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Rethinking Expertise

  1. Jun 21, 2008 #1


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    There is a review of a book titled "Rethinking Expertise" on PhysicsWorld website that I find rather interesting and appropriate. The author of the book makes a distinction between the level of expert knowledge that a person can have in reference to scientific knowledge. What is original here is the distinction between the highest level of expertise that allows one to make an original contribution, versus what the authors call "interactional expertise" where ".... people who have this kind of expertise share some of the tacit knowledge of the communities of practitioners while still not having the full set of skills that would allow them to make original contributions to the field...."

    I think that for most practicing scientists, we tend to know when we go from having a tacit knowledge and expertise of something (such as our area of study) to an area where we are, at best, having an interactional expertise. This is because we are aware of the level of knowledge and the amount of details that are needed to be an expert in a particular area. So we tend to know when we no longer have that.

    It then leaves 2 questions to ponder:

    1. How many people are aware of the level of their knowledge in a certain area when they either offer an opinion, or engage in a discussion where tacit knowledge of something is required?

    2. Is the level of expert knowledge not as strictly required in other areas outside of science? For example, in areas where "opinions" and how one sell one's ideas seem to matter more than the accuracy of the content (politics?), is there such a thing as the boundary between expert, interactional expert, and the pedestrian, average Joe?

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  3. Jun 21, 2008 #2


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    The author raises interesting issues, but it might not be helpful to adopt the proposed new category. It might be better to keep to the old definitions.

    Suppose we don't adopt this guy's proposed terminology. what then? An expert in some field is just an expert in that field, plain and simple. A non-expert is still a non-expert, even if perceptive and well-informed.
    Someone in a neighboring field who watches the research scene can simply say
    "I'm not an expert in this field, but I see what's going on and here is what I think." And we can decide to pay attention to what they say and judge whether to believe them.

    Likewise a graduate student in the field, who is not yet equiped to "make original contributions" can say "I'm not yet a qualified expert but I've scoped this research scene out some and here is what I think." And likewise we can listen to their viewpoint.

    Likewise a science journalist with experience in the field, they can give their perspective even though they are not making an original research contribution.

    The issue you raise, Zapper, is whether to call these people experts of some kind.
    My gut feeling is that this is a bad idea. One should not run the risk of blurring distinctions and one should not call them experts, of some new type.
    But maybe in the future you, or the author, will convince me to change my mind.


    There is also another (submerged) issue here, which is to what extent should you BELIEVE someone simply because they are accorded expert status.

    I don't know if you have considered that in this context, or if you are making any assumptions about it. Or if you are interested in our gut feelings about this as well.

    My viewpoint for what it's worth is that expert status factors in, but recognized experts can make wrong statements. So I listen to experts and certain non-expert observers and form an impression of each person by how fair objective insightful they seem over time. Do their expectations square with reality, etc.

    I recognized expertise and put a high value on it, but I don't automatically equate it with credibility.

    So in some sense I don't have any USE for the concept of "interactional expert"-----it probably, for practical purposes, means a NON-expert that for one reason or another you think might have some credibility. And I'd probably rather say something like
    credible non-expert----instead of adopting this newly invented category.


    Having said all that, I still have to compliment Zapper and the author for a constructive addition to the discussion---for raising an important issue. Whatever terminology you use, how do you decide whom to listen to? How do you identify informed perceptive commentary on a scientific research scene?

    It is an interesting issue. Thanks for raising it. I'll keep thinking about it.
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2008
  4. Jun 23, 2008 #3


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    This seems to bring to mind an old discussion we had somewhere around here about people's confidence in their knowledge being somewhat inversely associated with their actual knowledge (i.e., those who know the most also are most aware of their limitations).

    As I read your description above of the term "interactional expert," the first thing that popped into mind were physicians. They need to know quite a bit about science to practice medicine, but need not be able to make a novel contribution. In fact, very few have the skill set to make novel contributions, and often don't realize the level of their weaknesses beyond their ability as diagnosticians.

    Since your question is more about those outside of science, though, another area that comes to my mind is film/art. Someone can be a non-expert (me), while an interactional expert might be a good actor who can follow a script and direction well, yet I'd think it would be the writers/producers who are the full-fledged experts who make the novel contributions. Same with other art forms. Lots of people can dabble with painting or sculpting as non-experts. Some can study a long time and appreciate art and maybe get quite good at making reproductions, and they would be the interactional experts, while only a very few offer novel contributions, i.e., Picasso or Rembrandt.
  5. Jun 24, 2008 #4
    Thats an interesting issue you have raised. Let me first answer in relation to politics and then in relation to academia.

    In politics, I think lack of expert knowledge is very common occurrence yet it does not seem to stop anyone from being successful in that field. There are so many examples in politics of someone who has had a midlife crisis or a whim or whatever and one day decided to become a politician (the governor of California is the first to come to mind). I don't know if this is a good or a bad thing about the American political system since on the one hand it prevents politics from being a exclusive cadre for the wealthy elite but on the other it puts enormous power in the hands of people who may not know how to exercise it properly.

    In academia, I think there are some areas that are called sciences where interesting opinions and elegant verbal and writing skills can get someone really far without much factual or objective basis for their opinions. I guess there are really two different issues you are raising here. One is: does having an extraordinary mastery of a scientific field is necessary to publish in that field? The second is: does having insight and shrewdness in a "non-scientific" field can ALONE allow you to be successful?

    I think the answer to the second question is definitely YES and in fact many of the "non-scientific" areas of academic rely on elegant speech and writing as the basis for their work. I think the answer to the first question depends on what nonscientific area we are talking about. Poetry and literature are examples of areas where any layman can achieve fame and academic repute without really knowing anything "academic" as long as their ideas are revolutionary enough. On the hand, the study of history really requires you to know A LOT about your era if you want to make a significant contribution.
  6. Jul 5, 2008 #5


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    I randomly came across an article while browsing JSTOR and remembered this thread.

    The Third Wave of Science Studies: Studies of Expertise and Experience
    H. M. Collins and Robert Evans
    Social Studies of Science, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Apr., 2002), pp. 235-296​

    Turned out to be the same authors, on the same subject.

  7. Oct 5, 2008 #6
    And what of good-old Generalist/Naturalist---i see your main 'error-of-reasoning' as Any attempt to 'quantize' expertise---it's fine for classifying orthopedic surgeons---but as broken as 'broken-thinking'--so rampant. my cousin's NASA hubby is one perfect example--before retirement, he did all 'shuttle-burns', and computed the tons of 'space-junk' orbitals--he was given a $30K+ bonus for taking over an 'outside-math-firm's' months-long failure--solved it on his home machine in days--one math whiz---and Babtists who spends his spare time attempting to show we live at a 'white-holes' edge--and this world Is but 7,000 years old. so i find 'area-of-expertise' as useful as the person---maybe---certainly no more---
  8. Nov 4, 2008 #7


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    Well, we couldn't exactly rely on some clerk in a patent office to explain the natural laws of the universe, could we?
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