Experts and Expertise

TL;DR: Expertise is a multivariable spectrum, not a binary, and disagreements are often signs of different knowledge. Seek the knowledge gap between different experts, and between yourself and them. Find what you didn’t realize you didn’t know, and diversify your expert portfolio.

Seeing all the debates around AGI recently has made me feel that many people seem deeply confused about what “expertise” is and how to relate to it.

Rejecting expertise is something I never do, even if I disagree with the expert. Nor, obviously, do I bow to expertise. Instead, I use experts’ beliefs as opportunities to reflect on my own state of knowledge.

Useful explanations are the main thing I really care about, and both laymen and experts can provide those… but knowledge is the fundamental building block of a good explanation, and “expert” is meaningless as a word if it doesn’t signal at least some┬áreservoir of knowledge.

When two experts disagree, my immediate thought is “I wonder what knowledge each of them has that the other lacks.”

One of them may even have all the relevant knowledge the other does, and more! In which case one of them could just in a binary way be wrong about a particular question in specific, or one can be more correct more often in general.

But always, when experts disagree, figuring that out, figuring out which expert has what knowledge, is where I find the most value in pointing my attention. Not all disagreements come down to explicit knowledge, of course, sometimes people have biases or heuristics or values that affect their beliefs… but the first two are just compressed knowledge, and the last one is usually pretty easy to pick out if the person explains their reasoning.

This is why, to me, asking people to notice their non-expertise (lack of knowledge) on a topic can be useful, so long as it doesn’t imply submission to authority. It should act as a prompt to notice confusion and boggle over uncertainties. Responding with “experts can be wrong” is both trivially true and uselessly general as a critique.

For me, learning from experts means seeking the gaps in knowledge that makes them the expert and me not one. I still expect what they say to make sense to me, but I can only do that if I can find parts of my model that they can’t account for, and that takes work on my part.

It’s sometimes hard work, and I suspect that’s what makes most people reject expertise when it’s convenient to their disagreement to do so. But we have to be willing to examine our own models, boggle over what’s missing, and not feel threatened by the gaps. Learning can be fun!

So, how to identify “actual experts” so you don’t waste time and energy listening to everyone who claims expertise?

Good question! I wish I had a better answer. It’s often hard, and tempting to outsource to credentials. For many decisions, like car repair or health, it makes sense to defer to doctors and mechanics, though I still always check online just to learn what the thing they say means and whether it fits my experience or symptoms.

But the central question I reorient to is, “What does this person think they know, and why do they think they know it?”

People I most respect are those who ask people, particularly those that disagree with them, to make their beliefs legible, and ask them what would change their mind. Seeing one expert do this to another is a sign that they’re someone who reflects on their own knowledge often, and that I should pay more attention to what they say.

This is also how non-credentialed experts can very clearly overturn what credentialed experts say, for me. When someone spends dozens, or even hundreds, of hours making their thinking legible in a way that I can observe, particularly about a specific topic… sure, they can still be wrong, just like the credentialed experts.

But at least I can check whether a credentialed expert addresses their cruxes or not. And I can tease out what part of their belief is based on knowledge they can make legible, vs heuristics or values the aren’t aware of or that I might disagree with.