Talking about experts

Science communication. Mai Le | Talk to the experts | Flickr CC
Paolo Massa | Trust us, we're experts | Flickr CC
Paolo Massa | Trust us, we’re experts | Flickr CC

Experts – we all use them.Whether it’s to cite someone else’s work in an argument, to quote someone in a press release or article, or even to link to more informed perspectives in a blog post.

But do we actually know why we cite them?

It’ s been brought to my attention that the use of experts in communication can be a bit of a gray area. If we just look at It must be Wednesday, you could take, for instance, my entry on the megalodon. It was a bit of a silly piece for Shark Week that discussed whether, with all the hype around megalodon, there was any chance of it actually existing. What I notice know is that I didn’t stop for a second when I needed someone to cite – I went straight to the CSIRO.

What does that mean? Well, it means that I didn’t think through why the CSIRO was the best place to go to for information. I didn’t analyse the reliability of the source, nor did I think about whether any biases might affect their work.

In the case of megalodon, I think I’m safe (the CSIRO certainly isn’t the only organisation that says megalodon simply doesn’t exist), but it does make me think about what we mean by ‘expert’ and who to go to when I talk about ‘big issues’ like cold fusion, stem cell research and vaccinations.

To my mind, an expert is someone with deeper knowledge of a specific field because of specialisation. Their expertise is the result of interest in a subject which has lead to in depth participation in whatever field it may be.

An expert is qualified to give opinions based on their in depth involvement, but it doesn’t make them the last word on a subject. It just gives their opinion more weight than someone without their specific knowledge.

Alan Cleaver | How to be an expert| Flickr CC
Alan Cleaver | How to be an expert| Flickr CC

In this sense, a expert in art can be an artist, an art critic and a gallery owner – three figures with consistent and in depth involvement in the field of art. But it’s also more specific than that. For instance, an expert in science might be a botanist, a veterinarian and a doctor but, if you’re talking about how best to deal with asthma, you’re going to preference the expertise of the doctor over the expertise of the botanist and veterinarian even thought they are all scientists.

With this in mind, over the next week I’ll be taking a look at the issues we’ve already looked at with the intention of critically engaging with the experts of each issue – and where gaps in using them over another person occur.


Until next time, let me know your thoughts here, or on Facebook and Twitter

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