What does it mean to be an expert?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an expert. And what it means when we aren’t.

Most of us have dozens of topics where we know a bit, but we’re not an expert. We have some experiences, but they’re personal understanding. How we put what we know as individuals into a larger picture, and what that means for evaluating information we get – from both experts and non-experts.’

It’s something that comes up in various Pagan communities all the time: someone says something, sounds like an authority, and yet, when you dig into it, it’s not clear if they are. Or if that advice is accurate. It’s something we see in the current news and media environment. It’s something we see in hobby groups, parenting conversations, with health and medical advice, exercise, food – you name the topic, the question of how to evaluate what the experts say is front and center.

Where I’m coming from

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about this a lot is that due to my particular job in a particular library that focuses on a particular niche topic, I’m probably one of the top fifty experts doing things in English about some of those topics.

(I’m not giving details here because they make my job pretty easily identifiable, but some of what I do involves historical people I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of.)

I’ve been at my job for almost two and a half years. I know a lot more than when I started, but I’d be fooling myself if I said I knew as much as the people I know who’ve focused on our topic for a decade or two or three. And yet, in that time, I’ve been an expert consultant for a children’s magazine issue, been on air for a story from a local NPR station, and helped a number of other researchers with their work.

For me, being a good researcher means keeping my actual expertise in mind – even if people treat me as having a lot of expert knowledge.

This means knowing what I’m an expert about, and what I’m not an expert in, and where and how it makes a difference. When I think about this, it comes down to three things:
– Being aware of what I know about myself and what I don’t.
– How I identify expertise in other areas
– How I recognise the limits of my expert knowledge.

(And then finally, I want to touch on why experts are handy to have access to.)

We are all experts on ourselves.

We know best what’s happened in our lives, what our inner thoughts are, what that weird dream we had last week was, what we wanted to be when we were six years old, or twelve, or twenty-two, and how that’s changed.

But some of us have put more time than others into self-awareness, into understanding how we do best and why. Some of us have done this with magical and ritual training and experiences, or divination techniques, or therapy, or lots of journaling and introspection.

Some people haven’t. (We all know people like that, I’m pretty sure.) That works out better for some people than for others.

Personally, this gives a really good model of how to deal with other kinds of expertise, and the questions I should be asking myself when I’m relying on other people’s expert knowledge.

We are probably also experts on other things.

Let’s talk about this in the context of the Pagan community…

Someone who is in a religious witchcraft tradition with structured training and experiences (and who’s gone through them and integrated them) is an expert in that tradition in a way that someone who is just learning that tradition, or someone who only knows about it from written material isn’t.

On the other hand, they might only be an expert in a specific strand of the tradition, or a specific set of experiences (depending on how that tradition is set up, where they’ve lived and worked with people, the experiences they’ve had, who they’ve learned from, and how.) You’d probably have to talk to them more, learn about their background and experiences, to put that in context.

It’s possible to see this within the larger community, too: someone can be expert in their particular portion of the Pagan community, but not at all aware of other paths related paths, or other common paths in their region. I can’t count the times I’ve seen someone who I know was skilled and experienced at one thing be utterly baffled by a common practice in another part of the larger set of communities where there’s a reasonable amount of overlap.

On the other hand, someone who isn’t an expert in a specific path might be much more expert in the range of what’s out there in their area, because they’ve been actively engaging in the larger community (helping with events, working at a local Pagan store and meeting people from a lot of different perspectives, reading very broadly both in books and in less formal and more rapidly changing things like blogs and online forums.)

From these examples, you can see there are a lot of different ways this might play out, but you can also start to see some of the questions you might have, when getting advice or information from a specific person. My list of questions includes: Who is this person? What experience do they have? How’d they get that?

The limits of expertise

One of the big dangers of expertise is that people forget it has limits.

Sometimes people forget that a field moves on – that something they studied (even intensively, in graduate school) changes, and that they’ve gone on to do other things, but the field has kept developing.

Sometimes people are so used to others treating them as an expert about one thing that they forget that doesn’t carry over to other areas. High-prestige professions can be notorious for this – lawyers, doctors, software developers, major business leaders or politicians.

The people in those fields (and in others) we should be listening to are the people who know the limits of their own knowledge, and turn to other people who have expertise when that’s appropriate.

I know that I want to be the kind of person who is a great resource to others – but who can also say “I care more about you getting the best answer and information, not about me being the person who provides that.”

Why experts matter

If expertise is this complicated, why do we fuss about? Bluntly, because true expertise can save us huge amounts of time and trouble, and make sure that we’re using the best information possible.

I had this come up, in a very clear way, a few months ago. As part of a conversation on an online Pagan forum I’ve been part of for years, someone mentioned they’d been trying to track down a particular work, but it wasn’t clear to them how to get access to the copy.

I’m both a librarian and did my undergrad work partly in medieval and Renaissance studies, and I immediately recognised the citation as likely being part of an older donated collection. It took me five minutes to confirm that (it’s a collection in the Bodleian library at Oxford University), and that there was a published copy the person could probably get through interlibrary loan.

This isn’t knowledge that is unique to me (though a combination of things in my background made it a lot easier to answer that fast) but it was clearly outside the skillset of the person who’d been trying to to track down that citation for years. If they’d asked someone else with a similar background, they might not have been stuck for nearly so long.

What does it all mean?

If you come away from reading this with a new commitment to pause each time you hear about an expert saying something, or someone claiming expertise, and asking yourself a few questions (who is this person, what expertise are they claiming, does that make sense, how can I tell they’re an expert) then that’s what I’m hoping.

You don’t even need to answer all the questions there – sometimes you’ll be able to, but sometimes the information just isn’t there. Asking in the first place reminds you not to just accept what you’re hearing, and that’s the part that matters most.

About the Author

Jenett is a librarian and priestess in a small initiatory religious witchcraft tradition fascinated by the intersection of how we find information and how we can use it to make our lives (and other people's lives) better. She lives in the Boston metropolitan area with a cat and a fair number of books. Along with other online projects, she maintains a site, Seeking, with introductory material about religious witchcraft, research, and other useful tools, and offers research consulting on esoteric and eclectic topics through her business Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

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