Expertise is the child of two parents: complexity and repetition. Its essence is rational thought repeatedly applied to difficult operations. Malcolm Gladwell was onto something central to its nature in Outliers, saying that it requires ten thousand hours of focused effort whether one is a young Bill Gates learning computer programming or The Beatles playing very long sets in German nightclubs. The nub of expertise is repetitive, focused attention, hours upon hours of it. But though this is necessary, it is not sufficient because not all experiences are open to its possibilities. Expertise, it turns out, may be complex enough to require experts to recognize it.
It is an inferior means of knowing to empirical science, but it remains vital for correspondence knowledge (see “What Makes It True?”). While empirical science offers a more reliable warrant for truth claims, its domain must necessarily be more limited. If something cannot be isolated, quantified, measured, experimented upon, or squeezed into the paradigms natural science recognizes, it cannot wear the prestige of science, though that very prestige tempts all manner of pretenders to don empirical trappings. But don’t be fooled. For the kinds of experiences it can address, no approach to knowledge can surpass empirical science for two simple reasons: its methodology limits the kinds of errors reason makes as it approaches experience, and that same methodology also narrows the kinds of experiences that science can successfully make sense of. So for that limited number, empirical science is king. But what about all the other experiences that science must ignore, those that cannot be quantified or described with the precision of mathematic language, whose variables cannot be limited or isolated, whose essentials are not perceptual, or which cannot be replicated? To claim knowledge of at least some of these, we may use a fairly rigorous deductive or inductive process of logic. For many, many others, we have a slightly less robust method, but one suitable to a broader range of experience and calculated to secure truth by a preponderance of evidence. We have expertise.
We know that practitioners of true science are also experts in their field, but the warrants for these two powerful proofs of judgment derive from different aspects of their profession. A physician may tap into his expertise to diagnose a patient’s illness, aware that no manifestation of disease is identical to any other. He certainly meets Gladwell’s minimum in this endeavor, having spent so many exhaustive hours as an apprentice diagnostician in medical school and residency. His prescription for a cure will be empirical, however, for it will rely on double blind clinical trials and carefully calibrated analysis of results. To visualize the distinction further, consider another kind of professional who may have expertise without empirical prestige. The literature PhD. has learned the modes of academia through an equally long apprenticeship: she is an expert at research in a narrow field of literary study required to join the doctoral ranks, but as there is nothing empirical upon which to base her judgments, her profession must always exist in a fog of theory, though she well may be an expert at negotiating whatever current obsession her advisors find congenial. So though we find that all natural scientists are experts, we find many more experts in other and less reliable fields covering a broad range of activities.
A subject is open to expertise if it involves operations that are similar enough to stimulate points of comparison yet different enough to allow those points to be distinguished and analyzed through rational effort. Their relationship may be causal or sequential or correlated in some other way. That is what the rational analysis of the experience’s components will reveal. Consider the tennis pro teaching an eager student the serve. Here is a discrete operation the expert performs without conscious thought before the awed student: the yellow blur whizzes inches over the net. In this the pro embodies expertise as skill, having reduced a complex process of discrete steps into a single, fluid, and seemingly effortless habit. She knows what her student is about to discover: the only way to achieve that habit is by constant, closely-attended practice. The discrete steps must be rationally isolated and considered in sequence. They then must be practiced, perhaps in separate steps, until the clunky motions grow more fluid and skillful. It is an irony of developing expert skill that what begins with such close rational step-by-step focus only succeeds when the mind has processed it into a single and unconscious action. In his wonderful essay “Habit,” the pragmatist psychologist William James remarks that such thoughtlessness is a very good thing, else we might spend half the day struggling with our buttons and tying our shoes. Though easy to see in physical skills development, expertise presents a comparable challenge in fields requiring knowledge. A class of college physics students were given a problem requiring them to calculate the force necessary to push a lawnmower of a certain weight up a fifteen degree slope. As they struggled to find the right formulae, the professor jotted a quick diagram on paper and roughly calculated the force required and announced it to the class. When they complained that he was imprecise, he reminded them that the problem hadn’t specified the height of the grass or the hardness of the soil, so an estimate was the best they could do. That was expertise. But like the novice tennis player, the physics students had to be clunky before becoming fluid, so that they could. It is in dividing the subject into the proper steps and in considering their proper sequence and connection that expertise is made. Fluidity signals mastery. It is the seal of the expert, whether a short-order cook or a Supreme Court justice, an auto mechanic or a sommelier.
As a warrant for truth claims, expertise can pass a very high bar because it subjects experience to a necessary corrective. Though we all use undifferentiated experience promiscuously as justification for our truth claims, honesty must compel us to admit that it is a very weak proof of judgment. No two experiences are alike, even, say, two tossings of the same coin. For no matter how identical the two operations might seem, one thing must always differ: time. That is why no flip of a coin can ever be predicted. Heads may come up in ten straight coin flips, but the eleventh is still literally a toss-up. Our everyday experiences rush by in a blur of partial attention and endless permutation of circumstance, hardly the kind of experience calculated to end in certainty for the snap judgments we make a thousand times a day. Expertise slows down that blur and through a rational analysis of experience, allows us to see its nature more clearly. The novice tosses the ball a little high, a little low, or left or right: the arc of the racket catches it differently, and the ball flies over the line or into the net. Each serve is made, considered for awhile and repeated, and yet again. A hundred serves later, the ball contacts the racket predictably and drops into the serve box. Another few hundred and it reliably flies low and hard and true. Each serve is kind of the same and kind of different. Next, the backhand!
Contrast this process with the poor drone on the auto assembly line, leaning into the frame of the pickup to screw in the cover plates for the interior lights. Again and again, the worker twists in and the screwdriver spins and the next frame advances. Developing expertise requires that experiences be not be too similar. There is nothing to consider rationally here and very little to improve upon. One might as well be an expert at blinking or breathing. Too-simple operations defy expertise.
So do too complex ones, and here we must post some warnings. Should an experience be so complex that its components cannot be rationally isolated and sequenced, it cannot lend itself to the development of expertise. One may be a deeply experienced participant in an activity without legitimately claiming to be an expert, though I will concede the word is tossed about pretty carelessly. Teaching is an activity I worked at for most of my adult life. I could never claim to be an expert. The activities involved, the processes required in the interaction between student and subject matter and teacher, and, most importantly, the criteria for success and therefore for mastery: all of these are too poorly understood, too organic, and far too complex for me to claim expertise as a teacher. They cannot be isolated from each other. They cannot be sequenced. They cannot be sufficiently analyzed. Therefore, they are not subject to rational analysis or fairly linear improvement. The best I can hope to attain in such efforts is competence, an approach reliant on broadly studied experience that is certainly preferable to a novice’s abilities but are deeply inferior to the expert’s. And if I feel bound to make that admission, many others should also dial back their claims to expertise. On the continuum of reliability for correspondence knowledge, expertise merges into empiricism on one side and into ordinary experiences on the other. Those that are too similar or too different are not fit subjects for its achievement.
Consider the field of psychology. Like all human sciences, its empirical ambitions must wreck upon the rock of free will whose stubborn persistence frustrates the determinism that makes empirical predictability possible. (see “A Preface to the Determinism Problem”). Yet psychologists continue to consider their field a true science, though many recognize their conundrum and so focus on the external manifestation of free will, the paradigm they call behaviorism. But their work cannot rise to the bar of empiricism nor even of expertise. The black box of human will continues to lure psychologists to theorize on motivation despite the enormous unpredictability of the human personality. No wonder practitioners report their own personal experiences the source of their “expertise.” Their plight is echoed in all the soft sciences. The intersection of undifferentiated experience and undisciplined reflection upon it is an intensely private place, and the application of free will is far too unpredictable to allow the disciplines that must consider it the determinism that a true science demands (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). Proof of that is easy to find. For example, the human sciences are distinguished by their lack of consensual paradigms that unify and guide the efforts of practitioners. Can any claim expertise? Can the economists, sociologists, criminologists, and ethnologists claim to pass this lower bar of correspondence knowledge? I will with some confidence say “no” for one of two reasons. Some, like economics and anthropology, are simply too poorly understood as disciplines, subject to wildly differing foundational paradigms, and lacking in the predictability and consistency the tennis coach and physician demonstrate. Others, like sociology and criminology, are so broad in their objects of study that they merge into other and related fields. Note how variable and anecdotal even their academic publications are, how singular and unrepeatable the experiences that form the bases of their conclusions. We can observe the sad befuddlement of the economist appraising the wreckage of an economy shortly after having issued an optimistic outlook or of the therapist who wrings her hands over a patient’s descent into madness. I will gladly concede that narrowing the focus of any of these areas might well conduce to the development of expertise. The psychologist who has spent years studying patients with anxiety may speak with some confidence about that narrow disorder as may the economist who works in bilateral trade arrangements. The experiences each examines are numerous yet also complex, so they allow the similarities and differences of rational analysis that builds true expertise. But that kind of narrowing of attention is unavailable to generalists and so is the expertise that comes from it. It is not clear to me that whatever paradigmatic background soft science offers to its adherents can ease the path to expertise in any discernible way. If these fields fail to pass the bar of expertise, they fail even more obviously as sciences, something the sad history of the twentieth century underscores.
Expertise faces further challenges as it shifts its focus from judgments of truth to those seeking goodness (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”). Empiricism has largely been defeated by that challenge. As a lesser and broader source of knowledge, may we expect expertise to have more luck, to identify successfully goodness in any of its three forms: utility, quality, or morality? It seems clear that expertise may with confidence make judgments on questions of simple utility just as empiricism can. The surgeon will use some instrument or technique that her surgical expertise has shown to be a good means to excise a tumor just as she might judge one drug as a good curative for a condition based on clinical trials. But neither the condition nor the operation can be judged as good in itself based on either empirical or expert judgments of utility. Those kinds of judgments rely on a prior one that finds some goodness in being cured or healthy that views utility as merely the means to some further end. That end is built on some valuation of quality or morality. Since we find expertise broadening the reliability of truth claims in comparison with empirical methods to a far larger range of experiences, can we hope that it will also address qualitative or moral goodness claims in ways empiricism cannot and so assist us in the search for which truth is the means and goodness the end (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”)? The answer is “yes,” but with qualifications.
I am thinking here of the kinds of codes of professional ethics disseminated for many occupations. Here as in questions of truth, we find some chicanery, for some of these codes carelessly mix issues of utility with those of quality or even morality. The International Federation of Accountants, for example, has a lengthy set of standards applicable to its membership that includes chapters on accuracy and accountability to clients. These standards mix behaviors fundamental to the utility of the profession–can one be an accountant without mastering mathematics– with standards of quality: can one be a competent accountant without being accountable to those who pay the bills? Some standards of quality seem fundamental to professional practice, and experts can delineate those very clearly. So that allows expertise to assist us in our search for qualitative goodness.
To illustrate the problem of claiming expertise in judging quality, compare the saucier to the art critic. The chef who has made a life study of preparing this kind of food has narrowed her focus appropriately to develop expertise: experiences alike enough to find core elements and different enough to draw these elements’ boundaries with rational attention. But how can an art critic develop expertise when every work of art is unique, producing what Kant termed the “disinterested pleasure” in an aesthetic sense tickled by the very singular quality that produces it? It may well be that the “art expert” has demonstrated her abilities to price contemporary abstract oils, or has mastered the history of the medium she curates, or has perfected an understanding of an aesthetic theory against which to measure the worth of a work created in response to that theory (see “Three Portraits”). Expertise seems possible in these limited applications of aesthetics, but the kinds of questions John Ruskin asked about refinement of taste and the opinions of tastemakers to pass judgment on the aesthetic quality of art has joined so many Victorian notions in history’s dumpster. Taste certainly can be molded; the cultural obsessions of the mass market demonstrate that daily, but whether such obsessions are good, bad, or indifferent seem largely a matter of private taste not subject to expertise.
And that is the way our culture prefers it. The interests of a consumerist and democratic society are decidedly egalitarian in questions of aesthetics and even more open in those of morality. Oddly, the morality of this egalitarianism seems nonnegotiable (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”). The construction of the virtual circle is a deeply personal and private one as postmodernists frame it, which also rather negates the possibility of expertise, particularly on goodness issues. No one else can be an expert in living my life, we are told, and so we are admonished in a thousand ways to resist the pressures of experts and authorities so as to make our own rules for living and judging (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”). It is a source of constant tension in a permissive culture that authorities and experts claim competence to pass judgment on those rules. Codes of ethics specify desirable experiences for professions based on the appropriate reflection by those of extensive experience, so they seem successful in defining both the practical and the qualitative standards for proficiency. And that is something. But some of these codes of ethics go beyond utility and quality to prescribe morality. I contend that none of those standards can be justified by expertise. All are the products of authority passing itself off as expertise. Student honor codes at universities set high moral standards as a condition of enrollment, yet one may question whether such codes are necessary for achieving expertise as a college student in anything like the way that ethical codes might apply to, say, the faculty at the same institution wherein success in the profession relies on a certain quality of behavior. For a professor to have an intimate relationship with a student might impair her judgment of the student’s performance and so would reduce the quality of the professor’s work, but it is hard to see how such a relationship might hinder the student from developing expertise as a learner. Professional ethical codes are right to condemn such behavior on qualitative grounds alone for the professor, but any moral opprobrium must be based on some other considerations pertinent to one or both parties. It is a rational error to consider those other considerations warranted by the same expertise that justifies professional competence, and one of the duplicities of authority is to pass off moral rules as having such a basis. So general utility and some standards of quality seem to mark the limits of expertise in warranting goodness. The culture prefers an equality of moral outlooks rooted in the moral autonomy of the individual and views all authorities with a suspicion deeply rooted in cultural conflict (see Premodern Authority“).
In an ideal world, all experts would be granted authority based on the justified truth claims in their area of focus. The reverse is not at all true. Authority builds upon nothing but trust. Neither knowledge nor skill is required for its operation. Its chief advantage is the ease with which it is transferred or assumed, both in personal relationships and professional ones. Nothing is easier than granting a title: parent, confessor, second undersecretary, eighth grade teacher, policeman (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). No expertise required. But when we look at these positions of authority, further considerations arise.
The first is the standardization of competence that marks expertise as opposed to the unreliability of designated authority. And the development of standards in itself is a remarkable testament to the universality of reasoning when properly applied to experience. It is no accident that our postmodern culture that has us defiantly proclaiming our uniqueness also has us chasing after expertise as never before. We seek out yoga and fitness instructors, cooking coaches, test prep tutors, and master gardeners to impart the best route to competence in their fields of expertise, naturally assuming in defiance of the culture that there is indeed a best way. That defiance is based upon a thought that jangles our cultural assumptions: the development of expertise, like that of science, is a profoundly correspondentist way of knowing and its valuation a profound verification of the possibility of correspondence knowledge. Expert knowledge is transferable only because the reasoning that breaks the experience into its components is universal, though the experience itself is only narrowed by repetition. Standards explicitly appeal not to skill but to knowledge built upon the universal reasoning faculty that has prescribed a best way to approach some experience. Expertise in skill is not directly transferable from instructor to student but is developed by the latter’s rational approach to the experiences that develop it. It is interesting to consider how far standards might project expertise in a knowledge field. We might consider the dog show judge to have internalized the lengthy list of standards for each breed as she evaluates the animal before her, but these same very specific standards allow the dog owner to appropriate at least a modicum of the judge’s expertise. A criminal courtroom is similar. The voluminous number of standards relative to the admission of evidence and testimony is moderated by the judge, an expert in her field of law, but is administered by ordinary citizens on the jury applying the standards under the judge’s guidance. The training that police officers, educators, and other authorities undergo is a dilute version of the same effort: attempts to inculcate standards that build expertise, though as I have previously confessed, expertise is impossible in fields that address the variability of experiences derived from a combination of unique circumstance and free will. One may at best hope for competence built upon a hodgepodge of varied experience subject to the discipline of reason.
So we are left with many issues of quality and all of morality as those not amenable to either empiricism or to expertise and certainly not to authority. So if none of these, what is left? What can persons use to direct their choices in these goodness issues; what can warrant claims sufficient to resolve dispute in the public arena? Can we appeal to any justification beyond private taste and personal belief, anything beyond the virtual circle (see “Belief in the Public Square”)?
Postmodernists are correct in seeing experience as fundamentally private and idiosyncratic and full of the variabilities of infinite circumstance. It is this splendid variety that gives life its zest and that promotes the easy but self-contradictory morality of the pragmatist. We occasionally hear from ethicists and moralists who claim expertise, but upon investigation it lies in either a deep background in a particular religious or ethical tradition or an academic competence similar to the literature PhD I referenced earlier. Or we find them mistaking their authority in that tradition or organization for expertise. But no one can judge private morality outside of some implicit criterion or tradition. This is doubly true of the absolutist moral authority of religious belief (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). Nor can the strongly held beliefs produced by revelation, insight, or discernments (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip”) be termed anything like expertise. Efforts in all of these fields suffer from the same defect: they fail to warrant the axiom they apply to determine the moral standard they wish to use to make sense of experience. That sense depends on a prior acceptance of a truth or goodness claim that also requires examination of warrant: that the Torah is God’s word, that identity is forged through economic class, that phenomenalism is an accurate depiction of persons’ approach to experience, and so on. If expertise or empiricism cannot warrant such claims to moral goodness, what can?
Most of these axioms share characteristics. Their adherents not only think them true but consider them a kind of Gnostic key that unlocks mysteries of reality touching on universal claims to truth, goodness, or beauty. Since all such systems value adoption of the putative truths they admire, they all imply a moral imperative: that it would be good for persons to embrace their system. But even if such theories themselves are drenched in empiricism or reliant on some level of academic expertise, they can make no claim on our allegiance on these grounds alone because no claim to moral goodness can be subject to these most powerful proofs of judgment. None can derive from empiricism or expertise. One must first accept the prior axiom that gives it force. This issue is called the problem of the hypothetical imperative and it forbids the logical derivation of any ought from any is without specifying a hypothetical desire that the ought seeks to satisfy (see “Three Moral Systems”). That is why colleges can issue honor codes. The unstated hypothetical is this: if you wish to be a practicing student at our university, then you ought to practice these standards we deem as desirable. Now while the standards they set for their faculty may be justified by expertise and so implicit in the profession itself, the honor code must appeal to some moral standard beyond it: good citizenship or Christian duty or the authority of tradition. Neither empiricism nor expertise has found the means to convert their powerfully warranted truth claims into morally prescriptive behaviors without first specifying some hypothetical goal their truth claims cannot warrant. The doctor speaks confidently of what you should do to achieve health, assuming that you consider health morally good. The instructor counsels honesty, assuming you already agree to its desirability, but, of course, if you did, he would not need to remind you of it. What you perhaps should be reminded of is the danger of assuming that either empiricism or expertise can transfer their powers of justification to moral goods that have to be warranted on entirely different grounds.
This lacuna has produced some unpleasant effects as persons find themselves overawed by science and expertise in an atmosphere of moral permissiveness. Particularly over the course of the last century, these justifications seem so clear-sighted in determining truth and utility that we resist their blindness to issues of morality. Scientism, the conviction that the only reliable knowledge is empirically warranted, dominated much of the nineteenth century and has produced the hugely destructive excesses of the human sciences in the twentieth. Its ambition has always been to prescribe the good as a categorical and empirical fact. That has proven a foolish goal, but it is understandable that such powerful means of justifying truth claims as science or at least expertise should also be thought capable of warranting morality. The effort has eviscerated more traditional approaches. Aesthetics as a discipline has faded into the same kind of pseudo-scientific wasteland that philosophy and theology have, building elaborate and fanciful balloons of scientistic theories usually within the walls of academia from which their hot air leaks out into the general culture. Postmodernism is the meta-ethic exemplar of this lamentable process (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). One corrective to excessive theorizing is a frank appraisal of the limits of expertise. Like empirical science, its reputation is a powerful one, and so temptations to charlatanry and self-delusion are frequently indulged.
And also frequently resisted. The problem of soulless expertise, particularly in the human sciences, emerged during the middle years of the twentieth century. Epitomized by the cruel efficiency of the makers of the Holocaust, the “minor monsters” whom Hannah Arendt branded as the producers of “the banality of evil, these soulless “experts” in bureaucratic management were the subject of much distress. Their efforts reflected the mid-century fascination with psychology and sociology. The uneasiness they produced was rooted in the simplistic notion that our zealously guarded free will was a mask easily removed by omniscient science and ruthless expertise. This fear was, I think, largely responsible for the revival of Romanticism that characterized the 1960’s and 1970’s. Thankfully, both that Romantic enthusiasm and the fears that prompted it have faded from contemporary life. But we still face a moral vacuum in living it.
No one is an expert in living a complete life. When Aristotle developed his secular moral theory, virtue ethics, he advised his students to question those who had lived long and thoughtfully in their search for wisdom, which can only grow in the soil of reason applied to life’s vagaries (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer”). In ours, we might wish to ask if wisdom entails a unique kind of expertise transferable by instruction or by standard that allows us to look forward, to anticipate and seek the good life, to flourish. Sadly, expertise is something no “life coach” can claim because experience is too variable and complex. Because we share a common rational sense in the midst of differing experience, I think we should do as Aristotle advised and tap the wisdom of earlier generations in ways we find rationally convincing even in an age of swift cultural change, but though such an effort is head-and-shoulders above the clueless wanderings produced by a subjectivist ethic (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”), it falls far short of expertise regardless of its essential reasonableness and so levels the ambitions of system-builders and theoreticians. No scientist or expert can tell you what is morally good.
I will conclude with a prediction about the future of expertise. Remember for a moment the tennis coach teaching the beginner how to serve or the clinician diagnosing an illness. Another way to view this is as a sequence of causal boxes. Each is like the box that preceded or followed it yet is different enough to be rationally separated and examined. Indeed it is this operation that produces the essence of expertise and limits its applicability to certain fields that are standardized within a limited range of divergence. Many professional fields famed for their expertise operate in this way. These cause-and-effect boxes operate on a narrow range of possible interpretation for the expert. The diagnostician thinks the patient has this set of symptoms. That leads to a narrowing of possible culprits. He asks pointed questions or investigates empirical results. Is there a fever? Are the lymph nodes swollen? Each box leads to a narrowing set of options until only one diagnosis is left. All of this is made possible by the standards that frame the boxes: malaria has this set of symptoms and not others. This winnowing process and systematic logic leading to successful outcomes characterizes expertise and the professionals who demonstrate it in all knowledge fields. Unfortunately for them, it also characterizes computer operations. The more precise the standards, the easier for computers to apply them. The IBM supercomputer, Watson, is being programmed to perform medical diagnoses; it will soon demonstrate far greater expertise in this function than the doctors whose information fills its hard drive. In truth, the more clearly expertise can be shown in a profession, the easier it will be for computers to master it as they already have in, say, tax preparation. This will make an interesting dynamic over the next generation, for those most highly remunerated for their expertise will be among the first professionals to see their jobs eliminated. I suspect it will be some time before Watson attempts to supplant psychologists. Fortunately, the accountants, lawyers, doctors, and stockbrokers thus displaced will still be able to seek out them out as life coaches.