Picking An Expert

How can non-experts evaluate experts?

Posted Aug 21, 2011

The world is an unimaginably complex place, made all the more so by the incredible things we human beings have learned to do: build skyscrapers and space shuttles, clear clogged heart arteries and blocked intestines, make cell phones nearly as thin as credit cards, and modulate the immune system just enough to prevent it from rejecting a transplanted organ but not so much that it leaves its host too susceptible to infection. These are grand accomplishments requiring extraordinary expertise-expertise that Atul Gawande argued, convincingly I think, in his book The Checklist Manifesto over which no one person could possible achieve complete mastery. Even a transplant surgeon with all her knowledge and skill can't transplant an organ by herself. Leaving aside the skills of the nurses, anesthesiologists, and organ procurement team, there are also the thousands of people who contributed their knowledge to inventing and manufacturing the surgical instruments, monitors, medicines, and support systems (not to mention the thousands behind them whose knowledge made those things possible) that are each indispensable for a successful outcome.

Given the complexity that underlies so many of the wonderful benefits of living in the modern world, finding an expert when you need one has never been more imperative (to make sure you're able to take full advantage of those benefits) nor ironically more difficult (not because there exists a dearth of experts—quite the contrary; there's never been more of them—but rather because the scope of each person's expertise has narrowed down as the sheer amount of information to know has expanded). That, and because only another expert is truly qualified to judge another expert's level of expertise.

Who else but an expert plumber would know if another plumber's work is any good? If he chooses the right piping for the right job? If the piping he chooses is right-sized? Who else but a real estate broker with expert knowledge of the real estate market and of a particular landlord's drivers would know if another broker obtained for his client a market deal? We turn to these experts because we lack the ability they have to answer these questions, but because we lack the ability to answer these questions, we also lack the ability to judge their answers—that is, to tell an expert from an amateur.

Photo: TerryJohnston

Certainly we have our judgment and general experience to guide us. But in differentiating a good roofer from a great one such resources are mostly useless. In some circumstances, good may be good enough, it's true, but do any of us really want our children's teachers to be merely good enough? Or our doctors?

How then can we reliably identify experts? Most of us rely on the opinions of other non-experts and the anecdotes they tell us. But anecdotes often misrepresent the true level of a person's skill. It's not that they tell us nothing, but that they tell us far less than we tell ourselves they do.

Besides the recommendations of others based on anecdote, what we might also use to identify service providers as experts is their degree of excellence in realms indirectly related to their particular area, realms in which we do have some expertise ourselves. Though by no means perfect indicators of expertise in a specific area, things like thoroughness in communication, rigorousness in follow up and attention to detail, and clarity of thinking contribute to expertise in all fields. It's certainly possible, for example, to pay close attention to detail and be only a mediocre doctor, but it's hard to pay poor attention to detail and be a good one.

Outstanding performance in any specific area requires skill in multiple other general areas. The degree to which skill in these multiple other general areas serve as leading indicators for skill in any one specific area will certainly vary, but in the end they may be the best indicators we non-experts have.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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