What Makes an Expert an Expert?

In the biblical book of Acts there is a somewhat humorous account that offers us a penetrating question today about just who gets to act like an expert and pontificate regarding the issues of the day. The Apostle Paul was performing some miraculous acts in the ancient city of Ephesus, and some of the men thought they’d get in on the miracle-working action. They decided to kick some demons around, and when they issued their commands, one demon replied, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?”

Apparently, the demons were more able than we are today to recognize true expertise, and reject the wannabes. Unfortunately, this skill seems largely lost in our time. With apologies to Sir Winston, never have so many been so deceived by those whose blusterous outrage masks a complete lack of perspective, context, and expertise.

I suppose we could lay the blame on the many social media platforms that give every Tom, Dick, and Harriet a verbal microphone. Now, everyone with a keyboard can launch their diatribes out into the socio-sphere in hopes some fool will actually take them seriously. The myriad voices shouting on social media have made it very difficult for many to distinguish between the rants of the galactically unlearned, and those who actually have garnered some expertise in the field.

But, I only wish the phenomenon was limited to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest of their social media cousins. It isn’t. Broadcast media have followed suit. Turn on any news program, on radio or TV, and you’ll hear a plethora of voices spouting off as though their opinions were actually the product of long years of academic study, real-life experience, and peer-recognition as experts in the field.

The actual problem is three-fold. First, we no longer require our experts to have more than their own cleverness as a credential. Where once we required an advanced degree, and years of successful experience in the field before someone could inform us regarding pertinent issues, we now too readily settle for a anything that tickles the ears, comes in a cute package, or affirms our own biases. 

A second reason goes straight to the heart of humanity. We all want to be respected. We all want to be an expert, to be listened to and admired. Social media gave us all the chance to cast our pearls of wisdom out into the vast marketplace of ideas, and we became addicted to the notion the world needed to know what we thought, where we ate last night, and how we’re feeling this morning. Of course, our every opinion hits the masses like a single grain of sand thrown on Santa Monica beach.  But, given our friends and family members form our own little echo chamber, we are assured of getting lots of likes and comments regardless of how inane our thoughts really are.

Lastly, there is a third element to this perfect storm. As more and more dimwits have taken up the mantle of punditry, our societal ability to analyze, assess, and distinguish truth and insight from the garbage heap of emotional outrage has waned and withered astronomically. We’ve become a nation of weak-minded, intellectual pushovers. Tell us to eat this to lose weight and we do it. Tell us to buy that toy and we buy it. Tell us that person over there hates us and we snarl at them. Tell us that woman is talented and we buy her stuff. Tell us anything and we drink it in like an empty sponge. How else can you account for the fact that we lead the world in fad buying and binge watching, but are 14th in education, 1st in incarceration, 24th in literacy, and 1st in plastic surgery?

It’s time we began again, to think for ourselves, and prepare our brains to do it well. My advice is to read material written by those who have earned the right to be heard. Listen to those whose insights and arguments are not politically driven, but give evidence of genuine study, logical analysis, and cogent thought. After all, if we keep doing what we’re doing as a nation, we’ll keep getting what we’ve got. And from my perspective, the rants, raves, and opinions of those shelling our brains with bluster bombs can’t be allowed determine our beliefs. Too much is at stake. And our minds would be a terrible thing to waste.