Thank you so much for the shout-out and the kind words, Klaus! I am honored to appear in this excellent essay.

I think one of the biggest challenges for experts--multitalented geniuses like Asimov and Chomsky aside--is to accept the limits of their expertise and to understand that their knowledge isn’t necessarily applicable to situations outside their purview. To take your dog example (I agree with Kathleen that it is genius!): Many years ago I enjoyed watching dog-training videos at the gym. There was this trainer, Zac George, who could get his dogs to do just incredible things. He always said that we should never reward dogs with food, but should use playtime instead. This seemed weird to me, because my extensive experience with dogs told me that dogs are highly motivated by food. Why would we not want to use the best reward possible? (At the time I had a basset hound, and I guarantee you that she did not care about playtime one tiny little bit, but boy did food get results!) Then I noticed that Zac worked almost exclusively with border collies, perhaps the one breed of dog that would respond more to playtime than to food. Zac took a strategy that was applicable to only one breed, and generalized it to all dogs, apparently without realizing the limits of his expertise.

We see this kind of thing all the time in health recommendations especially. An intervention that is necessary and effective for one group--e.g. cut out salt, eat a low-fat diet, drink eight glasses of water a day, always wear a mask when out in public--gets generalized to everyone, whether they need it or not. (I have such low blood pressure that my doctor told me to eat lots of salt to help with dizziness and fainting, for example, and unless you have kidney disease or a small range of other conditions, you don’t need to force yourself to drink so much water.) I think one reason people distrust experts is that they see experts ignoring their own particular circumstances and telling them to do things that make no sense. When an expert obviously knows about a topic we care about (like you on linguistics), we are happy to listen and follow their advice.

P.S. I love Radiohead too and agree that one of the best things about them is that they sound like no other bands. I am a huge fan of any movie score by Jonny Greenwood too.

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Fascinating to discuss and I'd add that expertise only correlates location based. I am trying to explore that in my time in Japan where they have a saying of the Galapagos Syndrome. Or why things work so well internally, yet never have success abroad. I think expertise is such a closed loop but overextension in scope is inevitable.

My recent post is all about location based expertise, through the medium of toilets. In general trying to write about what observations I have since living in Japan, with travel and life tips along the way.


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Another enjoyable post! One of the things that bothers me about the sub-sub-sub specialization that everyone does (and if you get a PhD in anything now, you are sub-sub-sub specializing) is that nobody knows the big picture of the current state of their discipline, much less the overlapping areas that people in other disciplines (who are no doubt sub-sub-sub specializing in their narrow lanes) have studied and what they know about the very same topics we’re interested in.

The concept of a “Renaissance man” (“Renaissance person” I suppose) is treated like kind of a joke descriptor when we know someone with wide-ranging interests, but I think we need more “Renaissance people” who learn about a lot of different things and try to synthesize them.

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Apr 3·edited Apr 10

Contemplate empiricism.

Some expert opinions can be tested. Others are harder to do. For example, unless you have specialized education and/or a lot of time on your hands, you probably have but little choice either than to trust medical experts or go full crackpot. Even then, the opinions of educated experts can differ, sometimes wildly. For that matter, it's not brain surgery, but read ten different dog training books, all written by purported experts in the field, and you will get eleven different opinions.

Still other expertise is largely political and politicized. If you are hired as a consultant to the US led occupation of Afghanistan, you probably won't be credentialed as an "expert" if you don't espouse the right opinions in your dissertation, and you won't stay hired for long if you don't tell your clients what they want to hear. Even as the experts in that area of the world proved disastrously wrong, over and over again, they could at least take comfort in the fact that their opinions were the same as every other experts.

The runup to the GFC was similar, although less overtly politicized. But did not Dick Armey teach the masses: "you tell me who did the study, and I'll tell you what results they got."?

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The start with dog walking was genius.

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This is necessitating a rewrite of a piece I've been working on for months. To which I applaud you because you tackled this better than I was going to (but with less pop culture references).

Also I clearly enjoyed the Van Gogh exhibit more than you did.

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