How to spot a competent, honest, and upright expert

A whore should be judged by the same criteria as other professionals offering services for pay – such as dentists, lawyers, hairdressers, physicians, plumbers, etc. Is she professionally competent? Does she give good measure? Is she honest with her clients?
It is possible that the percentage of honest and competent whores is higher than that of plumbers and much higher than that of lawyers. And enormously higher than that of professors.
Excerpt from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long in “Time Enough For Love” by Robert A. Heinlein

Competent, honest, and upright experts exist, but they are hard to recognize. Personally, I think that in almost any area, competent, honest and upright experts have the following characteristics:

  1. They answer general questions with “it depends”
    Once you know, understand, or even grok a subject, you see the boundary conditions, the outliers, the special cases. This is actually what makes interactions between amateurs and experts difficult at times. The amateur knows (at best) one theory (without knowing how muddy the data were) or has one explanation (based on his/her own experience), so the world is crystal-clear. However, reality is much more complicated when you really get to know it. Luckily, that’s half of the fun of learning about something.
  2. They continue with information what it depends on
    Knowing that everything “depends” is only the first step. The (much) more difficult second step is knowing what it depends on. In practical terms this means that the competent expert asks the right questions to get the information and answer the question not only correctly (“it depends”), but also usefully (“and given what I have learned about your condition, you might want to do …”).
  3. They admit the limits of their knowledge (or of the scientific knowledge)
    James Randi famously said that a PhD loses his/her ability to say “I don’t know.” (and “I was wrong.”). A honest expert will admit the limits of his/her knowledge — and you cannot know everything.
  4. They also admit that you have to take all studies with a pinch of salt
    Any discipline, no matter which one, has its share of frauds and dilettantes. Not necessarily scientific frauds, this is also true for other professions, e.g., journalists. Just track down the original source (esp. if it is not linked, even if it was said on a website) and compare the information (one of the worst examples I’ve seen so far is this article (the quote in the first paragraph), which “surprisingly” is not linked to the article itself, which puts the quote in a different context. It does not matter which area of work you are talking about — if humans are involved, some will pursue different agenda’s than doing a professional job with integrity. An upright expert will warn you and be able to identify them.
  5. They do not ignore the facts to preserve their “expert” status
    Unfortunately, some people think that asking questions and not knowing the answer (or a guess they assert as answer) will undermine their status and make them appear incompetent and weak. I think this is the bane of experts — based on their (expert) knowledge, they make assumptions, instead of checking out reality. The best answer is often not “I think/assume/guess …”, but “I don’t know, but I can find out when I …”

So, what do you think? Do you consider yourself to be an competent, honest, and upright expert and do these points resonate with you? Did I miss something? Is something too much?

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  1. Or in other words, a genuine expert is someone who’s passed from unknowing to known ignorance. He may actually know a lot, but he knows even better where the uncertainties lie.

    That said, I also believe that with real expertise comes the intuitions that Malcolm Gladwell describes in Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. A experienced expert can make leaps that even he can’t explain but that in the end prove correct. Our unconscious mind has made observations about which our conscious mind is unaware. Sometimes it speaks with a vague sense of unease that we need to explore. At other times it shouts, demanding instant action, “Run,” it tells us and we dart away unthinking, only just avoiding a deadly strike.

    I know that when I worked caring for children with leukemia I developed a sixth sense about when one was getting in trouble. The feeling that something wasn’t quite right with a child came before I could point out reasons for that feeling. In fact, my time working on that Hem-Onc unit was marked by a growing willingness to act on those middle-of-the-night hunches. Blink talks about firefighters and ICU nurses reaching similar conclusions.

    In short, sometimes an expert will know even if he can’t quite explain why. Think of Patton in the film where he lists a string of reasons why Germany won’t launch a surprise attack in the winter-time Ardennes, after which he announces that’s precisely why he believes they will attack.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

  2. Hmmmm … I hesitated in approving this comment. There is a relation to the blog posting, but the major focus is somewhere else, and the signature put it close to advertisement. On the other hand, I can relate to wanting to promote ones book. Regarding the issue itself, I’d be suspicious of self-reports — human beings are notoriously flawed when it comes to judgments about their behavior. But that’s not the topic …

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