Expertise in Digital Age – How to Recognize Your Experts

In a 2014 article Teo Merz of Daily Telegraph quotes several studies about multiple benefits of red wine consumption.  A couple of months later Lizzie Dearden of  The Independent writes that  “one large glass of red wine a night is enough to damage health, say scientists”.

It seems that majority of news articles today use one pattern. They start with some author’s  text followed by two or three  quotes from “experts”.  Using expert opinions is more convincing than just a journalist’s explanations of the same topic and  these opinions represent a different type of voice than“a random person from the street”. More convincing until you – very easily – find an opposite opinion, confirmed by a different expert.

How do you decide who to believe?

In the olden times of few newspapers and fewer TV channels it was easy, because the experts were few and pre-approved by media. Currently cable TV and Internet experts come in all shapes and varieties, from Nobel Prize Winners to anonymous but respected individuals in a niche on-line community.

The XX century  expert had two characteristics: a specialised education – often a postgraduate degree – and many years of practice in the chosen field, which usually resulted in a  position in  a relevant institution, for example a head of department or a professor. These days you can get a PhD diploma and become a member of an impressive sounding  Academy of Sciences on-line. These diplomas  are impressive until you realise that you can buy them with just a hundred dollars. On the other hand, as the universities start resembling supermarkets and rely on highly qualified but instantly replaceable stuff on temporary contracts, an “independent” (currently unemployed) scientist can be a true authority.

And even experts with impeccable credentials sometimes express strange opinions. Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling put a lot of time into advocating vitamin C as a cure for viral infections, and although there is a consensus in the biomedical community that this is not the case, vitamin C myth remains a health industry staple. More recently, another Nobel Prize winner, James Watson of “Watson and Crick DNA structure” fame caused a lot of controversy, when he openly supported racial inequality idea.

I think that the first rule of expert opinion vetting would be not to believe blindly to any claim in mass-media. The news outlets usually exaggerate  importance of news, citing experts selectively. The more groundbreaking the claim is, the less likely it is 100% true. So the immediate “cure for cancer” probably means a possibility of a drug for a very specific cancer type in five to ten years.

Secondly, even a cursory check of the expert credentials will tell you how serious you should take expert’s claims. If you never heard of a University or Academy, nobody guarantees quality of the expert. Treat these experts as an average person, who may be right or wrong. Don’t believe anything if this contradicts common sense: man can survive for a long time exclusively on cabbage, but he will definitely not be a happy person.

And lastly, even if the expert’s credentials are irreproachable, make sure that he did not stray beyond his field of expertise. A chemist’s opinion on health issues are not more valuable than a molecular biologist’s opinion on brain development, or your opinion on any topic beyond your professional  or  hobby  topic.

But you have to become an expert at least in one thing: in evaluating experts.

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