The Ethics of Expertise

Santa Clarita Signal • Opinion Column • Ethically Speaking • June 29, 2014


The Ethics of Expertise

David W. Hegg


With the advent of the internet we have experienced an information explosion unprecedented in human history. Almost every kind of knowledge is now available to you if you have access to WiFi and know how to “google” it. Need to know how to change your transmission fuel? Google it! Need a recipe for smoked salmon with mango chutney? Just google it. Have a desire to know if God exists? Just go to captain-billy’s-whizbang-bible-site.clergyconman


But just how reliable is the information you are getting? How do we recognize real expertise today given that anyone can start a website, publish a blog, or buy an advanced academic degree from an unaccredited, educational website that mails them out daily?


In the past, expertise was demonstrated before being accepted. For example, to get material published meant it was first delivered to a reputable publishing firm whose editors and researchers put the author and his conclusions through their own rigorous grid to determine cogency and truth. In academic areas, material was put out to peer review by experts in the field to determine its merit. All of this meant the works eventually published came with a certain stamp of approval, having been thoroughly tested. It meant that both author and his or her work were worthy to be purchased and read.


Today we have almost entirely lost the protective guardrails around knowledge. Doctoral degrees, once the pinnacle of academic prowess, are now available from online degree mills in several academic and professional areas. Websites and blogs now offer expertise in every area imaginable as though there were no question as to their veracity. And the invention of “self-publishing” and “eBooks” means anyone with a keyboard can pass themselves off as an author and expert in the field.


There is one more insidious activity we all ought to keep in mind. With the massive availability of articles, blogs, books, eBooks, tweets, emails, and all manner of other content, it is almost impossible to know if what an author writes is his own, or if he has plagiarized from someone else. In my field of biblical studies, a very famous and prolific Seattle pastor has recently admitted to using pages and pages of stolen material from various authors to upgrade the level of his own writing. This kind of thing only allows the greedy and lazy to masquerade as knowledgeable and trustworthy.


So, what do we do? First of all, when you are looking for expertise on the internet, ask yourself “what is the worst thing that can happen if this material is wrong?” If you can live with a bad salmon dish, then go for it! Second, where getting the right information really matters, don’t take shortcuts. Go to bonafide experts, whose level of study and practical expertise gives you some assurance that you’re getting useful information. Lastly, have a personal ethical system – a worldview – that allows you a grid through which to push everything to see if it aligns with basic concepts of right and wrong, true or false.


What you’re reading right now is opinion, and while I hope it stirs conversation, it does not rise to the level of information that offers proof from reputable, testable sources. Opinion should know its place and never be allowed to masquerade as expertise. In the ocean that is this information age, there are too many chances for us to drown under the waves of opinion and false assertion. Let’s get better at examining everything carefully, and be ready to hold fast to that which proves to be good.