What is an Expert?

I’ll tread carefully here, because we live in a strange time of questioning the motives and knowledge of experts to bolster every bizarre conspiracy theory under the sun. No one trusts any information anymore. It’s not even clear if trusting/doubting expert opinion is anti/hyper-intellectual. But that isn’t the subject of today’s topic.

I listen to quite a few podcasts, and several of them have made me think about expertise recently.

For example, Gary Taubes was on the Sam Harris podcast and both of them often get tarred with the “you don’t have a Ph.D. in whatever, so you’re an unknowledgeable/dangerous quack” brush. Also, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast is insanely detailed, but every ten minutes he reminds the audience “I’m not a historian …”

Many people who value the importance of expertise think that the degree (the Ph.D. in particular but maybe an MFA for arts stuff) is the be-all-end-all of the discussion. You have the Ph.D., then you’re an expert. If you don’t, then you’re not.

The argument I want to present is that if you believe this, you really should be willing to extend your definition of expertise to a wider group of people who have essentially done the equivalent work of one of these degrees.

Think of it this way. Person A goes to Subpar University, scrapes by with the minimal work, kind of hates it, and then teaches remedial classes at a Community College for a few years. Person B has a burning passion for the subject, studies all of the relevant literature, and continues to write about and develop novel ideas in the subject for decades. I’d be way more willing to trust Person B as an expert than Person A despite the degree differences.

Maybe I’ve already convinced you, and I need not go any further. Many of you are probably thinking, yeah, but there are parts to doing a degree that can’t be mimicked without the schooling. And others might be thinking, yeah, but Person B is merely theoretical. No one in the real world exists like Person B. We’ll address each of these points separately.

I think of a Ph.D. as having three parts. Phase 1 is demonstration of competence of the basics. This is often called the Qualifying or Preliminary Exam. Many students don’t fully understand the purpose of this phase while going through it. They think they must memorize and compute. They think of it as a test of basic knowledge.

At least in math and the hard sciences, this is not the case. It is almost a test of attitude. Do you know when you’re guessing? Do you know what you don’t know? Are you able to admit this or will you BS your way through something? Is the basic terminology internalized? You can pass Phase 1 with gaps in knowledge. You cannot pass Phase 1 if you don’t know where those gaps are.

Phase 2 is the accumulation of knowledge of the research done in your sub-sub-(sub-sub-sub)-field. This basically amounts to reading thousands of pages, sometimes from textbooks to get a historical view, but mostly from research papers. It also involves talking to lots of people engaged in similar, related, or practically the same problems as your thesis. You hear their opinions and intuitions about what is true and start to develop your own intuitions.

Phase 3 is the original contribution to the literature. In other words, you write the thesis. To get a feel for the difficulty and time commitment of each step, if you do a five year Ph.D., ideally Phase 1 would be done in around a year, Phase 2 is 2-4 years, and Phase 3 is around a year (there is overlap between phases).

I know a lot of people aren’t going to like what I’m about to say, but the expertise gained from a Ph.D. is almost entirely the familiarization with the current literature. It’s taking the time to read and understand everything being done in the field.

Phase 1 is basically about not wasting people’s time and money. If you’re going to not understand what you’re reading in Phase 2 and make careless mistakes in Phase 3, it’s best to weed those people out with Phase 1. But you aren’t gaining any expertise in Phase 1, because it’s all just the basics still.

One of the main reasons people don’t gain Ph.D.-level expertise without actually doing the degree is because being in such a program forces you to compress all that reading into a small time-frame (yes, reading for three years is short). It’s going to take someone doing it as a hobby two or three times longer, and even then, they’ll be tempted to just give up without the external motivation of the degree looming over them.

Also, without motivating thesis problem, you won’t have the narrow focus to make the reading and learning manageable. I know everyone tackles this in different ways, but here’s how it worked for me. I’d take a paper on a related topic, and I’d try to adapt the techniques and ideas to my problem. This forced me to really understand what made these techniques work, which often involved learning a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t have if I just read through it to see the results.

Before moving on, I’d like to add that upon completion of a Ph.D. you know pretty much nothing outside of your sub-sub-(sub-sub-sub)-field. It will take many years of continued teaching and researching and reading and publishing and talking to people to get any sense of your actual sub-field.

Are there people who complete the equivalent of the three listed phases without an actual degree?

I’ll start with the more controversial example of Gary Taubes. He got a physics undergrad degree and a masters in aerospace engineering. He then went into science journalism. He stumbled upon how complicated and shoddy the science of nutrition was, and started to research a book.

Five years later, he had read and analyzed pretty much every single nutrition study done. He interviewed six hundred doctors and researchers in the field. If this isn’t Phase 2 of a Ph.D., I don’t know what is. Most students won’t have gone this in-depth to learn the state of the field in an actual Ph.D. program.

Based on all of this, he then wrote a meticulously cited book Good Calories, Bad Calories. The bibliography is over 60 pages long. If this isn’t Phase 3 of a Ph.D., I don’t know what is. He’s continued to stay abreast of studies and has done at least one of his own in the past ten years. He certainly has more knowledge of the field than any fresh Ph.D.

Now you can disagree with his conclusions all you want. They are quite controversial (but lots of Ph.D. theses have controversial conclusions; this is partially how knowledge advances). Go find any place on the internet with a comments section that has run something about him and you’ll find people who write him off because “he got a physics degree so he’s not an expert on nutrition.” Are we really supposed to ignore 20 years of work done by a person just because it wasn’t done at a University and the previous 4 years of their life they got an unrelated degree? It’s a very bizarre sentiment.

A less controversial example is Dan Carlin. Listen to any one of his Hardcore History podcasts. He loves history, so he obsessively reads about it. Those podcasts are each an example of completing Phase 3 of the Ph.D. And he also clearly knows the literature as he constantly references hundreds of pieces of research an episode off the top of his head. What is a historian? Supposedly it’s someone who has a Ph.D. in history. But Dan has completed all the same Phases, it just wasn’t at a university.

(I say this is less controversial, because I think pretty much everyone considers Dan an expert on the topics he discusses except for himself. It’s a stunning display of humility. Those podcasts are the definition of having expertise on a subject.)

As a concluding remark/warning. There are a lot of cranks out there who try to pass themselves off as experts who really aren’t. It’s not easy to tell for most people, and so it’s definitely best to err on the side of the degree that went through the gatekeeper of a university when you’re not sure.

But also remember that Ph.D.’s are human too. There’s plenty of people like Person A in the example above. You can’t just believe a book someone wrote because that degree is listed after their name. They might have made honest mistakes. They might be conning you. Or, more likely, they might not have a good grasp on the current state of knowledge of the field they’re writing about.

What is an expert? To me, it is someone who has dedicated themselves with enough seriousness and professionalism to get through the phases listed above. This mostly happens with degree programs, but it also happens a lot in the real world, often because someone moves into a new career.