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Expert vs. Authority

  1. Oct 21, 2003 #1


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    I happened to mention to someone that I'm an expert in relativity. I prefer not to place titles on myself since I don't like the responsibility of a title. However the definition of "expert" from Webster's Dictionary is

    Expert - having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience

    And that is most certainly true. However when I said "expert" I, of course, meant only the above. It appears that, for some strange reason, some people misinterpret "expert" to mean that the person does't make mistakes and who knows everything in their field etc. At best that is confusing expert with authority which, to me at least, are very different things.

    But I can't find "authority" in the dictionary that I was using. The best I can find is this one


    authority - obvious knowledge and experience: knowledge, skill, or experience worthy of respect

    Does anyone here have an opinion on what they consider to be an expert and what the consider to be an authority?

  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 21, 2003 #2
    I think you are close to the difference. To me, an authority is someone with the knowledge of an expert and perhaps an element of "leadership" or "last word on the subject" that their level of knowledge may allow them.
  4. Oct 21, 2003 #3
    The genetic fallacy is my favorite fallacy, and I commit acts under its name constantly.

    I would stick close to the latin cognates of these nouns.

    Expert - 'one having found out' - experienced. To establish that someone is expert in something requires agreement on training as well as accepted work by that person.

    Authority- 'one being the author' - having written "the book" on something. To establish that someone is in authority on something requires agreement on position, as original author or (later) comprehensive representative.

    I would warrant that having an authority on one's side is better than having an expert. But it depends on the actual matter for which an expert or an authority has been invoked. If it is something new (or a fresh view of a previously settled matter) and the authority quit active work on the subject years ago, then the expert might be the better witness.
  5. Oct 21, 2003 #4


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    This I disagree with. That's like saying that Einstein was not an expert in relativity in 1905. I'm not sure what you mean by "accepted work." Some people prefer not to publish and yet are very good at what they do. For example: I'd consider all professors at all universities who teach relativity to be experts. That doesn't mean that they publish. Please clarify as to what you mean by "accepted work".

    I have a friend who is a well known author in relativity. I don't think he considers himself an authority - although I consider him to be one. So you're saying that all people who write texts are authorities?

    Thank you for your input.

  6. Oct 21, 2003 #5

    Chi Meson

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    You can call yourself an expert, but others have to recognize you as an authority.
  7. Oct 21, 2003 #6
    Good answer.
  8. Oct 21, 2003 #7


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    While anyone can call themself an expert there is a certain amount of pain and suffering that must go into paying for that privilege in way of jillions of hours studying and working problems etc.

    I see several people on the interent who think of themselves as experts and who don't even know the basics. E.g. there was this time when someone who claimed to know relativisic electrodynamics and yet they didn't understand that the Lorenz force

    F = q[E + vxB]

    is relativistically correct.

  9. Oct 21, 2003 #8

    Please don't disregard the emphases in my offerings.

    My phrase "accepted work" avoids the question of standard publication. A body of hand notes would be acceptable, provided they are known later and have been authenticated. I would accept lecture notes written by students as good testament to some lecturer's expertise.

    Why wouldn't Einstein be an expert in 1905, since he published two rather good papers on the subject? If you mean 1905 before June, then I'm not sure why the question arises. Einstein solved his problems on electrodynamics rather quickly, by all accounts. Prior to that, was he an expert? Small matter to me!

    I specifically emphasized "the book", not just any book. To the extent that such a singular book exists, then it is easier to decide who the authorities are. The subject might have to wait for full development. In 1905 Einstein had not exploited his relativity idea completely. He thought the treatment in von Laue's book on relativity (arguably the first relativity text) was rather silly. He also backed off from Minkowski's 4D presentation of spacetime. Only later did he turn around on these two things when bogged down in the problem of developing a relativity theory of gravitation. Certainly by the time of his Princeton lectures and "The Meaning of Relativity" Einstein was the primary authority. You may choose for yourself at what point he switched from mere expert to authority.

    If a public meaning for these two attributions is being sought, then we need a basis for agreement. If the terms get fuzzed in meaning, then there is just a lot more opportunity for disagreement. The court (whatever that is) will have to rule. Privately, one can say what one wants. One is free to choose author X to be a panjandrum of relativity, or whatever subject.

  10. Oct 21, 2003 #9


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    Okey dokey. Thanks for the correction

    No biggy. It addressed the notion that if, to be an authority, then one must have published on the subject. So in raises the question as to whether Einstein was an expert in the weeks before he wrote relativity. Mind you - I'm just tossing some thoughts out there.

    Here is a definition that a buddy of mine just e-mailed me
    That Huxley comment I have to question though. I don't mind citing authority in regards to the definition of certain things in physics but not with regard to theory.


  11. Oct 21, 2003 #10

    It seems I have the same dictionary as you (websters). I notice in your first post you present the definition of the adjectival form of the word.

    The noun form is defined thus: "one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject."

    "Authority" is in there as well, with several definitions. The one relevant to this discussion is:1c "an individual cited or appealed to as an expert"

    This means that the difference between an expert and an authority, in common usage, lies in the extent to which they are relied upon as a source of information, as Chi Meson pointed out.

  12. Oct 22, 2003 #11


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    Hi zoobyshoe


    In the future I'll have to keep in mind never to use these terms to refer to myself. I don't particularly like the idea of being an expert/authority in anything. That seems to be something someone who was conceited would say of themselves.

    Plus - Too much pressure! Not too mention - From Webster

    "ex" - not

    "pert" - piquantly stimulating

    Put these together

    expert = not stimulating


    Thanks for your response

  13. Oct 22, 2003 #12

    Chi Meson

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    Both terms are very relative. 150 years ago there wer authorities and experts on the luminiferous ether. What's that worth today?

    Anyone can also "call" themselves an authority, too. But the phrase, "I'm an authority on quantum dynamics" sounds much more pretentious and presumptive than "I'm an expert on quantum dynamics."
    Pretty much, you would have to be Niels Bohr, Feynman, Gell-Mann, or the like to say the former. I agree with (who was it? I can't find the right post) who suggested that authority has a connotation of leadership.
  14. Oct 22, 2003 #13


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    If there is such a thing as a fundamental absolute truth, then the difference between an expert and an authority could become important. An authority of X is technically correct when he/she makes statements concerning X, by definition, whereas an expert of X could see a flaw in X itself with respect to the absolute truth and therefore be correct when he/she makes statements about X that contradict the statements made by the authority, for the exact reason that the authority is not necessarily absolutely correct. I'm not saying that the expert is necessarily abslolutely correct either. I AM saying that the author does not always have the ultimate determination for what is fundamentally absolutely true. Again, that is, if there is such a thing as absolute fundamental truth.
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