How to Not be an Expert.

Trust me, I’m not an expert.

Bora Zivkovic has a fantastic post up on his blog concerning the future of science writing: The Other Kinds of Expertise.  I love the great majority of this piece. His description of what it will take to be a good science writer in the future (or now) is spot on, and I love that he includes accuracy as an important aspect of good writing.

However, his description of who should be able to talk about a subject strikes me as overly narrow. He limits the people who can write about a topic to people with “expertise”. He does say that people who write longer pieces outside of their field can gain a “temporary expertise”, but then qualifies that those fields should be related to the original expert field.
The quote that really got me thinking was this one:



Every one of us is an expert on something, at least one thing, probably several things.
This also means that each one of us is completely non-expert on many other things.

The first part is not true of me, though the second part is. I am not an expert in any subject. Academically, I have studied historical geology, epistemology and forensic anthropology, but not to the extent that I could be considered an expert.

That doesn’t stop me from teaching. That doesn’t stop me from writing. That doesn’t stop me from talking.

The list of things I’ve taught over the years is long and rather more inclusive than exclusive, including, but not limited to:

entomophagy, tall ships, karst geology, ice age geology, megafauna evolution, human origins, origins of agriculture, human anatomy, dance, folk arts, water pollution, sustainable architecture, puppetry, volcanoes, trilobite diversity, beavers, historical gold panning, steamships, the civil war, science of baseball, stream ecology, deep sea taphonomy, American Indian cultures, human migration, crab migration, history of trains, physics of trebuchets, human genetics, cat genetics, evo devo, anthropology of race, Vatican archaeology.

And those are the things that I remember off the top of my head.

The thing you’ll note is that only two of those topics even slightly overlap with my formal education (ice age geology and human anatomy). These aren’t all topics that I would have necessarily chosen to talk about, and several I’m not even interested in at all, but they are things I had to teach about for one reason or another – some I was tying in with current events or exhibits that the museum had, others I was going along with the topic of the nature center summer camp I was teaching.

The wide range of subjects is nothing unusual for someone in my line of work. Informal educators aren’t specialists. Or if they are, it’s to the extent that they teach in an institution located in a specific ecosystem, or in an institution with a specific focus. That can limit the subjects they are required to talk about on a daily basis, but it’s an artificial limit, and not often one that has anything to do with formal training.

So, are we all talking out of parts of our anatomy with no mouths when we discuss things outside of our “expertise”?

Not necessarily.

You see, we’ve developed different expertises. The expertise to know how to quickly research an entirely new subject. The expertise to find trustworthy sources in a field we’re completely unfamiliar with. The expertise to know what other people will want to know about the new subject. And the expertise to be able to explain to the limits of our knowledge in a way that will be accurate, relevant, engaging, thought-provoking and will, hopefully, make the person we’re talking to go look up more information.

Would someone get a better lesson on physics from someone who actually studies it formally? Probably. Not just from the formal study, but also because that person, presumably, is familiar with the best ways to teach that particular subject, where I need to not only learn the subject, but find a way to explain that subject quickly and concisely. If I could, I would love to see every person take a physics course to learn how trebuchets works, as well as a course on chemistry to study cave formation, and one on the history of traversing the ocean to learn about tall ships. All, of course, taught by experts in each field.

If my career path wasn’t necessary, I would be the first person celebrating. If people had the time to pursue full education in every subject they’re interested in, the world would be a much more interesting place.

Unfortunately, we all know these things aren’t true. People can’t learn everything from experts. There just aren’t enough experts or (more importantly) places that will pay experts to teach.

There is a place for the generalist educator in this imperfect world. I may not know every detail of the subject I’m teaching, but that’s not necessarily important. I do know one important detail, that makes all the difference: I know what I don’t know. And I know not to make stuff up when I come across something I don’t know. I also know how to steer people to the real experts, which can be just as important.

Likewise, there is a place for the generalist science writer.

Yes, Deborah Blum, Maryn McKenna and Emily Willingham and too many other fantastic writers to name are experts in the fields they write about, but that doesn’t mean everyone is immediately aware of them. The act of writing something, as a non-expert doesn’t take away from the expertise of the real experts. A quick summary post on breaking news, or an introductory post on a topic that people are interested in shouldn’t be considered competing with the experts, but as providing a bridge to the experts.

We all have different audiences. When I am in the role of informal educator, and even when I am just posting things on Facebook, I am talking to people who wouldn’t necessarily go read a science blog at Wired or Scientific American or any of the other media outlets that tend to specialize in the subjects that interest me. They might be talking to me because they came into the museum wanting to know what the weird rock they found in their yard is. Or they might know me on Facebook because we know each other from any number of contexts. I know the people I talk to aren’t going to have folders full of bookmarks of experts on every subject under the sun. They are more likely to go to a site that covers a whole bunch of topics quickly, and then follow up on the ones they’re most interested in.

What I’m trying to say is this: if you are a generalist writer, or a generalist educator, or are considering being either, don’t feel like you *need* to be an expert to talk. There is a place for your voice. The more people reaching out about important subjects, the more people will be reached, often in unpredictable ways.

This doesn’t take away the requirement of accuracy from the generalist writers and educators. We have to be just as careful to not spread misinformation if not more so, since our audiences are generally going to not be as engaged with science as the audience of an expert. We have to make sure we know who the *right* experts are to link to, and the best resources to throw at people who are interested.

And, most importantly, we need to know when we can stop talking and let someone else take over.

5 thoughts on “How to Not be an Expert.

  1. Actually, the blog posts most difficult to write, and still not sure if they are clear, were posts about my own research – I wrote a post about every paper I published (two posts about one of the papers), as well as a broader review. That was hard to do.

    I thought about, but did not state it as I was writing that late last night. The paragraph where I state my very narrow area of expertise (all that quail circadian steroid stuff), then expand to related areas? This is where I meant but forgot to state that the area of narrowest expertise is the hardest to write about for lay audience, but that the existence of that narrow area serves as an anchor, which allows one to write very well about related areas. But not about far-flung areas.

    Also important, a quote from my previous post (the one on Nate Silver and ascendance of expertise):

    “How does one become an expert?

    There are two ways. There is the 20th century method (yes, 20th century is an outlier on everything), in which one does hands-on research on a very narrow project while, hopefully, reading a little bit more broadly, resulting in an official badge of expertise – an MS or PhD or MD or some such degree.

    And then there is the historically traditional method that is making a big come-back now – having a deep interest in the topic and doing it yourself, reading, discussing with others, doing own research, blogging about it, writing and reporting on it for years, establishing oneself as an expert on the topic. This is how the most respected journalists became most respected – by becoming the Go To experts on a particular topic.”

    I agree with you pretty much 100%. Where we diverge (apart from somewhat different definition of ‘expertise’, see above, as my view is broader and I think you are much more of an expert than you think), is the venue. My first Aha! moment reading the post was when I read words “write”, “teach” and “talk” in the same sentence. My post is pretty firmly about writing, and even more narrowly about online writing. It is also about ways people succeed in the changing media environment. How one can be successful science writer/journalist/blogger, either by getting hired by an existing media organization, or by rounding up a bunch of friends and starting up a new media organization, or by making a living as a successful freelancer, or by making a living elsewhere but becoming a respected (or popular) blogger.

    Your post is in a different area of science communication – education, specifically in a museum. This is where your expertise in quick research, expertise in quick discovery of information, expertise in quick evalutaion of the audience in order to target it correctly, is much more of a premium than being a topical expert, or being expert at online technical tools.

    I also do the same when I teach. I teach a BIO101 speed-course to adults. I have to cover all of biology in a matter of days/hours. Cells, DNA, heredity, ecology, evolution, behavior, human anatomy and physiology, etc. None of that comes even close to my core area of expertise. So, in a teaching situation, I am just like you – a specialist in finding and extracting and presenting all sorts of disparate information in a way that my audience will understand. If I worked at a museum, where I could not even have the luxury of limiting myself to biology, I would probably be able to quickly learn enough physics, geology, astronomy, etc., in order to do what needs to be done in that setting. But when I write a blog post at SciAm, I do not feel I am capable of doing it right – the expectations there are different, much higher. Our readers expect and demand expertise. And that is, roughly, what my post was about.

    I probably should have been more clear in my post about which kinds of communication, specifically, I was talking about. But I was in my own “world” there, writing this post as one in a series on this topic, a close follow-up to the Nate Silver post, and the one before it on “beats vs. obsessions”, all three posts being part of my thinking on topics related to #sci4hels panel on what new science media ecosystem requires of one in order to succeed. And I am also looking forward to additional blog posts, and then discussions at #scio13.

  2. Thanks Ms Finke, that was an interesting post. I think you’re addressing an extremely important issue: Once Upon A Time a Gentleman Scientist could replicate any claimed finding of Science in his own (stately) home (with the un-credited assistance of his servants, naturally). Nowadays you’d have to be a Bond villain to check out the Higgs Boson for yourself — or quite a lot more modest science. Even quite privileged scientists enjoy expertise in a relatively tiny pool of the scientific world and – like the rest of us – need some other way to evaluate claims and assertions in other fields. So how do we do that? To even read up on a field alien to our own is unfeasable for those of us without the most prodigious brains. So we need heuristics: sets of rule-of-thumb checks and tests as to what is reliable information, what is not. I guess many of us do this without thinking, but I think it’s a fascinating area for investigation in itself (maybe a Psych project in there?). I know some of what I do is combinations of red and green flags e.g. green: giving references to sources that seem authoritative and relevant; v. red: no references, or refs to their own works or to obviously pop-sci or pseudoscientific sources or to stuff that doesn’t support their thesis. Green: acknowledging uncertainty or contradictory ideas; red: pomposity, rubbishing competing ideas rather than challenging them. And so on.
    The late Barry Beyerstein’s Skeptics’ Toolbox is a good resource for this. (Beyerstien was one of the founders (I think) of CSICOP.)

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