expertise, and how to fake having it online

March 9, 2012 — 1 Comment

My grandfather was quite fond of a typically optimistic Russian saying: "live for a century, learn a century, you’ll still die a twit." Along with a number of supporting anecdotes and proverbs, this witty little quip warns us that no one will ever be an expert in everything no matter how much time he devotes to it. Many people accept this fact of life, sometimes all too readily, but there are those who just refuse to believe that there are limits to the amount of things in which one can be an expert and that the quality of where you learn and how well you learn it matter a great deal, and they’re not shy of using their freshly minted University of Google expertise across a wide swath of the web. Be they victims of the infamous Dunning-Kruger effect, or just ambitious people who want to leave a mark on the world trying to inject themselves into the circle of experts in a particular topic, they loudly and proudly share their claims of expertise as well as some verbiage intended to resemble an expert’s opinion. But how do you tell convincing pseudo-expertise from a comment by an actual expert? Well, faking a good deal of knowledge about a topic requires certain common patterns of behavior and commentary…

1. Lots and lots of technical jargon. When we hear a stream of complex words and acronyms, we often tend to assume that they’re being used for a good reason because jargon is an expert’s way to give what is often a very complex concept a name by which it can be invoked. But while experts use jargon sparingly when talking to a broad audience and attempt to explain related concepts in friendlier terms or by practical example, those faking it will unleash torrents of technobabble. In their minds, they’re convincing you that they really know what they’re talking about because they’re using a lot of complex terms you don’t know. However, they’re not saying much when they do and often use the terms incorrectly. One of the most egregious examples of jargon abuse I’ve ever seen in my field involved a proposal for a software system which spent a third of a page laden with all sorts of nearly impenetrable technical terms saying "this app can run on a server farm." No, really, that was it, that’s all the proposal needed to say. But its writer decided to concoct a barrage of buzzwords which spanned several hundred of words to prove to the reader that he supposedly understood distributed applications. Very similar tactics are often used by post-modernists to hide their abject ignorance of scientific topics.

2. Very few citations or references. Experts get to be experts and stay that way if they keep up with literature related to their fields so they should have little trouble recommending books, papers, or blogs to read if you’re interested in a deeper understanding of something in particular. Pseudo-experts, on the other hand, aren’t all that familiar with the landscape and will seldom, if ever, produce links to a paper or quote a book, since they probably don’t know where to find them other than Wikipedia or random results on Google Scholar. And when they do produce citations, expect them to get obtuse about what the materials are saying because they either don’t have the subscription to read the papers, rarely know how to find them for free, and don’t understand the actual subject covered. So when pressed for detail, they’ll either shy from an explanation, or throw out another confusing serving of alphabet soup and jargon salad you may not even see in the reference. Even experts will sometimes want to avoid a protracted discussion of some particular topic, but they’ll at least refer to why that’s the case whereas the posers will try to act bored or annoyed with the layperson "bothering them about things they don’t really have time to explain" and directing their readers to Google to search random buzzwords.

3. Aggressive or condescending replies. No one is perfect and we all know our fair share of experts who are bona-fide professionals in their fields but tend to argue from authority and treat those who question them with thinly veiled contempt for just disagreeing or not understanding her. But when combined with one, or both, of the attitudes above, an aggressive reply to being pressed for depth or details can signal a poser who is trying to avoid having to provide depth because he doesn’t have any depth to provide. Rather than attempt to explain something several times, he’ll quickly reach for the old "you just don’t understand" and "you can’t see how this whole thing works" because there’s nothing else up his sleeve. An alternative is another angry portion of very formal sounding technobabble with no supporting citations or evidence that shows the legitimacy of the point being made. In this case, the poser is trying to simply flood you with jargon until you’re overwhelmed and give up, and he can maintain the public illusion of expertise. Attempt to focus on one particular term or what looks like the linchpin of the argument and you’ll see the same behavior repeat again, with more and more outward annoyance or outright anger, especially if you’ve now started searching expert sources and ask why a certain term was used in a way you haven’t seen it used by [ insert expert here ]. Then the the fury really erupts…

4. Evasive obtuseness to further questions. Not all pseudo-experts are all flash or try to capture eyeballs. So many skeptics are familiar with the brash and loud crank desperate for attention and recognition but few deal with those who just use pretense at expertise as a resume builder or an online credit. If they only want to slip under the radar with minimal detection, they’ll put up something very bland and difficult to dissect in detail. It’s not going to be anything you can’t find on Wikipedia or a few big blogs on the topic and it’s going to keep detail to a minimum. Then, in the comments, they’ll evade any further questions with polite deflections to a follow up that will never come or allude to some reason they can’t go into detail. You’re probably starting to see the M.O. of a pseudo-expert under fire. Evade, evade, evade whether it’s by trying to save face and dodge the question, or by vomiting forth a stream of useless word salad while making their escape, like squid ink launched into a predator’s face during an escape attempt. Ultimately your objections and questions will be met with silence if not a ban by the pseudo-expert or moderator for making too much of a racket because whatever reserves the impostor had are now dried up and the only way to exit from the discussion is to make sure that it ends.

5. Inability to admit a knowledge gap. People impersonate experts because they don’t want to acknowledge that they don’t know something whereas experts become experts by practice and experience that gives them not only knowledge but a very good idea where their knowledge ends. If you talk to an expert long enough, you are bound to ask a question that will be met with something like "that’s not really my area so I don’t know what to tell you about that," or a reference to someone who may know what you’re asking. By contrast, the impostor has infinite knowledge and nothing is beyond her area of study. She’s heard of everything, kind of like The Big Bang Theory’s arrogant, know-it-all theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper. She never seems to doubt what she says while pontificating on questions that even those with the most cursory familiarity with the topic know is a very complex and unresolved issue which puzzles world class researchers in the area to this day. But while a measly scholar who studied the topic his entire life doesn’t know the answer, she does and she’ll be happy to tell you how to properly walk your dog, do your taxes, reanimate the cadaver of your long-dead pet hamster so it can do your chores while you’re busy, and synthesize an immortality serum in your garage as well.

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  • Paul451

    Damn, guy, what’d I ever do to you? You just gave away my whole act.