Who is an Expert?

I mentioned in another post Americans’ love/hate relationship with experts. We have despised and adored them, and it seems we’ve often done the despising and adoring for all the wrong reasons and in association with all the wrong stereotypes. With so many people wrongly claiming expertise, how can we ever know who’s the real deal? Anyone claiming to be an expert must possess three qualities. An expert must be professional, current, and representative.


Being professional refers to the person who lives and breathes the subject matter and who has the appropriate credentials to demonstrate their depth of knowledge and preparation. When I had cancer, I had a choice to make early in my treatment: would I go the traditional route and do what my oncologist told me to do, or would I undertake a regimen of alternative medicine? The alternative-medicine practitioners had impressive knowledge about herbs, but my oncologist graduated from medical school. The oncologist was the professional in the matter of cancer treatment.

To be current is to be up-to-date. Has your expert been actively engaged in the field, published an article in a professional journal, attended professional conferences and continuing-education seminars? Is your dentist using the cutting edge techniques of the year she graduated from dentistry school twenty years ago, or has she kept up-to-date on the latest practices and procedures?

Finally, for a person to claim expertise, they must view the subject area in the same way other experts do. Their views must be representative. The opinions and point of view of your plumber about plumbing should go with the flow and be in close alignment with the way other plumbers think about plumbing. If your electrician thinks it’s a good idea to use aluminum wiring for residential service, then your electrician is not an expert. And he will not be an expert until he has convinced all the other experts that aluminum wiring is the way to go. At that point, his view would become representative.

The drawback here, of course, is the time involved in convincing everyone else that you’re right. But there are significant benefits. For one thing, fads, fakers and snake oil salesman usually get stopped in their tracks. And because of these requirements—professionalism, currency, representativeness—we can have a high degree of confidence in those who truly are experts.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.