SURF THIS: Our changing expectation of experts

November 5, 2007

It seems like everyone is an expert at something. We have automobile experts, stock market experts, antique experts... my company even has a client who's a sheep and goat expert. In an I n t e r n e t - c e n t r i c world, though, these experts can find themselves in a tough place. Online, information is clamoring to be free (or pretty cheap) and readily available. It's no longer enough to declare yourself an authority and expect everyone to just accept it. Instead, experts are forced to engage in a continuous effort to prove that they are, in fact, expert in a given subject.

Personally, I think this is healthy for everyone involved. Vast information is available and changes at such an extreme rate that we're all encouraged to challenge the accepted truths and re-think the things we "know" to be true.

The last issue of Fast Company featured an article about a self-taught mechanic from Kansas who has become an expert in engine combustion. A high school dropout with a unique ability to visualize the inner workings of an auto engine, he learned his trade purely with tinkering and on-the-jobtraining. He's well-known in the industry for his conversions of big, powerful gas guzzling American vehicles into big, more powerful, environmentally friendly, gas conserving wonders. Case in point: he is currently driving a Hummer H2 that he converted to a clean diesel engine and in which he inserted an Allison transmission.

These changes, coupled with a tank of hydrogen that is mixed into the fuel, cut emissions by 40 percent, doubled the horsepower, and more than doubled the mileage. He did it all with mainly GM parts and a healthy dose of humility: he was willing to toss out conventional wisdom, accept that he didn't know all there was to know about how engines work, and try new things. His approach could drastically alter what we think of as "hybrid" vehicles, literally save the US automakers, and alter the course of our economy forever.

He's not an engineer from GM, Honda, Mercedes, or any other automaker. He's an "expert" in a small garage in Kansas City. Read more at www.fastcompany.com.

Wikipedia (wikipedia.com), with its distributed network of editors has also drastically changed the nature of experts. If you know more about garden gnomes or salt shakers or the fall of Rome than the next person, you're invited to tell people. The whole structure is built upon the idea that there are "experts" everywhere, not just inside the walls of Encyclopedia Britannica.

As you'd expect, Wikipedia has come under fire on a variety of fronts for "dumbing down" the information, and there are quite a few people who think the democratizing of information leads to errors and abuse. For its part, Wikipedia claims that there are so many passionate people actively involved in their subject categories that incorrect postings are fixed within seconds.

Certainly, passions run high on a variety of topics. Global warming, for instance, never fails to get a fevered reaction, no matter which side of the issue you might find yourself. By now, nearly everyone is familiar with Al Gore and his award-winning film, "An Inconvenient Truth." In it, he assails the industrial nations as harbingers of our own doom through the wanton release of carbon dioxide. There are numerous experts, including the panel who awards the annual Nobel Prize, who agree: man is exacerbating global warming.

On the other side of the argument, however, stand a legion of experts in their own right-scientists, climatologists-who acknowledge that the world may be getting warmer, but that mans' actions are ultimately insignificant. Who to believe?

The interesting thing about a topic of this magnitude is that we may never know who was ultimately right. By the time all the evidence is in, the results will be long since tallied. But for now, we all have data at our fingertips to form our own opinions. We're no longer at the mercy of the experts to tell us what it all means, since we can look at the facts and decide for ourselves.

Sites like JunkScience.comtake a similar approach. They encourage visitors to be not only skeptical about expert opinions, but to be downright suspicious. Not every expert has a cause swaying his opinion, they would argue, but many do, so you'd be better served learning and deciding for yourself.

And that's one thing we can all agree on.

Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.
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