NOTE: This post is Part 8 in my month-long deep dive into exploring "expertise and authority." Get the whole series (as it progresses) here.

"Expert: Someone with a deep knowledge of a subject."

This was the response I got when I asked for a definition from someone who believes every word I've written on this topic so far—my deep dive into expertise and authority—is "illogical on its face." I replied that it would help if he gave his own definition. His response was meant to be a course correction for my apparent detour into illogic and abstraction and subjectivism. 

But his definition baffled me.

It still baffles me, because I can't get my head around his objection. As I've explored this topic, I've repeatedly turned to the only experts available on the topic—PhDs, attorneys, even ancient scholars—to get to a useable definition for "expert." I've not only read and studied their work, but contacted many of them directly (emails are still out to Socrates and Plato). And as I explore the nature of expertise and authority, I come to the same conclusion again and again:

Expertise is relative. 

Autonomous and Attributed

We've now discovered that there are two types of expertise: Autonomous expertise and attributed expertise. 

The first is the type that my friend considers most legitimate. In his view, expertise is something internalized—you're an expert if you have a "deep knowledge" of a subject. He abhors the idea of "attributed" expertise—the notion that you can be an expert simply because others recognize you as such is disgusting to him. His words.

But if you're paying close enough attention, you've already seen the problem for my friend's argument. Because in his effort to give me a definition for "expert," he was forced to use a subjective term.

"Define 'deep knowledge,'" I replied. "How is that quantified?" 

"Does it have to be quantifiable to be valid? No."

Wait ... what?

This is what really confuses me about his objection to the conclusions drawn by not only me but by the experts I'm using for sources in this deep dive. He seems to be turned off by the very notion that expertise can be attributed—making it somehow arbitrary and subjective. But he can't avoid using subjective terms to describe what expertise really is.

Even his question about validity is subjective. Consider the definition of the term via Merriam-Webster:

Valid - adj.
a :  well-grounded or justifiable :  being at once relevant and meaningful <a valid theory>
b :  logically correct <a valid argument> <valid inference>

Emphasis mine.

"Justifiable." "Relevant." "Meaningful." 

To whom?

Because without that "to whom," you're missing the most vital component for establishing actual validity. There is always, at the heart of expertise, some recognition by an outside entity. You can't have a degree if you aren't recognized for your academic accomplishments by a university. You can't publish in a scientific journal if your research doesn't pass a peer review, validating your conclusions based on their own expertise. You can't be a successful thought leader if no one agrees with what you're saying.

Mr. Spock would be proud

Ah, but there's that other term, buried in the Merriam-Webster definition of validity—"logically correct."

This is where the point of contention really lies, because logic is a science—a disciplined and structured approach to determining validity. It provides set rules for exploring abstracts, to determine if an argument is cogent. But in order for logic to work, you have to start from some pre-determined "knowns and givens." You need facts. And those facts have to be agreed upon by all parties before any given party can or will accept the conclusions. 

This is why the polarized arguments surrounding politics, science, and religion are so frustrating. Because as we discuss these topics, we begin to rely more and more on relative and subjective terminology, open to interpretation and therefore open to fallibility.

The disparity between the various viewpoints and positions on polarizing topics is unavoidable, because the deeper you get into the meaning of a term, the more abstract it must become. Eventually, everything we know comes from inference and observation, and we already know that observation is entirely subjective. Just look at that blue and black dress. Or is it gold and white? 

So the question from my friend was, "Does it have to be quantifiable to be valid?"

His position comes down to one word: "No."

But he's wrong.

Because validity has two primary definitions, according to what we learned above. It's either "relevant and meaningful" (subjective) or "logically correct" (quantifiable). My friend's position is that it can't be subjective, so the burden falls squarely on logical proof—which requires that we measure something, or at the very least that we have established benchmarks for our determination. Logic is a science of quantification and determination.

Pursing Deep Knowledge

In order for "deep knowledge" to have any validity, we need to be able to agree upon the quantifiable amount of knowledge that defines "deep." 

That's going to be a tough undertaking. Because as I dig deeper into the meaning of expertise, it's becoming absolutely clear that there is no way to quantify knowledge in a non-subjective, non-relative way

If I argue that "Only someone with a university degree and 10,000 hours of practice in a field can be an expert," that gives us a quantifiable definition. But we would need to agree, universally, that this definition is correct.

And that's going to be a hard sell, because for starters there are some fields that do not have a degree associated with them. There's no degree in "setting up a storefront in Etsy and creating an online craft business," for example. But there are people who understand that process completely, and are sought out by others who want that knowledge as well. Unfortunately, by our current definition, these Etsy folks aren't expert—they just don't have the degree, and probably lack the 10K hours. 

In addition, "10,000 hours of practice" would have to be defined to a granular level as well, or it, too, is subjective and relative. Are those 10,000 hours spent repeating one set of tasks, and studying a pre-determined amount of collected knowledge and data? Or are they spent researching new aspects of the subject?

Frankly, the first example would be the death of innovation, while the second would preclude "expertise" altogether because the researcher would always be encountering something "new," and would never develop the "deep knowledge" required by our working definition. Under this definition of expertise, they would be an expert in the study of a subject, but not in the subject itself. 

So what constitutes "deep knowledge," if it isn't the degree or the number of hours spent on the subject? What are the benchmarks?

Actually, if "deep knowledge" isn't something quantifiable, then where the heck does the line start? Because if it isn't quantifiable, that means it's relative

A snake eating its own tail

You have deeper knowledge than me in speaking Spanish, therefore you are more of an expert on this subject than I am. Even if you only speak two words of Spanish compared to my zero words of Spanish, you're practically a Spanish dictionary relative to me

Would you be able to teach a Spanish language class? No. You're not that kind of expert. Your knowledge isn't deep enough, relative to the environment and circumstances. You lack the autonomous authority to a degree relevant to that task.

Could you teach me how to ask where the bathrooms are in Spanish? Yes. Because you have that depth of knowledge relative to me. You have attributed authority, because I have acknowledged you as an expert.

This has become something of an ouroboros—the proverbial snake eating its own tail. We can't create a definition of expertise that doesn't involve subjectivity and relativism, because in the end all knowledge is relative.

We only know more in contrast to someone who knows less.

Even autonomous expertise is subjective, in the end. We have cultivated a deep knowledge in environmental science, and know everything there is to know on the subject of climate and weather patterns. We are experts. But that expertise is still relative, at the very least, to a time when we were not experts. We know more now than we did when we started. We have a quantifiable level of knowledge based on our own assessment and personal benchmarks. We have a degree (which is actually attributed expertise) from a recognized university (attributed), and we have written a number of published, peer-reviewed papers (attributed). We use our expertise every day (autonomous) to study and learn more, to create new systems for tracking and validating date, to write more papers and studies to explain what we're discovering. 

We can't have autonomous expertise without attributed expertise. 

A self correcting system

So, if we're following the thread of logic, all expertise comes back to attribution—we have to be recognized as an expert by someone or by some quantifiable standard before we actually are an expert.

And that's what makes this frustrating for those who disagree, or who would demand otherwise.

The truth is, I understand the objection here. Because from the point of view of my friend, this is tantamount to saying that just because someone says you're an expert, you are. And so intellect and knowledge and understanding play no part in it, except relative to the observer. That's abhorrent to some people—opening the door to expertise being the prize in some sort of popularity contest. If you can "please enough other people," you're an expert.

But that sets aside a crucial component of expertise that can't be ignored: Credibility.

If you've somehow "won" the title of "expert" based on popularity or opinion, and you lack the knowledge or wisdom to back that up, then eventually you'll be ousted from the role as you lose credibility. It's a self correcting system. 

A minister who preaches abstinence and sexual purity to his congregation, but is later arrested for soliciting a prostitute, loses is credibility as an expert on morality. 

An financial advisor who is discovered mismanaging funds loses credibility as an expert in finance.

A journalist who is discovered in faking his or her sources is discredited and loses the public trust, and no longer has credibility as a source of information. 

Is it tragic that it sometimes takes this sort of downfall to test the expertise of an individual? Sure. Tragic, and unnecessary, if we lived in a world where expertise was intrinsic and had no need of quantification, where it could be measured objectively and subjectivity and relativism were no part of it. But that isn't reality. 

The very question my friend asked, "Does it have to be quantifiable to be valid?" is at the very heart of this problem. Because he is arguing that expertise isn't relative—it has to be an objective reality. But he also argues that "deep knowledge" can be subjective and still valid. It's a logical fallacy.

I'm picking on my friend here because he's the most recent example of something I have seen before, and I'm positive I will see again. People do not know how to trust an expert, and so they doubt all experts. Unless, of course, they don't.

They don't see that they are being far more subjective in their assessment than everyone else. They are looking for validity, but refusing to establish objective standards. No wonder they're so distrustful—by that definition, every expert is a fraud, and no one can be trusted.

So maybe the key is to be an autonomous expert on your own. If you can't trust the experts, if you can't validate them, if you can't determine a metric for them, then you have to rely on your own expertise to fill in the gaps. And as we discussed earlier, that's something most people will never do, because of time constraints alone.

We look to experts so we can outsource our decision making. We look to them so we can shortcut our learning about a subject. We look to them so we can skip ahead a bit and not have to wade through the minutia of a topic to know more about it, so we can use it in our lives. Doing that takes a measure of faith—because unless we, ourselves, become experts on a topic, we'll never know for certain that our trusted experts are worth trusting.

So really, it all comes down to trust. 


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at


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