The specificity of expertise

The fact that I know that viruses mutate for contagiousness and not for more/less virulence does not make me an expert on viruses, but it does mean that in this fairly specific domain, I clearly have more “expertise” than many public health professionals and MD’s who have frequently claimed that viruses typically mutate to become less contagious.  Dylan Morris‘ guest post in Zeynep’s substack back in May was great on the nature of viral evolution.  So, by reading that and figuring out the smartest people to follow on twitter on viral evolution were Zeynep (who’s no viral expert, but an expert in figuring out what “experts” to listen to), Morris, Michael Mina, and Carl Bergstrom and reading what they had to say made me more of an “expert” than those “viruses evolve to become less deadly” people who literally have degrees in medicine.

But, you know what, it’s really not that hard.  What we fail to appreciate, I think, is just how amazingly narrow expertise is.  I am a professor of Political Science, but if you read a couple good pieces in the Monkey Cage and Vox about some theories that explain an international conflict, you will assuredly be more of an “expert” in the matter than me.  Or, honestly, I literally teach about Congress in American government, but, again, read a few good articles that summarize social science on how Congressional committees work and you will know more than me.  I teach a class on Political Parties, but, again, spend not-all-that-long reading some good summaries of academic research on the role of amateur party activists and you will know more than me.  Now, if its a matter of partisanship or attitude measurement, don’t try me, but the reality is that expertise is really narrow and that most subjects are not so hard that an intelligent layperson can’t make sense of them when reading what good-communicating experts have to say.

As it happens, immunology is a ridiculously complex subject.  I’m reading a great book on it (Immune by Philip Detmer– also, you should totally familiarize yourself with Kurtzgesagt).  And to really understand the whole discipline it would surely take me years.  But that said, even then, there’s all sorts of bite-sized chunks that I can get my head around pretty well.  And if there’s somebody who’s a literal epidemiologist, they definitely might not be up on the latest research on something with Helper T Cells and Covid (or viral evolution!) just like I may not be up on the latest on party activists or Congressional committees.

So, we really need to be more humble about the limits of expertise and the very specific nature of expertise.  And, honestly, take lessons from Zeynep on how to think about issues you come to without built-in expertise.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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