Brexit: Twilight of the Experts?

by | Jun 27, 2016

Populism is becoming a powerful force, as we saw in last week’s referendum in the U.K. that led the British to vote to exit from the European Union.

This way of thinking maintains that good, wholesome people are being mistreated by a small circle of corporate, political, or social elites, who can be defeated if the people recognize what’s happening and band together to fight their oppressors.

I don’t have an opinion about the UK vote to leave the EU (“Brexit”), but I was struck by one of the comments that became emblematic of the passions driving the debate.

Virtually all the economic and political “experts” had warned that leaving the EU would have drastic effects on Britain. Speaking to these warnings, Michael Gove, Member of Parliament, in arguing for the exit, said in a television interview,

“The people of this country have had enough of experts.”

Experts, usually spoken of with respect for their expertise, are now the exact opposite of what people want. Why is that?

Michael White pointed out: “Expert opinion ought to embrace more humility than it routinely does… Medical experts routinely overturn their own advice, on sugar versus fats, for example—advice that has done harm… When every voter can dial Google, we need to improve the way we do interactive, elite-public dialogue.”

The Problem of Expertise

There’s a specific problem that subject-matter experts run into when they attempt to interact with newcomers.

As you gain expertise, you naturally evolve away from the open-minded inquiry that typifies most newcomers. When you don’t know much, you’re open to just about anything. As you get more educated, the options narrow, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s part of the process of becoming more experienced yourself.

But for an expert who has been practicing her craft or trade or profession for decades, it’s all too easy to forget the struggles of the newcomer. As instructional authors, teachers, subject matter experts, or anyone else trying to pass along knowledge to less-experienced folks, we forget.

Why?

  • We hang out with our peers. When you’re an expert, that’s other experts. Naturally, we become more attuned to the interests of others like us.
  • Our students (customers, readers) idealize us. When we respect someone and admire them for some achievement, it’s very easy to start thinking the person you so admire is an expert on *everything,* that somehow their opinion has more weight.
  • We objectify our students (clients, readers). It’s natural for experts to put people they are coaching or instructing into categories, and to use “boilerplate” responses to inquiries.

Of course, there are still many benefits to acquiring expertise, and we genuinely rely on experts all the time. If your pipes spring a leak, are you going to buy a book on plumbing? Of course not, you’re going to call an expert—in this case, one called a “plumber.”

Experts in Book Publishing

Indie authors run into experts all the time. I should know—I am one myself. But like everyone else, I have a lot of expertise in some areas (book publishing, graphic design, low-carb cooking, etc.) and almost no expertise in lots of other areas (plumbing, …).

My clients and readers rely on me for expertise they can use for their own benefit, and I’m happy to offer it in the hope I will also gain something from our interaction.

Here’s a story. Years ago, I used to attend the monthly meetings of my local publishing group because I wanted to know what the people new to publishing were thinking and worrying about.

I had to. It had been a long time since I started out in publishing, and the world was different. This is the essential problem for experts. When you forget what it’s like to be a newcomer, or if you have never faced the challenges newcomers face today, you may not be able to connect well with your audience. And that means a loss of trust.

Knowing the problems people were having, the questions that were keeping them up at night, kept me in touch with these new authors. I wrote down every question asked for over 2 years. Now, of course, I don’t have to do that because people bring their questions to me on this blog.

My Best Tips on Expertise

For experts: rediscover the anxieties, the passion, and the enthusiasm you had as a beginner. Remember that each person is on a personal journey that may have things in common with others, but which is utterly unique to them.

For dealing with experts: remember their expertise may be limited, and great skill or nuance in one endeavor doesn’t necessarily translate into being a paragon in other pursuits. Establish an “eye-level” relationship as human beings in addition to any due respect owed to their achievements.

Experts have a lot to offer, and have a lot to gain by helping others. Bringing awareness to our relationships can help us get the value from our relationships and avoid some of the pitfalls.

The biggest mistake “experts” can make is losing touch with their audience. What’s your experience? Have experts helped you? Or are they so aloof, isolated, and overbearing that you want to give them the “middle finger” like the Brits gave to the EU? Let me know in the comments.

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