Nominal expertise

Expertise of Dr. Strangelove
Expertise of Dr. Strangelove

Who is an expert? What qualities in a person defines them as an expert? The dictionary meaning of an expert is

a person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area

But how do we know if a person is knowledgeable or skilful in a particular area? A simple way to answer this question is “expert is one who has expertise!”. But this really does not tell us anything (or it does?) about the nature of expertise. One better way to characterise expertise would be if we know by some objective manner that a particular person is an expert. One such way can be to look at the educational qualifications of the person under question. For example, if someone says “You can ask her any question about stars. She has a PhD in stellar astrophysics.” you take on authority of the person telling you and the fact of having a PhD that the person is indeed an “expert”. This is because PhD requires detailed study (at least of a part of the subject area) and we assume that people who have this degree also have a sufficient expertise. PhD holders are highly educated is the claim. Hence most of the experts would be PhD holders in their respective fields. But having a PhD is no guarantee that the person indeed is an expert in the field of study. This is what Frederick Reif has to say about it in his article Interpretation of Scientific Concepts:

Quite a few physics graduate students, and even some physics professors, make mistakes and arrive at wrong answers. Indeed, some experts’ performance resembles that of novices. Such observations indicate that nominal experts (i.e., persons designated as “expert” by virtue of their degrees, A. titles, or positions) can differ very widely in their actual competence. (To paraphrase George Orwell, some experts are much more equal than others). This should be a warning about the interpretation of many cognitive studies where “experts” are selected by purely nominal criteria, without specifying adequately the nature of their actual expertise.

This I feel is a case for normative vs. descriptive dichotomy. The position or degree of a person gives them the virtue of being an expert, but it does not guarantee it. And when we decide our policies based on the expertise of the experts which may not be a true expertise or maybe inherently biased. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that we have flawed policies in the first place. Though, Dr. Strangelove (Dr. suggesting a PhD) was an expert!
But are there experts who do not have a PhD or educational qualifications? Yes! Not all knowledge or skills can be concretised in the form of degrees. Most of the knowledge is tacit in nature, which comes from experience. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD in theoretical hydrodynamics, fixing that leaking tap requires a different type of skill and knowledge. Cooking is another area where knowledge is tacit. Unless you start cooking, you can’t be called an expert cook!

On PhD

And then there’s a joke in which a young man told his mother he would become a Doctor of Philosophy and she said, “Wonderful! But what kind of disease is philosophy?

The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker

The PhD Octopus

Thus, we at Harvard are proud of the number of candidates whom we reject, and of
the inability of men who are not distingues in intellect to pass our tests.

This is something the American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote in the Harvard Monthly of March 1903 The Ph.D. Octopus.

Brilliancy and originality by themselves won’t save a thesis for the doctorate; it must also exhibit a heavy technical apparatus of learning; and this our candidate had neglected to bring to bear.
To our surprise we were given to understand in reply that the quality per se of the man signified nothing in this connection, and that the three magical letters were the thing seriously required. The College had always gloried in a list of faculty members who bore the doctor’s title, and to make a gap in the galaxy, and admit a common fox without a tail, would be a degradation impossible to be thought of.

"This must be a terribly distinguished crowd,-- their titles shine like the stars in the
firmament; Ph.D.'s, S.D.'s, and Litt.D.'s bespangle the page as if they were sprinkled
over it from a pepper caster."

“No instructor who is not a Doctor” has become a maxim in the smaller institutions which represent demand; and in each of the larger ones which represent supply, the same belief in decorated scholarship expresses itself in two antagonistic passions, one for multiplying as much as possible the annual output of doctors, the other for raising the standard of difficulty in passing, so that the Ph.D. of the special institution shall carry a higher blaze of distinction than it does elsewhere. Thus, we at Harvard are proud of the number of candidates whom we reject, and of the inability of men who are not distingues in intellect to pass our tests.
But the institutionizing on a large scale of any natural combination of need and motive always tends to run into technicality and to develop a tyrannical Machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption.

First of all, is not our growing tendency to appoint no instructors who are not also doctors an instance of pure sham? Will any one pretend for a moment that the doctor’s degree is a guarantee that its possessor will be successful as a teacher? Notoriously his moral, social, and personal characteristics may utterly disqualify him for success in the class-room; and of these characteristics his doctor’s examination is unable to take any account whatever. Certain bare human beings will always be better candidates for a given place than all the doctor-applicants on hand; and to exclude the former by a rigid rule, and in the end to have to sift the latter by private inquiry into their personal peculiarities among those who know them, just as if they were not doctors at all, is to stultify one’s own procedure.

The truth is that the Doctor-Monopoly in teaching, which is becoming so rooted an American custom, can show no serious grounds whatsoever for itself in reason. As it actually prevails and grows in vogue among us, it is due to childish motives exclusively. In reality it is but a sham, a bauble, a dodge, whereby to decorate the catalogues of schools and colleges.

We advertise our “schools” and send out our degree-requirements, knowing well that aspirants of all sorts will be attracted, and at the same time we set a standard which intends to pass no man who has not native intellectual distinction.

It forms an interesting reading considering this is what we are exactly doing and what is happening around us. For example the rule that prevents permanent appointments in colleges if the candidate is without a PhD. Or for that matter the ‘stamping’ that happens if you are from a so called privileged institute.
As the first quote that I have used from the article, summarizes the way our society recognize academic talent. If you are the selected ones from 10,000 odd people then indeed you are smart and the institute that selects you is indeed greatest. The ratio of the people applying for the courses to the ones that are actually accepted forms a good indicator of the ‘quality’ of the institute. The same institutes when choosing a faculty would apply even higher standards and even more people with decorations, on the list.