The Curse of Expertise: A Variant

Moments ago I searched Google using the phrase “curse of expertise“. An assortment of links appeared, (as they do) with many cutting away to psychology treatises or economic laments over how best to spur innovation. The pages I poked at didn’t offer much to fit the notions about which I will soon by typing, so I’ll stick with the more freeform approach I tend to take anyway.

I’ve wanted to write a post on the Curse of Expertise for awhile and find, once again, that Twitter has provided a bit of fodder motivating me to do it. Vice recently published an article by Molly Crabapple about the refugee situation in Syria. I read it earlier today and found it to be a very moving description of her first-hand exposure to what internally-displaced refugees are going through in Northern Syria in the wake of the failed revolution. It didn’t occur to me to characterize the article at the time I read it, though in retrospect I would describe it as soft journalism in the human interest vein. This description is relevant because…

A few hours ago Steven Salaita tweeted:

I replied to this tweet with, “Beware the Curse of Expertise.” Steven favorited my tweet, which I took to mean he grasped what I was saying. (If I’m mistaken, I’m sure I will be informed.) Shortly thereafter, a tweet popped up in reply to my tweet that struck me as less indicative of grasping my meaning:

And then another related tweet from Steven, posted separately from the earlier thread:

Before I expound, I’ll note that I’m not posting this to talk smack about either Steven or the author of the middle tweet in the set. All three tweets present points worth consideration. They also provide the framework for the variant of the Curse of Expertise I want to write about.

Expertise is, in general, a desirable thing. It comes, however, at the cost of a kind of cognitive bias. When I suggested to Steven, “Beware the Curse of Expertise,” I was, in part, acknowledging his likely superior expertise while at the same time alluding to the bias such expertise may produce. Let’s assume—both for the sake of argument and because it’s almost certainly an accurate description of reality—the following regarding expertise on affairs in the Middle East is true:

  • Molly Crabapple has greater expertise than Chris Carter.
  • Steven Salaita has greater expertise than Molly Crabapple.

It’s easy for me, as the most ignorant of this set of three people, to read Molly’s article uncritically. You might be inclined to think, “But reading it uncritically is bad.” I don’t think that’s the case. What I do think is that if I had Steven’s expertise, I almost certainly would have read the article more critically. I might not have been critical of it in precisely the same way as Steven, but the essential character of the Curse of Expertise in this context is one of not being readily able to suppress heightened knowledge and critical faculties in order to appreciate an article like Molly’s in the way in which I suspect it was intended to be appreciated.

I must, of course, grant that the lack of expertise, combined with whatever sympathies I have for Molly’s journalistic style, are themselves producers of a kind of bias. I don’t wish to suggest that my lack of experiencing the Curse of Expertise in this instance is somehow indicative of a wonderful innocence and freedom from narrowing of thought. The point is that the intent of the article may be more difficult to discern as reader expertise increases; which is to say, Molly probably wasn’t writing her article about refugees in Syria for an audience of Steven Salaitas, but an audience of Chris Carters.

With respect to the second of the three tweets featured above, while I will grant that expertise is a good thing to have regarding what one might write about, I think it worth considering that a relative lack of expertise can produce a valid perspective when a subject is approached with care. If Molly had scholar-level expertise on the Middle East would she have written the same article? Is there a value to the written experience of someone who can go into a situation more wide-eyed, freer from the constraints prior knowledge may erect in the mind? I would answer the first question no, and the second yes.

Dodging aside for a moment to address Steven’s latter tweet: I think there’s room in journalism for the softer sort of writing we see in both Molly’s work and that of people like Anthony Bourdain. We may also want to grant that none of us have the writing expertise of Mark Twain. We do the best we can.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness...

Relevant to our interests.

I have characterized expertise as a curse both out of a certain appreciation for “curse of expertise” as a turn of phrase, and as a means of expressing the cognitive problem expertise may pose. This should not be taken to suggest that I think expertise is bad. I know for my own part I’ll take as much expertise as I can get on any subject of interest, and I hope others do the same. The Curse of Expertise is not so much a curse as a reminder of the potential for the development of bias, even out of features we regard as the most benign and useful.

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