Mistaken Expertise

When we confuse expertise in one thing with another we risk distrusting experts altogether and losing what they bring.

An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until finally he knows everything about nothing.

This tongue-in-cheek quote from Henry Mintzberg has much truth to it. As I’ve developed as a professional I’ve come to learn how much of what I thought I once knew for sure, is now uncertain. Reflective practice, humility, and praxis (including regular ‘checks’ with my colleagues and peers) has allowed me to better gain a sense of my ‘knowns, unknowns, and unknown unknowns and knowns‘.

Mintzberg probably doesn’t really believe we’ll eventually know nothing, although he likely believes his area of true expertise is getting increasingly limited in scope and depth, yet more true. That’s an expert.

Experts and expertise have perhaps never been more contentious. Some of this is due to a waning trust in expertise generally among some (particularly in the United States), yet it’s also because experts are overstating their bounds. This challenge of expertise is something that can affect us all and using two examples — COVID-19 and coaching — we can see why.

Pandemics, Science, and Practice

Identifying the mistaken, misleading, or outright false information about COVID-19 and our reactions to it is relatively easy, but exhausting. From anti-maskers to anti-vaxxers the gaps in logic, willful ignorance of the consequences, or self-serving charlatans (versus those with genuine concerns about risk) the lack of expertise on the pandemic is clear and dangerous.

Yet, we are seeing something on the other side that also has damaging consequences.

Many public health institutions led by experts in infectious disease epidemiology are translating their understanding of the science of viruses into areas beyond that domain . While the science of the virus is sound and evolving, the manner in which recommendations are being translated into practice — and the resulting policies and communications — is still highly problematic as evidenced by the case numbers attributed to poor adherence, communication, or understanding of guidelines.

Expertise in the science of a virus does not translate to effective visual communication, messaging, economic policy or educational practice.

This is less about professionals going beyond their scope of practice and more about the failure to engage those with other expertise. The lack of involvement of graphic designers and visual communication experts, marketing professionals, behavioural scientists who know how people change, and educators is a failure of our public health system to bring in and utilize expertise within those other domains that are affected by COVID-19. It’s not either/or – rather how can we use scientific expertise to translate into practice benefits.

For some situations, this is a matter of overconfidence. For others, it’s a matter of incompetence. Let’s look at the role of executive and life coaching.

Executive and Life Coaching Challenges

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is named after the two psychologists who first identified how confidence, competence, and performance interact. Specifically, their research found that those with low competence and high confidence in their skills and abilities were more likely to perform poorly at their jobs or roles than others. This ignorance of being ignorant (pdf) leads people to make errors of omission and commission because they neither know what to look for or mistakenly evaluate what they see.

The rise of executive or ‘life’ coaching is one of the areas where this plays out. Psychiatrist and therapist Elias Aboujaoude, writing in Psyche, looked at the issue of coaching and has raised some troubling concerns given the nature of many coaching interactions. He’s not the first. His concern is that, in the process of navigating complex social and political issues of a workplace or industry, it’s reasonable that substantial psychological issues can emerge and that coaches are not trained to deal with them or even recognize them when it does.

The idea that coaching is meant for clients with no psychiatric illness doesn’t really work in practice, since it carries a serious assumption: that coaches can recognise mental illness when they see it.

Coaching is often a domain where vulnerabilities, fears, and past experience collide through the examination of performance and evaluation.

Patrick Sullivan and colleagues looked at the Dunning-Kruger effect in sport coaching and found the gap between perceived efficacy and performance was highest among the lowest performing coaches. This means the gap between what you think you know and can do and what you can actually do — the Dunning-Kruger effect — is highest among the least effective coaches.

Evaluative Thinking, Performance, and Design

The lesson here is that we need to match our expertise with the purpose. If we want people to practice good public health hygeine and reduce the spread of a virus, we need epidemiological science and expertise in communication, implementation, promotion, and education that goes beyond that. If we are looking to support people through the struggles of performance — in sport, workplaces, or life — we need those with expertise in identifying problems outside their domain or the skills to deal with them as part of their work.

These are design and evaluation issues. Design is for setting the conditions up to find, leverage, and utilize expertise appropriately. Evaluation is for understanding the effects of our knowledge, skills, and practice on others and the problems at hand.

Fit-for-purpose is a phrase often used in design and systems thinking. Expertise is no different.

Photos by Rita Morais on Unsplash and Nguyen Thu Hoai on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

%d bloggers like this: