For example, on issues of obesity, an obese person is certainly an expert in what it is like to be obese, and a particularly self-aware obese person is probably an expert in some of the causes of obesity. Having lived the life of an obese person, they can speak with authority on what’s that like.

But an expert on being obese does not necessarily make one an expert on the health effects of obesity. Even an obese person who has experienced some of those negative effects might not be an expert, because the causes of obesity-related health problems are not necessarily something you can learn through experience. That requires a level of expertise not just with specific symptoms or effect, but with bodily interactions that cannot be learned through experience. When discussing health effects of obesity, an obesity doctor is more likely to be able to speak with authority than an obese person.

So the weight one gives an expert should really be a function of (a) how credible that expertise is and (b) the relevance of that expertise to the issue at hand. Taking the SF Happy Meal as an example, I would defer to a pediatric endocrinologist on the issue of whether Happy Meals make kids fat, or whether obesity in children is really something we need to be worried about. But I would be skeptical if that same pediatrician claimed to have the perfect policy solution, because that is starting to move outside a doctor’s area of expertise. The policy solution may indeed be perfect, but the doctor is going to have to spend a lot more time justifying that assertion than he or she would have to spend justifying a claim that childhood obesity puts children at risk for other adverse health effects later on in life.

I guess what it boils down to is the idea that expertise is just one more data point to take into account when assessing someone’s logic; it is by no means a free pass to have your words taken at face value, nor is it (as some climate skeptics would have us believe) totally irrelevant. It gives the statements that you make within your given area of expertise more weight, but does not allow you to speak authoritatively on every single subtlety that is even tangentially related, nor does being an expert insulate your claims from scrutiny.

So when I see people complaining about the SF “Happy Meal ban”, bemoaning the socialist takeover of our food choices, I wonder if they have any real idea about the long-term effects of childhood obesity. When I see James Fallows write an article that reads like expertise but ignores data to make a point, I re-examine all of his assertions with a more careful eye. And when I see Coates initiate an interesting discussion about the nature of expertise and its necessity or irrelevance in analyzing issues, I am happy that there is an expert* in thinking through tough issues thinking through the tough issue of expertise.

*An expertise I afford to him based on his extensive and documented thinking through of tough issues, conditional (of course) on continued demonstration of the same.

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