Monday, August 7, 2017
Words I Don’t Use, Part 4: “Expert”
When I was a young boy, my dad would sometimes drive me to school. It was 17 miles of country roads and two-lane highways, so it gave us time to talk.
At least once a year, and always on the first day of school, he would tell me, “Son, there are two answers to every test question. There’s the correct answer, and there’s the answer that the teacher expects. ...They’re not always the same.”
He would continue, “And I expect you to know them both.”
He wanted me to make perfect grades, but he expected me to understand my responsibility to know the difference between authority and truth. My dad thus taught me from a young age to be skeptical of experts.
The word expert always warns me of a potentially dangerous type of thinking. The word is used to confer authority upon the person it describes. But it’s ideas that are right or wrong; not people. You should evaluate an idea on its own merit, not on the merits of the person who conveys it. For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert; but for every fact, there is not necessarily an equal and opposite fact.
A big problem with expert is corruption—when self-congratulators hijack the label to confer authority upon themselves. But of course, misusing the word erodes the word. After too much abuse within a community, expert makes sense only with finger quotes. It becomes a word that critical thinkers use only ironically, to describe people they want to avoid.