Expertise and Its Discontents

The hardest thing about earning a degree in moral philosophy is discussing ethics with someone who lacks any real academic formation in the subject. Interlocutors assert, based on their belief that they have a personal apprehension of “right and wrong,” that their perspectives are just as valid as the expert’s. After all, everyone’s entitled to an opinion.

Except … when they aren’t. An opinion is nothing more than the conclusion of an argument whose major premises, more often than not, are unexpressed. And an argument’s conclusion is open to criticism based on the usual criteria of logical consistency, factual coherence, etc. You’re not “entitled” to be unchallenged in your idiocy. Privilege only applies to preferences (e.g., “I like cashews”).

So you get into these positions where you’re discussing the ethical propriety of “X” and person “Y” refuses to accept that someone else has a better understanding of the subject than they do. For people unschooled in the academic aspects of moral philosophy, “ethics” is merely “deciding what’s right and wrong,” and since everyone thinks his moral compass is infallible, most people are resistant to counsel that flows from first principles.

There are parallels with other domains of expertise, too. Try being the statistician with a solid understanding of data-management theory, and then explain to the uninitiated why they can’t get the data they want, when they want it, in the format they demand. If you’re the only one in the room who understand the technical implications of a request, and everyone else in the room are customers in the business who only know that they want a result yesterday, then most attempts to impose methodological coherence are viewed as being negative or obstructive: “Just give me what I want.” Even if what they want is mathematical nonsense.

barista-300x225Or, take baristas. Just because you know how to make a pot of coffee doesn’t mean you’re smarter than your barista, and it doesn’t give you the right to treat the coffee-ordering experience as if it were a Cold War treaty negotiation. You really don’t need to counsel the barista about how many pumps of syrup to use or ask irrelevant questions like whether the beans are shade-grown or whether you can substitute fermented yak milk or whether you can bring in your own antique glass cups for your hot tea. You also don’t need to comment on the names of cup sizes. Just drink the damn coffee and leave a tip.

Even physicians aren’t immune; more and more doctors lament that self-diagnosed patients are more difficult to treat and are more prone to abandoning prophylactic treatment because they think they know better.

Expertise, then, is both a blessing and a curse: You really do know better than others, but others fail to concede the point.

So next time you’re arguing with someone whose education and experience outshine your own, remember how you felt when the tables were turned and shape your response accordingly.