In the past year, we’ve definitely had a lot of expertise in the world on various important topics: vaccinations, epidemiology in general, working from home, macroeconomics, diversity, and more. The problem has become: are people actually respecting and listening to this expertise anymore?
At one level, of course, they are and it’s a dumb question to even ask. If your mom has cancer, you will go to an oncologist and not ask your plumber for advice there.
But at another level … hmmm. Maybe we do respect expertise a lot less.
In one pocket of the globe, as far back as 2015, Americans were distrusting science, which is troubling. There are some crazy scientists, sure — but in general, the scientific method is something we’ve upheld and vetted for years. Foreign Affairs wrote an article in 2017 about the first world “losing faith in expertise,” and The New York Times has done some book reviews about “ignorance now being a virtue.”
We are not going to attempt to turn this into an academic paper by any means, because the target audience and typical end reader is a business-driven person looking for scale and help in growth opportunities. But it is worth discussing the idea of expertise for 4-5 minutes of your time, because if you don’t know what expertise is, and you don’t trust the right expertise, how can you scale that business properly?
Quickly: where do we stand on expertise currently?
A few notable examples, and some good dinner party banter:
- In a 2015 poll, 30% of American Republicans and 19% of Democrats supported bombing Agrabah, the fictional hometown of the Disney character Aladdin. In a similar vein, a 2014 poll found that the fewer people knew about where Ukraine is located on a map, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene militarily.
- Another study done by researchers at Ohio State University found that when confronted with scientific evidence that conflicted with their pre-existing views, such as the reality of climate change or the safety of vaccines, partisans would not only reject the evidence but become hostile and question the objectivity of science.
- In fact, in a twenty-year study of political experts, Philip Tetlock found that that expert predictions were no better than flipping a coin. Further, he found that pundits who specialized in a particular field tended to perform worse than those whose knowledge was more general.
- Thomas Kuhn explained in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that, at some point, expertise runs its course. As the world changes and evolves, flaws in existing models become more and more evident, eventually becoming untenable. That’s what sets the stage for a paradigm shift. “Failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones,” he wrote.
- Researchers at Northwestern University analyzed nearly 18 million scientific papers and found that the most highly cited work most often comes from a highly focused team of specialized experts working with an outsider. That combination of deep domain expertise and outside thinking is often what produces major breakthroughs.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but a core question becomes: why has expertise declined in perception so much in the last decade? A few potential theories include:
- Perhaps we’re not educated enough or don’t know how to think critically through problems.
- The rise of the platform economy means there are lots of different sites where you can find supposed experts, but the process of vetting them lies within the platform — so maybe you just found a digital superstar or a blockchain goddess, or maybe you found a scammer, and you don’t completely know.
- Because business (and the world) is moving fast right now and can be especially disruptive, maybe the idea of expertise isn’t evolving as fast as it should.
- From the last bullet point, above: most of the big breakthroughs of human existence and crisis-solving have come from “a team of experts” + “an outside perspective.” Experts tend to stay in a specific lane. (We are getting into “generalists” vs. “specialists” territory here.) The team of experts needs another perspective, be that a tech person, a “design thinker,” a bitcoin expert, or whoever. If you try to solve COVID with only disease experts, well, that’s 200+ years of experience (the whole team) of a specific way of thinking. You might need someone to help them break out of that. So maybe we’re too deep in our functional silos.
Those are some potential theories. Now let’s get to the action in our next blog!