Kevin Williamson at NRO has another example of expertise confusion. To recapitulate, experts are experts in their field. They may have expertise in related areas or they may develop expertise in a few limited areas. Expertise is also a relative thing. We could be expert on tax issues depending upon the group we are compared to.
Sidebar one: All writers fall into the expertise trap from time to time. We’re sure we have been guilty. We hope it was a five yard penalty. That is, everyone wanders outside their field into something they understand less well. The penalty for such transgressions should depend on how far afield and how certain their conclusions. It appears that the transgressor in Williamson’s article would get the full 15 yards. End sidebar one.
The problem is that the transgressor in the story is a PhD. Earning a PhD is a study in expertise. You are technically an expert in physics, accounting, or English but you understand that you are really an expert in a sub-discipline of one of those areas. It is astounding that PhDs seem so oblivious to the expertise problem. They are part of the tiny fraction of the population that knows what true expertise is yet they seem to be a large portion of the transgressors.
Sidebar two: You may notice all, what many academics call weasel words in the previous paragraph. We are wandering away from expertise, an area of expertise, to the empirical data on this phenomena. We recognize that we have made no serious study of the phenomena. End sidebar two.
Our opinion is that the experts confuse their hard-earned expertise with general ability. Their ability to master X (over years of study) means that they can master relatively simple Y almost immediately. To move to a slightly different context, “doctors are gods” gets 9.5 million hits on Google including this. Perhaps the difference between MDs and PhDs is that the latter put their thoughts in writing more often. Perhaps overconfidence outside of one’s area of expertise is a condition of expertise. You are welcome to the thesis topic. Experts in A and experts in B do tasks in both A and B. Measure accuracy and confidence. It almost writes itself.