Over the past few months, we have all struggled to decipher what to believe about coronavirus. Knowing who to listen to and who to trust could help us protect ourselves and our families. But how do we go about deciding who is actually informed?
This question highlights a universal issue: it is difficult to gauge someone’s expertise if you are not yourself an expert. This chronic issue seeps into every platform that we use to inform ourselves, including the media. The prevalence of charlatans is one reason “expertise” is so often parodied. And yet, there are ways you can begin to vet expertise.
First and most importantly, look for signals of credibility in a person’s profile. This can be a relevant educational marker (like a PhD, a MD, or another type of degree in the subject area), a relevant job title, work experience in the field, a portfolio of related work, a certain set of skills, or certifications. But beware: none of these alone convey expertise. Why? Because not all doctors are experts on every disease, not all political analysts know the politics of every country, and not everyone who had a certain job title picked up the relevant expertise in that job. So, keep an eye out for those who use just one credential to suggest authority on a subject, and instead, look for a healthy combination of credibility signals. This serves a starting point for narrowing down who may be an expert.
Second, look for signals of specific expertise on the subject. Are this person’s credentials related to this specific subject? For example, an infectious disease specialist will likely be more knowledgeable on coronavirus than other types of doctors. Also, how long have they worked on the specific issue at hand? In what capacity? You can check to see if they were published or outspoken on the topic before it became front page news, for example, to try to detect what their incentives are for speaking now.
Third, even if you think you have found an expert, do not rely on one person, one article, or one interview — particularly if its narrative fits with the narrative you already believe. Read enough about the subject by several possible experts until you start to see where they all agree but also where they disagree, contradict each other, or appear to have gaps. You know you are getting into the weeds of expertise when you start to see where the experts agree and where they themselves are not quite sure.
Fourth, and relatedly, look for nuance within the person’s take on a subject. The world is not black-and-white, and true experts will usually clearly state what they do not know. Look for that transparency. As humans, we tend to find comfort in those who seem to know it all. Avoid that temptation. If one ‘expert’ seems to have all the answers, but others are more cautious, that is usually a sign that the know-it-all does not actually know it all.
Fifth, be wary of strong opinions and vocal certainty. When someone is lacking knowledge, they often turn to speaking more loudly, stating things more simply (with little nuance), or giving the impression with their own certainty that you should be certain of them! Do not fall for it. On complex and new issues like coronavirus, there is bound to be uncertainty. Real experts will be clear about where their certainty begins and ends.
Lastly, check if the person is considered an expert by other experts. Are they esteemed in their field? Are they engaged with other experts continually — perhaps on Twitter, conferences they attend, or through their publications? Has an organization with known credibility invited them to speak at a prior conference or vouched for them in some way? Since it is difficult for non-experts to vet expertise, the real test is whether other experts on the same subject deem someone an expert. Look for that peer validation.
The truth is: the process of figuring out who the experts are on any given subject is not easy. Despite our best efforts, we will sometimes be fooled or mistaken, so knowing that, keep your guard up and keep an eye on the track record of each perceived expert over time. Gauging real expertise takes diligence, a lot of sorting through bad information, time, and healthy skepticism. It is an imperfect process. As a result, many people (and many media platforms) rely on one signal of credibility as proof of authority.
This inherent difficulty in vetting expertise allows charlatans to come to the fore, often using vocal certainty, strong opinions, and appeals to authority to convince an audience of their view. If you are unfamiliar with a topic, you are more likely to believe people who seem to know more than you. But remember: the bar of expertise is not knowing more than you, but knowing more than just about anyone.
Elana DeLozier is the founder of The Sage Institute for Foreign Affairs, which studies expertise, and a Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where she is an expert on the Gulf States, Yemen, and nuclear proliferation. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.