"Self-Appointed Experts"

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The man who will neither obey wisdom in others nor adventure for her himself is fatal. A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end, extinction. On or back we must go; to stay here is death.   C.S. Lewis, Miracles, Ch. 6

The Script

I'm sick and tired of self-appointed so-called experts and their know-it-all, arrogant attitude. Why don't you people stay out of things you know nothing about? To hear you tell it, you know everything and the rest of us are stupid.

I've seen this script before. At this point I'm supposed to get all humble and apologetic and say "There, there. We didn't mean to make you feel bad. You're really a good person and a valuable human being and your opinions do count."

I'm tired of playing that game.

So ordinary people aren't as good as Ph.D.'s? People with ordinary jobs make the steel, mine the coal, harvest the wheat, drive the trucks, lay the pipes, string the wires, put out the fires, enforce the laws, keep the records, and do a hundred thousand other things absolutely essential to keeping the world running. They deserve to be honored and respected.

But that doesn't qualify them to have opinions on subjects where they have no expertise.

Doctor, Doctor

A common complaint is that people with Ph.D.'s call themselves "doctor," but they aren't real doctors.

If you buy this, you just demonstrated your total lack of qualification to deal with experts in anything. The word "doctor" comes from the Latin verb docere, meaning to teach. Doctor in Latin means "teacher," and was applied in the Middle Ages to anyone who had mastered a subject well enough to teach it at a University. It wasn't until rather late that medicine was even added to the University curriculum at all. As for surgeons, they were regarded as tradesmen and manual workers until nearly 1800.

So "real doctors" take their title from university professors, not the other way round.

And I don't care about "common usage." Common usage is just plain wrong and the fact that too many people are too illiterate to know any better doesn't make it right. You do not get to redefine words just because you're too lazy to use them correctly.

How to Become an Expert

Most people become experts by meeting the standards of other experts. I'm not a "self-appointed" expert. Columbia University said I was an expert when they granted me a doctorate. The State of Wisconsin said I was an expert when they hired me in their University System, gave me tenure, made me a full professor, and made me a Registered Geologist. Other professionals say I'm an expert when they accept my research for publication.

Most experts don't stay in their original areas. They move into new fields. You get to be an expert in a new field by learning enough about it to be able to teach it and publish credible research in it. Experts don't just learn a subject, they learn how to become an expert. They learn how to find references, and understand them thoroughly enough to be able to duplicate that level of expertise in their own work.

Every recognized field of learning was started by someone who had no formal training but figured it out on the fly. You can become an expert without formal training. You can learn a foreign language without attending a class or even cracking a book. And you're fluent when other speakers treat you as an equal, not when you think you are. Attacking native speakers of a language because they won't regard you as fluent after a few weeks of practice would be ridiculous, but people do it all the time in other fields.

There are amateurs in many fields who acquire expertise informally; inventors who never went to tech school, amateur astronomers, ornithologists, botanists and mineralogists who never took a class, amateur historians who are the recognized experts on their particular interests, and so on. And they did it the hard way - the only way - by spending years immersed in the field until they reached the level where other experts acknowledged them as equals.

2,200 years ago, Archimedes told his king there was no Royal Road to geometry, that he would have to struggle with it like everyone else. This is a king, for heaven's sake. Where does someone with no training come off thinking he can read "I Am Joe's Hangnail" in the Reader's Digest and be qualified to attack the medical profession?

Staying Expert

Once you get to be an expert, you have to remain one. If you make it to the NFL or the NBA and don't work out, your career will be short. If you think working on your Mustang in high school qualifies you to fix cars today, you are in for a rude shock. One reason university professors have to publish research is to ensure they stay expert in their fields. I spend most of my day on activities that didn't even exist when I was a graduate student.

Once professors get tenure, it pretty much takes a thermonuclear weapon to remove them. That protection is there because a significant part of our job is to tick people off. We tell them things they don't want to hear, like the earth is 4.6 billion years old, there is a finite amount of oil in the ground, you can't provide government services without taxes, we really did go to the moon, or they didn't learn enough to pass the course. So when a university grants tenure, it basically makes a lifetime commitment. Universities want to be sure that they're tenuring people with a lifetime commitment to staying on top of their fields. The stereotype of the professor who gets tenure and goes to seed has a basis in truth; universities try to avoid hiring people like that. Unlike most jobs where there's a 90-day or six-month probationary period, university professors have to demonstrate sustained productivity for six years.

A few years ago I published a textbook with two other authors. The chapter reviewers came from institutions ranging from prominent research universities all the way to community colleges. As much as I despise the "publish or perish" system, the comments I got from people who never published research were horrifying. They either had not read a journal in years, or if they did read recent research, misunderstood it. Expertise in any field is truly a matter of "use it or lose it." Some of these people had lost the right to be considered experts.

So people who are recognized experts in their fields don't just have a piece of paper on the wall; they spend a great deal of their time maintaining and upgrading their skills. While you're preparing to take on the medical profession by reading "I Am Joe's Hangnail" in the Reader's Digest, what do you suppose the medical professionals are reading?

The dead giveaway that a person doesn't have a clue what really goes on in professional circles is the question "how many books have you read on ......?" Books are just not the principal way information flows among professionals. Almost all professional fields report new information in journals. If you're in show biz, you don't find out about new plays and movie projects from books; you read Variety. If you're a doctor, you don't find out about new ways to remove gall bladders from books; you read the New England Journal of Medicine. And in any case, it's not quantity but quality. One paper in the Geological Society of America Bulletin with a reliable age date for a rock unit outweighs ten thousand books by creationists arguing for a young earth.

Time

"But I don't have time to check out all those facts." Fine, then you don't have time to have an opinion. Amazingly, people who don't have time to check out real science seem to have time to read all kinds of junk science. They don't have time to read real earth science and biology but they can read creationist books or go to creationist presentations. They don't have time to learn real history but have time to read crackpot works on "ancient mysteries."

But you work hard all day and are too tired to read when you get home. You must have me confused with someone who cares. If you want to have an opinion on something,  find the time to get informed.

Also, in our society, we have a built-in mechanism to create informed people. It's called "school." If you opted not to make full use of it while you were there, or let the information slip away afterward, that is not my problem. Science is not responsible for your irresponsible lifestyle choice.

"Arrogance"

This is a recent e-mail from a colleague.

Okay-

So, I'm waiting for my new dentist to give me a checkup (my old dentist left the practice) and I'm reading a book on the geology of southern Utah. The new guy ("Dr. Mike") asks what I'm reading and I show him. I tell him I'm a geologist. He says "You must really like the Grand Canyon." I indicate that it is one of my favorite places on earth and I visited it five times last year, once backpacking down to the bottom with my children. He says, "I just don't know how they can understand how old it is. After all, Jesus only lived 2000 years ago." This began an interesting one-sided conversation (I'm at a disadvantage when people are sticking sharp, pointy things in my mouth) about young-earth creationism. Wow. Even at the dentist. I offered to take him out to a site on the east side of Las Vegas Valley to show him some rocks, but he declined indicating that everyone has their unprovable theories.

Wow. Even at the dentist. I wonder how he would feel if I tried to tell him how to do dentistry?

This example is striking because it's someone who has years of training himself and ought to realize that people in other fields undergo similar training. But the last sentence says it all. What would you say if someone walked into your place of employment, admitted he had no technical training in your work, but told you that you were doing it all wrong (probably while demonstrating amply his lack of expertise)? Wouldn't you describe such a person as arrogant? Who is really the self-appointed expert here, the person with a lot of training or the person with none who still thinks he is qualified to criticize?

Where In The World Do People Learn To Write Like This?

This is an actual e-mail I received:

You astound me, Steve Dutch. The reasons for this are varied, and while I do not plan to explore them in full detail, I shall outline them briefly for the benefit of your utterly massive ego. It started with an accidental visit to your site, this mundane scatter of HTML encased with long, long paragraphs. The opinions stated in an irrefutable manner, the disclaimers proudly displayed in the heading of each page, and that peculiar manner in which you choose to write, a manner which often leaves readers unaware of your true feelings. Yet these reasons are what compelled me to sacrifice an entire evening analyzing every detail of your personal monument (for would merit would my words have if they were based on a single article?). I'm given the distinct impression that you represent a mythical hybrid, some odd amalgamation of Basil Fawlty and Santa Claus. However, these perceived follies present the justification for my presence; to actually discover, on the Internet, logical ideas presented in a manner devoid of superfluous graphics and fanfare is commendable. I sincerely hope your students recognize your seemingly endless source of wisdom, as well as your analytical abilities. Also, after reading your praise for the film "Enemy at the Gates," I'm interested in your opinion concerning "A Bridge Too Far."

A forewarning: disregarding the film, or curtailing its perceived historical inaccuracies will result in a lengthy, Ignatius Reilly-esque tirade in which I prove you wrong. Commending it, though, will justify further praise upon your spacious mind.

Does anybody have a clue what this guy is saying? The words and syntax bear a superficial resemblance to English, but there's no content that I can discern. I gather that he resents some of my pages, but he doesn't say precisely what his problem is, so there's not much to respond to. And no, my name is not a pseudonym and I am a single person, not a committee. 

As for not revealing my true feelings, that's deliberate. When I discuss certain topics, I do so as impersonally as possible, precisely because writers like this one want to "know where I'm coming from" so they can know whether or not they can feel free to disregard what I'm saying. When I leave my feelings out of it, they have to deal with the logical and factual content, something that is apparently painful or confusing to a lot of people.

People who write stuff like this tend to live in their own weird worlds, but on the off chance that you do think this is how to write, or know somebody who does, let me assure you it isn't so. Editorial pages are chock-full of stuff like this, where the writers indulge in convoluted wording and oblique allusions. I guess they think it makes them sound erudite or profound. Actually, all it does is make them sound like they can't say what they mean in plain English.

Technical works are full of complex prose because the subject matter is complex and calls for it. Legal prose is complex because it has to define terms as precisely as possible without leaving any possible ambiguity. Shakespeare and the King James Bible have complex prose because that's how people talked 400 years ago, and people of the time considered it perfectly plain English. Stuff like the e-mail above is complex because the writer apparently wants to impress people. If you're an English teacher who has let stuff like this pass, shame on you.

Ditch the pretentious language. People who write like this come across as posers. It's like some CPA who lets his stubble grow for a month so he can ride his moped to the Sturgis bike rally and "blend in."

How To Let Scientists Know You're Not One

This is verbatim from a recent e-mail:

I currently have a 60 page report in review with a peer-reviewed journal. I'd love to explain the mechanism here to you but that may be unwise before the paper is published.

Let's take this phrase by phrase...

I currently have a 60 page report
Length doesn't correlate with quality. It will be very hard to get any 60-page paper published. Who cares how long the manuscript is? College freshmen talk as if length correlates with hard work; most scientists struggle to shorten their papers.
 
in review with a peer-reviewed journal.
Being in review doesn't mean a thing. Acceptance is the hard part.
 
I'd love to explain the mechanism here to you but that may be unwise before the paper is published.
Nobel-Prize caliber research is circulated informally to peers as preprints, so why exactly people outside the mainstream are so paranoid their ideas will be stolen is a mystery. I have a suspicion that "before the paper is published" will be a while.

"But You Have To Respect Their Dedication"

Why? Google 9/11, and the wingnut and moonbat sites far outnumber legitimate sites. Velikovsky could waste his talents on an imaginary scenario of ancient catastrophes instead of real research on mental health. American society could terminate the Apollo Program to spend the savings on "problems here on earth" and get nothing in return for it, and many of the people who cheered are now saying it was all a hoax. Give me one good reason why I should respect such a waste of intellectual resources.

The armed forces are critically short of linguists, and overseas competition is cutting into jobs here, but Americans still seem to regard it as a personal violation to have to learn foreign languages. Yet the same people can spend hours writing illiterate blogs about politics and the war on terror that reveal a total lack of knowledge - of anything. People have the time to read dozens of creationist books but not a single legitimate book on geology or biology.  What's to respect here?

And Now A Word To Conspiracy Theorists

You are entitled to respect when you show respect to others. When you tell me the government is engaged in all sorts of black ops, the corporations that provide you with goods and services are all out to screw you, and anyone who doubts is a co-conspirator or a dupe, what in the world can you offer me as a reason to show you respect? You're dissing everyone in the world and you demand respect for yourself?

And seriously, what reason do you have to complain about the world? Gas is $3 a gallon? You did nothing to find the oil, nothing to refine it, nothing to transport it, nothing to invent any of the technology for exploiting it. The oil is not your property. Is there some part of "private property" you don't follow here? What exactly is your grounds for complaint? Medical care too expensive? 200 years ago there were no CAT Scans, X-rays, MRI's, organ transplants, antibiotics, antiseptics, or anesthesia. And what did you do to bring any of that to pass? And if you complain about paying taxes for schools to train the people who will eventually go into the medical profession, double shame on you.

What's the difference between a conspiracy theorist and a new puppy? The puppy eventually grows up and quits whining.


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Created 6 February 2001, Last Update 30 August 2011

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