When some clever person first came up with the term “armchair expert”, he or she (or they) probably meant to conjure the image of someone sitting in a living room, railing against some horn-rimmed academic on their TV — passionately opinionated but with no real knowledge on the subject. “Armchair expert” was probably meant as a criticism — a personality flaw, not a LinkedIn-ready job title. And yet, here we are. I mean, people were turning to podcaster Joe Rogan for Covid vaccination advice.
In a vacuum, or if it was happening in some fictionalized work of entertainment, it would be funny. But this is real. Our world seems suddenly filled with countless armchair experts who validate each other’s total lack of expertise en masse. To be clear, I’m not talking about people participating in useful conversation based on their lived and studied experiences. I’m talking about meme-born distractions: “authorities” that think hurricanes are caused by gay people, “scientists” with proof that the earth is flat, “doctors” that recommend injecting disinfectant as a cure for Covid, “immunologists” that think vaccines turn people into magnets. These seem like comedic premises. Instead, they are a cautionary tale on the difference between that and real expertise.
The thing is, we need real experts in order to survive — people with passion, knowledge and skill as well as the drive to take that experience and use it to bring smart ideas into the world. That’s no small feat, which is why we should all admire experts and encourage them to speak up in times of misinformation, sharing facts and creating context in good faith. There are plenty of people out there whose understanding of how tech, business, science, medicine, design and more, intersect with culture, government, education, race and economics, helps to build more efficient, equitable and empathetic systems. If it were up to me, those people would be considered thought leaders. Instead, many times they are greeted with unreasonable skepticism.
To a loud segment of the population (many of them armchair experts), real expertise can seem kind of gross. For them, spending years in the study and application of knowledge and skill may give you true expertise, but it no longer gives you the benefit of the doubt. Edelman’s long-running Trust Barometer confirms that people seem more skeptical of experts than ever. But is it for admitted failings, or for more ego-driven reasons? Other studies suggest that they are seen as elitists.
Blaming the internet for this stuff is both too easy and yet completely correct. It’s the consequence of unregulated access to global communication tools without the training or responsibility to consider the impact. Or proper guidance by the platforms themselves. But that doesn’t mean that experts should give up and cede the conversation to those with the loudest voices. They should dig in and lead the conversation using the growing suite of tools and methods that are being knowingly and unknowingly weaponized against the truth. Sure, communication should be expanded, access should be democratized and honest debate is healthy, so long as we recognize that true expertise is something different and more essential.
If experts are understandably uncomfortable navigating the new digital marketplace of ideas, frankly they should devote themselves to getting comfortable. Create a Medium account. Try tweeting a little. Share some thoughts on LinkedIn. Record something for YouTube or TikTok. Or take your idea to your favorite blog, news daily or magazine for publication. If you don’t know where to start, ask an expert. There’s everything to gain, both for experts and the world, and the stakes are too high to sit on the sidelines. If it makes them feel any better, know that there’ll be at least one person out there listening with respect.
I love experts and thought leaders and I see expertise as a journey — a road worth traveling filled with mistakes and successes backed by facts. To me, expertise is a self-flagellating form of self improvement. I’m not sure I’m truly an expert in anything. But my advice, as a person that spends a lot of time with experts, helping them share their ideas with the world? Get in the game. Bring your good ideas and unique voices to the table. Share your expert perspectives. We’re all counting on it.
Here’s to more experts and less armchairs.