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Friday, October 3, 2014

Amateurs and Experts

I have noticed an undercurrent of snobbery in some of the blogs that I follow. Some folks love to quote "experts" who support their thesis, while others like to debate the "experts" of the opposing viewpoint. On the other hand, there is a tendency to dismiss or ridicule viewpoints that may not be as informed or scholarly as the host thinks that they should be. And sometimes credentials seem to be more important than knowledge or original thinking. Intellectual arrogance and elitism is not a phenomenon that is confined to the blogosphere, but it does seem to be alive and well there.

As someone who came out of an authoritarian religious culture, I have to admit that I am much less inclined to defer to the authority of any elite anywhere than I was in times past. Nevertheless, I do realize that those people who have devoted themselves to the study of some subject or discipline should be consulted in reaching an informed decision about what to believe. In short, they have to be a respected element in that process; but that does not mean that their views/conclusions should be adopted wholesale. After all, an informed opinion can still be wrong.

First, it is important to nail down the terms that we are employing in this discussion. Merriam-Webster defines an amateur in two ways: "a person who does something for pleasure and not as a job," and "a person who is not skillful at a job or other activity." When I Googled the word expert, the following definition popped up: "a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area." Hence, the words themselves suggest the superiority of the expert over the amateur; and that most assuredly has an impact on how we regard the respective contributions of these folks.

However, being aware of this predisposition is one of the first steps in guarding against any prejudices that might follow it. Have you ever been in a Bible Study setting where one of the lay members has better insights than the teacher/preacher/pastor? Can't we all agree that superior knowledge does not always guarantee superior insight? Haven't we all been amazed by some of the things that come out of the mouths of our children? We're supposed to be the epitome of maturity and wisdom, but don't they occasionally put us to shame?

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. never received his Graduate Degree, but there aren't many folks who would dispute his status as one of the greatest historians of the 20th Century. Indeed, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts and served as a professor of History at Harvard. As a consequence of his work, most of his peers regarded him as an expert on the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt. So Schlesinger is a good example of someone who attained the pinnacle of respectability within his profession, but who never obtained the formal credentials (PhD) expected of most practitioners at that level of historical study.

Going back to our definitions, it also quickly becomes apparent that many of us are looking at this question through the old lense of dualism - the two extremes: Amateur and Expert. What about all of the shades of expertise in between? In many trades, there is an apprentice, a journeyman and an expert. A journeyman is recognized within the trade as someone who is proficient, but who has not yet mastered all details of the profession. Even within the fully credentialed members of a profession, we all realize that there are different levels of expertise extant within that group (e.g. some doctors are clearly superior to other doctors). In similar fashion, some amateurs are clearly very knowledgeable about their area of interest; and they are usually much more knowledgeable about it than the average Joe/Jane on the street with little or no interest in that area.

In addition to these considerations, we should also be willing to acknowledge that some folks have their own definition of what constitutes an expert. For too many people, an expert is someone who reinforces their own beliefs or opinions. Likewise, anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot or a novice.

A few final considerations: How does God regard our experts? How do our greatest minds stack up against the mind of God? Could one of our experts be considered an amateur by Almighty God? Does God look down on our imperfect knowledge? Does God dismiss or ridicule those who are inferior to him? If we can learn something from everyone we meet, does God learn anything from us? What do you think?

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