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Eclipsing Expertise: How Do We Honor the Knowledge of the Professions?

blood mon by greg sellek

My Facebook news feed showed me that a good many of us were outside watching the lunar eclipse the other night. I’m astounded by the expertise, skill (and technology!) of some of my colleagues.The photos they posted of the rare blood moon sure beat my view from the porch – which was actually still pretty cool!

In the midst of these images, my dear friend, colleague and fellow human factors engineer, Karen Dettinger, posted this article in The Federalist on “The Death of Expertise.” The author, Tom Nichols (who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College and in the Harvard Extension School), does a great job describing how the rise of social media has changed our collective view on what expertise is, and who has the right to be heard.

This morning I’m thinking about timelines, the distance we’ve traveled since I graduated from high school in 1982. I think that was the last time we saw a lunar eclipse while at perigee (aka a super moon – thanks for teaching me that Greg!). And I’m even more sure that, just I was entering college, there was still an easy distinction to make between the world’s experts and non-experts:

Experts spoke and non-experts listened.

Over the last few decades we have all witnessed the political and technological shifts that make it possible for many more people to have their say. For the most part, I am a big fan of more people finding their voices and being able to express themselves and their truths.

But I have been surprised by the way this access has altered public and professional discourse. Instead of more information, it seems we have more misinformation, and much less rigorous thinking.

That plays out on a regular basis in my professional life. I’ve worked with a number of project teams in which team members felt comfortable calling themselves “engineers” and “work systems experts” even though their credentials had nothing to do with, well, engineering or work systems.

In reality, they confused their qualifications with their experiences: many had worked in jobs where they observed what they considered inefficiencies. They had ideas about whom or what was to blame. And they had strongly held opinions about what others should be doing differently.

Often these folks say that they can just feel the right approach – which is, of course, the right or natural approach for them. It is their truth, with a little “t.” Whether or not these approaches are in the best interests of a larger population, or even the rest of their working group, however, is another matter.

I’ve learned over the years that there is little point in arguing with people who claim expertise they don’t have.

If someone feels they can be an engineer with no education, or with just a few hours of exposure to basic concepts, then I think they should have at it! Do engineering. See what you create. Live the consequences. Then, if things don’t go as you hope, go find and hire an actual engineer.

This topic takes me back to what I learned about multiple truths while writing my dissertation in UW-Madison’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in the early ‘90s. To be sure, there was no talk about “worldviews” in my department – I learned about it from colleagues outside of the College of Engineering. Specifically, I remember talking with Professor of Higher Education Clif Conrad, a faculty member in the School of Education, who had written a lot about postmodernism. I asked him about relativism and how to make use of it in my work with organizations. He said:

“There are many truths, but some are more compelling than others.”

In “The Death of Expertise,” Nichols does a great job of explaining just this: how some truths are more compelling than others. Professionals who have spent a career exploring an area render an expert opinion. Lay people who want to contribute their thoughts should be considered just that – people with opinions based upon their own experiences, but having little to do with the topic area.

As someone who really believes in the beauty and relevance of the professions, and of education itself,

I want to recall and honor the expertise embedded in each profession.

I want to bring professionals into collaboration with one another. I don’t want to negate people’s individuality, but rather help them to appreciate the depth in other professionals’ work. If we can co-create to integrate the depth of knowledge across professions, then we’re on to something BIG!

But to negate expertise in another profession does us no collective good. Just because you’re a brilliant physicist doesn’t mean you’re also a brilliant organization psychologist just because you have opinions about why people behave in certain ways at work.

We have everything to learn from each other and from our educational worldviews.

blood moon by greg sellek

Our perspectives, whether from the back porch or through a telescope, are valuable. But they are not equivalent.

There is no benefit to eclipsing another’s specialization. We need to respect expertise that is different than our own, and work together to create something better than we could alone.

Katherine Sanders, PhD

Systems engineer, Katherine Sanders, helps leaders make informed decisions based on organizational research. She has a BS, MS and PhD in industrial and systems engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in human factors and sociotechnical systems. Katherine focuses on the design and leadership of work systems that are not only effective and efficient, but also healthy for those who work within them.

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