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Who Knows?

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

Academics who don't feel comfortable pontificating on a particular issue have a standard excuse: It's not my field.

Two recent events prompted me to think about that response. They both involve experts, self-proclaimed experts, and how we decide whose judgment to trust.

The first event is the end of the academic year, aka The Season of the Sociopath. It is a time of massive questioning of faculty expertise, and not from the usual suspects — colleagues, friends, and loved ones. It comes from students in a predictable litany of excuses, whines, and bullying. Here's my favorite example, a mini-drama beginning with a student coming to see me in a state of extreme urgency. The opening line is standard, if ungrammatical: "Me and some of my friends think you are grading too hard." My well-honed response is a rant: "Do you really expect any faculty member just to say, 'You're right. Of course, I'll raise your grades'? How many papers have you ever graded? How come so many other people got As? How many other papers in the course have you read? What makes you and your friends authorities on how we should grade the course?"

The usual response to my string of rhetorical questions is, "But me and my friends . . . "

Initially, I saw these encounters as a struggle between my expertise and the student's inability to come up with a good excuse. Only recently did I realize that from the student's perspective there were competing views of expertise at play. I might know more about course content and grading standards. He, however, had a bit of expertise I lacked: He knew what he needed to stay off academic probation. In this case, my expertise always wins, but not because my credentials or logic persuade him. I control the grade sheet.

The second event that prompted my thinking about experts, true and false, came from two episodes of one of my favorite sources of hard news, Entertainment Tonight. A star of a now defunct sitcom talked authoritatively about a recent court case. She held forth on the following. Law: Judges who had ruled on the case over the years were wrong. Medicine: Doctors who had treated the patient for a decade and a half were wrong. Evidence: A suspect and partially discredited news story was true. Economics and ethics: A malpractice settlement made one party in the case rich, instead of going into a trust fund for the victim. Psychology: A key figure really meant such-and-such, no matter what he said or did to the contrary.

Her sources appear to have been a mother-to-mother telephone call with a partisan in the case and a profound sympathy for the disabled. America deserves better experts than this. We should at least demand to hear from sitcom actresses whose shows are still on the air.

She was not alone in turning shaky credentials into claims of expertise. We have talk show hosts who discourse learnedly about colleges and universities while bragging about never having graduated from one. We have medical experts who do not practice medicine or see the patients in question. We have legal experts who haven't viewed the evidence. (One is best known for losing a high profile case — not what I look for in an attorney.) My favorite such expert is an adviser on sex whose chief credential, according to her publisher, is a longtime interest in the subject. If that's what it takes, a lot of us are ready to hang out a shingle and open a practice.

I don't want my dismay at self-proclaimed experts to imply that we should always defer to real experts in the field. We constantly have to make judgments that pit us against people who have special knowledge we don't. Doctors know medicine better than we do, but there are times when we have to make our own decisions about our bodies. Presidents and secretaries of state know foreign policy, but we are irresponsible citizens if we blindly agree with everything they say. That's as bad as taking sitcom stars as our guides.

So here is the tough question: How do we decide when to accept someone's judgment as an expert, when to dismiss would-be experts, and when to decide we're hearing garbage no matter whose mouth it's coming from? My answer? It's not my field.

I wish more people copped that plea.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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