What makes an expert?

What makes someone an expert—an authority at something? You know, what milestones does a person have to accomplish before his/her opinion is taken as fact or at least a credible source?

If I were to go see a movie and walk up to a group of strangers, saying, “I didn’t like it;” they might shrug their shoulders and ask me to bother someone else. However, if Ebert walked up and did the same, people would ‘ooh’ and ‘aaahh.’

What sort of credentials should a person possess before he/she spouts opinion in public? If I wanted to teach someone how to write, for example, how would I know I’m ready? What is the basis for competence? How far back do you have to go to prove you’re genuine?

I think this is what Descartes is getting at with the whole “I think, therefore I am” thing—he just is desperate to find a starting point. It’s sort of a cop-out, I think. “Why are you qualified?” “I just am, ok? I said so.”

And there’s something to that as well. I think that a lot of people morph into this self-perpetuating authority when they stick with something long enough. So-n-so might have crap talent, but if he/she teaches or critiques long enough, with a smidgen of borrowed finesse; then that person might be regarded as an expert someday.

All of this came out during a military ceremony I attended last week. A lieutenant colonel started speaking to me about the differences between officers and enlisted—an interesting topic for a light colonel to broach with a staff sergeant, out of the blue. He went on about how enlisted men do and officers think, how one devises and ponders while the other plods and toils…

…And about five minutes into his monologue, I started to pour through these “Who does this guy think he is?” questions. Not that I outright agreed or disagreed with him, but I had to wonder: what level of self-worth or event sparked notions in this man’s mind that, of all the countless soldiers who have struggled with this particular problem for centuries, he had found the secret formula; and that if only the world were to absorb his take on things, all would make sense.

And then I remembered how often I’ve heard other people talk about “how it is” on this or that—how easily they have distilled the problems of our time and are ready to implement the solutions, if only they were in charge. Then I remembered the times friends of mine deferred to my rants, agreeing with me and saying the topic of recent deliberation was solved.

I wondered how many differing viewpoints on the same topic had been reached by others, each with their cadre of friends, all in agreement to the differing courses of action. And I thought of the light colonel, me and the billions of other minds on Earth, each working things out in our heads: who are any of us to figure anything out, ever? Who do we think we are?

I’m reminded of Christian Scripture that says “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.” I suppose it starts with listening.


About salemonz

Born in San Diego, Calif. Raised as a Navy Brat, I jumped ship and crossed over to the Army. Served as an enlisted journalist for a bunch of years, then helped the DoD figure out what the hell to do with social media. After the Army, now I drift down the river of life, trying not to be a jerk.

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