Definition: Expert

— This article by Jerry Cates was first published on 24 August 2011, and was last revised on 29 January 2015. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 12:08(03).


That label, EXPERT, is bandied around quite a lot these days. In truth, it’s been applied as a precious title for centuries, the world over. And it has meant the same thing all those years. But… what, exactly, does it mean?

Whenever I am introduced to someone who claims to be an “expert” within a particular field of knowledge or practice, the definition provided to me by Vincent Bellini, an electrical engineer I worked with at HRB Singer, Inc., Rome, New York, in the mid 1960’s, comes to mind:

The word “expert” is formed from the conjunction of two roots which, phonetically, can be represented as “x” and “spurt”. Everyone knows that “X” is an unknown quantity, and that a “spurt” is what one gets from squeezing a drop of water. Therefore, an expert is an unknown drip under pressure.

Now, that definition, while humorous, is not absolutely correct. There exist honest, trustworthy authorities in every field who have a tenacious grip on their field of knowledge. Unfortunately, though, genuine experts are almost impossible to find, despite the fact that many people advertise themselves as such, or have impressive letters after their names that do the advertising for them. I know a number of Ph.D.s who are not experts, even within the fields of their earned doctorates. But some of them are honest, trustworthy authorities, just the same.

But how can you tell the difference between a real expert and an impostor? One of the first ways, surprisingly, is to ask them how much of an expert they really are.

Don’t be surprised when the first thing they say is “Well, I’m really not an expert…” If, as proof of that admission, they proceed unashamedly to tell you they observe something new about their field every day, that’s a good sign. If they say that, although they have been engaged in their investigations for decades, they are still learning at a rapid pace and that — as time goes by — the most cogent recurring thought they have is about how little they really know, that’s another good sign. If they weigh in the balance how much they know absolutely, and happily admit that what they don’t know weighs much, much more, rest easy. That’s not absolute proof, but it goes a long way toward it.

Next look for additional evidence that they are inquisitive, naturally curious, humble, and willing to share their knowledge with you. Those, too, are good signs they are real. Then ask them to explain a few things about their work.

Listen hard as they speak. If they are comfortable in their own skin… if there isn’t a trace of evidence they are mentally regurgitating a script… if they invite you to ask more questions and commend not only your skepticism but your own search for truth… and if the gaps and holes in their own picture of things actually make their eyes light up because, in those gaps and holes, they only see opportunities for more learning, rest even easier.

Most pretenders to the throne of expertise usually have a gift for gab and slinging (insert your favorite expletive here) designed specifically to bamboozle, befuddle, and cut off any deep inquiries into their depth of knowledge and in-the-field experience. They also get offended when you ask for proof they know what they are talking about.

Most real scientists never get offended at such inquiries. They are, or at least should be, more than willing to offer proof of an in-depth understanding of their field of knowledge. And they almost never call themselves experts, but prefer instead the humble title of scientist, if any label is to be assigned them at all, because that is the only legitimate title for anyone who seeks scientific knowledge.

Your first step in your search for an expert, then, should be to exude and nurture a healthy skepticism. Never be afraid to express doubt about an “expert’s” credentials. If such doubts cannot be assuaged with convincing proof, or if your so-called expert bullies you with an air of superiority, or demeans you — in the slightest — for even asking the question, politely excuse yourself and part company. You need to search for another candidate, because regardless of their protestations they are not what you seek.


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