18 Oct 2021
Khylee Quince, dean of law at AUT, could be considered an expert in her field. She is also a keen follower of the New Zealand Warriors, but concedes that her many opinions on the team do not make suitable for a coaching role.
Who or what makes an “expert”?
The commonly accepted definition of the past two centuries is someone who is set apart from lay persons as a result of their specialist acquired knowledge and experience. The medieval guild system in Europe, which still underpins our modern apprenticeship system, required an apprentice to work towards mastery of their trade over an average of seven years, before producing a literal “masterpiece” to showcase their skills. This timeframe is broadly equivalent to the period of study required to earn a PhD, the pinnacle of research-based academic achievement.
In tikanga Māori, the equivalent is the tohunga, an expert practitioner in a field, sometimes chosen or appointed – hence the root term “tohu”, meaning a sign or manifestation. In Māori social ordering, tohunga are a class of persons, trained in particular expertise in history, science, the arts and other spheres. The term still has currency, with contemporary astronomers and maramataka/calendar experts Rereata Makiha and Professor Rangi Mataamua regularly referred to as tohunga.
By any definition, it is clear that to be an expert requires education and experience beyond the wheelhouse of ordinary people. In recent years, the emergence of child prodigies has sparked debate about the production of champions or masters across fields including sports and music. A 1993 paper by psychology Professor Anders Ericsson drew upon studies that suggested many thousands of hours of “deliberate practice” at playing the violin could produce elite performers by age 20.
Ericsson’s paper is widely touted as the inspiration for the “10,000 hours” thesis popularised in the years after its publication. The theory is that, with 10,000 hours’ dedication to a task or subject, any person can become world-class at anything. Ericsson has refuted this, claiming its proponents failed to consider the “deliberate practice” aspect of his original claim, as well as the roles of expert teachers, and of course concrete results that can be consistently replicated.
But I trust their representatives – Rawiri, Collin, Siouxsie, Shaun, Michael, Rod and their colleagues – because I broadly trust the systems and institutions in which they learned and practise their crafts. High levels of public trust and social cohesion are needed for this dynamic to work – experts give advice, which is considered by the public and acted upon to the extent that they accept its validity and worth in the context of their own lives.
There will always be individuals and groups for whom that trust is not evident, often for good reason, stemming from personal or collective experience. In Aotearoa, mistrust in government and those associated with state policy is not uncommon among pockets of Māori. Worldwide, disaffected groups include indigenous and minority peoples, the poor and those excluded from power and privilege.
The decline in public trust of traditional experts and institutions over the past generation occurred in parallel to the rise of the public voice and access to information. Expert blunders are often seized upon to fuel the flames of disdain. This occurs at a meta level in relation to mistakes made by experts that contributed to the global financial crisis, to the assurances of the non-addictive qualities of opioids for pain relief, down to everyday scepticism of the people who forecast our weather on the telly every night. The haters revel in the mistakes of experts.
Covid-19 has been a breeding ground for what the World Health Organisation has termed an “infodemic”, which has serious implications for trust in governments, information and expertise. I know my areas of expertise, and they are pretty limited. Despite my 26 years as an armchair expert on the Warriors, I won’t be applying for the head coach role any time soon, nor do I correspond with the actual coach with my hot-takes on the interchange bench.
I’m entitled to my opinion, but it does not mean I am an expert. In my daily life I don’t seek to replace the expertise of mechanics, builders, or accountants. My education and experience means the internet is useful in helping me decide which expert to call upon, and how to filter what is good and bad expertise – but that is all.
The rest relies upon epistemic trust – which refers to your willingness to consider and accept new knowledge as relevant and reliable. For many people, their experiences tell them it is not in their best interests to trust information indiscriminately. In this pandemic, we are reliant upon different connectors to ensure high levels of social conformity and vaccination to keep us collectively safe.
If you can’t trust the voices the Government uses, then listen to those relevant to your life – where they have legitimately earned it.
This article first appeared on Stuff.co.nz.