19 January 2011

Specialist or Expert?

I’v just finished Charles Sale’s book The Specialist. I’ve read it before, a long time ago. You could describe it as a fictionalised sort of mini-biography. The hero, Lem Putt, is a carpenter who has decided to specialise in just one thing — apart from the occasional foray into wall paper hanging. And he demonstrates his very specialised knowledge in his work, from the design, through the siting, the decoration — in short, everything. He doesn’t build anything else, though he can make several sizes, up to what a family of eight would need. He doesn’t proffer unwanted advice beyond his speciality. He makes outdoor privies.
So, if Lem Put is a specialist, how does he differ from an expert? Forget the old saws about experts knowing more and more about less and less, or as having slides (or powerpoint presentations) and travelling. An expert feels that his specialised, limited knowledge allows him (alas, it’s usually a him) to pontificate on all sorts of other things, whether related or not.
Medical experts were once quite notorious for this. True, they did have specialised knowledge beyond the average man — or lawyer — but this also blinded them to the limitations of their knowledge. Their authority, derived from their specialism in a ‘Centre of Arrogance’ was a given, a truism and not to be challenged. It’s not so long ago that such experts warned about blindness and one of it’s causes — for which there was no other authority than moral outrage and guilt. They could devise operations based on their beliefs derived from their expert status — think of the nuciform sac.
And there were experts involved in litigation whose opinions depended on whether they were instructed by the plaintiff’s or the defendant’s lawyers, apparently unaware that their expert opinion was for the benefit of the Court, and was not expected to be partial. I gather that many judges, experienced in these matters, could read between the lines in such cases, and weigh the expert’s opinion appropriately.
Much of this is now gone; the black-and-white opinions have been replaced by grey perhapses, maybes and the like. Where there was certainty — derived from belief, now there is uncertainty, derived from evidence.

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