CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #25
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #25
Most things in life exist in the form of a spectrum. Knowledge is one of those, as it can range in a hierarchical fashion from complete ignorance about a topic to considerable proficiency. The latter is often referred to as expertise, but the exact criteria by which to consider someone an expert are somewhat vague at best. Not only that, knowledge is a moving target because we are constantly improving our understanding in most fields of study. That means that expertise is fleeting as well. The expertise I recognized early in my career would definitely not qualify as expertise today.
Given this unavoidable reality, we could become cynical about knowledge and expertise at one end of the spectrum, or we could allow it to humble us at the other end. The problem is that true humility is somewhat scary, because it necessitates admitting, especially to ourselves, how little any of us really knows for certain. At any given moment we all have many beliefs, but how well do those beliefs correspond to the way the universe actually works? Is that a question most of us are even prepared to ask ourselves? In a complex world in which we know that life and health are fragile commodities, not having a complete grasp of the world around us is unsettling. It is therefore tempting to cling to binary thinking, that every problem has only two possible solutions and we have always the right one which will guarantee prosperity and happiness. But in a universe full of spectra, simplistically reducing everything to a binary mode seldom provides the best solutions.
To further complicate matters, knowledge can be of many types. For example, the Greeks referred to one way of knowing as ‘episteme’ or academic knowledge of a subject. Another was ‘techne’, or practical knowledge of a topic. Sometimes we use the terms ‘book smarts’ and ‘streets smarts’, respectively. Which is more valuable? Does that depend on the circumstances?
In addition, knowledge can be of a specific type or a general type. One person may have considerable knowledge that is ‘deep but narrow’; for example, they know a lot about a specific genus of trees. We often refer to such an individual as an ‘expert’. However, another person may have a much broader understanding that is not nearly so deep. They know a lot about the forest in general and can see ‘the big picture’, so to speak. We do not necessarily consider them to have the same level of expertise.
Like episteme and techne, it can be difficult to know which is more useful, the specific type of knowledge or the general one. Likely they both can be helpful depending on the context. Sometimes it is helpful to see things up close; sometimes it is more helpful to stand back and see the grander vista.
In article #24 (Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics) I noted that it is easy to be mesmerized by data, and the same can be said of expertise. We may find ourselves intimidated by experts, feeling that we must acquiesce to their knowledge, perspectives and guidance at all times. However, all of us can learn and grow, and the goal of experts should not be to flaunt their expertise or use their superior knowledge to advance themselves only. Their goal should be to share their knowledge and nurture the rest of us to grow in our understanding, much as a music teacher shares their ability for our benefit as well as their own. Given the often-transient nature of knowledge and expertise, no matter our position in the hierarchy of knowing at any given moment we should be encouraged to question authorities, and they in turn should be open to respectfully listening and answering our inquiries. Otherwise, it is easy to fall into an intellectual laziness, or a childlike naïveté, that diminish the inherent value of each of us as human beings. Just as it is unwise to dismiss expertise, it is equally unwise to worship it unconditionally.
Respectful dialogue and the growth that can result from it are far superior to blindly following the dictates of experts or authority figures. Have you been confused by some of the data or pronouncements of experts during the pandemic? If you are a ‘non-expert’, have you felt intimidated or unworthy to ask for clarification on important issues that greatly affect your life or the lives of those you love? Do you ever wish that someone could provide a more balanced ‘bird’s eye view’ of the situation because it might be as helpful as the up-close perspective?
Perhaps we would benefit from re-evaluating our relationship with experts. Doing so might help to minimize the likelihood of drifting into an unhealthy dependence upon them, rooted in unjustified low self-esteem or a feeling of hopeless ignorance. The same might be said of leadership, the topic of my next article.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (bioethics)
CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
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