The nature of expertise

by TheEditor

Categories: Expertise, Investigative

The use of ‘expertise’, is about extending your vision and appreciation of something that you do not normally know about. Let me start from the endpoint of expertise with an example.

Put yourself in the following situation. After months of suffering with abdominal pain and gaining no lasting relief from using various home remedies, you finally decide that you’re going to see a doctor. What are you looking for when you see the doctor? I’d suggest the following:

  1. To be checked on in a way that brings the doctor to an understanding about whether there is something that’s causing the pain.
  2. Having been properly checked you are told that it isn’t something life-threatening.
  3. That there is a suitable remedy for the ailment that can put you back on track as if you had no pain.
  4. That the remedy is available and that you can afford it.
  5. That if you take the remedy you will be fixed.

All of the above is quite basic. But think – what is it that you are lacking that the doctor has? Easy. The doctor has:

  1. Expert knowledge of how the body works or what happens when it doesn’t.
  2. Yes s/he has knowledge of – your body – even though it’s your body.
  3. S/he has the knowledge,  skill and experience, to examine you and/or order the right investigations to find out whether something is wrong and then determine what if anything is the matter.

You may have taken a strange burning sensation in your abdomen to mean little. You may have seen changes in your weight and thought little of it. But to the eye of the expert, thinking about the whole picture, all the things you overlooked, were important. Why? Simple – because the doctor had a framework of knowledge and experience which gave him/her a different picture of the situation, compared to you who lacks the same framework.

In general experts ‘spot’ things that others take for granted, or consider to be of little significance. This is not just having a mind for small things. Experts may spot flaws, dangers, mistakes before long before they happen. Why? Because they understand how systems work and they can predict better than an average person who does not know how certain systems work.

There is a potentially serious pitfall in the above. If you hire an expert for a particular purpose; do not fail to hand over all information. Do not, for example, prejudge ‘video or audio material’ as insignificant. To do so is to assume that you know that the information could be of no importance. Let the expert see and decide. It is like going to the doctor and declining his request for a blood sample, going “Thank you very much but my blood is okay.” At least if s/he’s seen it you know with greater certainty that something has not been missed. A small piece of information may appear insignificant at first, but sometime later on an expert may see where it fits and it’s greater importance. That’s what you’re paying for!

Some who contract experts are obviously worried about costs. So if they provide 4 hours of video evidence that is useless, that racks up the cost. This is where talking with your expert is important. Discuss the evidence with your expert. Be open. Listen to what they have to say about it. Express your view that it’s largely unrelated and discuss whether the expert really has to see it. If after such a discussion the expert really wants to see it, be open about negotiating cost. Your expert will be of right to declare in any oral or written evidence submitted to a court of panel, that he has requested materials, thought useful for evaluation, but that such materials were not supplied.

People who hire (or engage) experts, exercise an obvious power over them. What’s that? It is the power to ignore what experts find or to minimise or trivialise their opinions. Here’s an example, “We’ve done things this way for years and nothing disastrous has happened. Why now when Mr Blogs Expert says ‘doom is likely to befall us’, we should worry about this? He doesn’t even work here!” It’s that sort of attitude that has been a feature of many a major disaster.  The New Orleans disaster was a classic example. It was predicted several years before it occurred. No one acted in time. History has proved this over and over.

If you hire an expert to provide an opinion, and you do not like the opinion for whatever reason – or especially because the opinion is likely to cause ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’ of various kinds, do not simply minimise the opinion. There are alternatives. Get a second or third expert opinion. Get experts to debate various important issues, so that you as a decision-maker have been fully immersed in the ‘hot’ issues. Ask experts about the foreseeable consequences of taking decisions that do not implement any recommendations. Yes – ultimately it is your decision to make – as a hirer of expert opinion. However, wisdom, restraint and balance must prevail in the exercise of all ‘power’.


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