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The dangers of being ‘the expert’

We need experts, perhaps now more than ever. Climate change, global pandemics, vegan sausage rolls… in fact, all the major challenges we face nationally or globally require experts who can act for the public good.

The UK recently left the European Union. Perhaps you heard. With massive potential consequences for the economy, science, travel, agriculture, and most other things, Brexit was a major expert-fest. Not a week went by without an open letter from some interest group in a broadsheet newspaper with a few hundred signatures. Scientists warning about Brexit, and that sort of thing. Michael Gove (still not sure of his role) famously said that the public ‘had had enough of experts telling them what to do’ . You know the rest: the UK voted to leave, and I don’t think it is controversial to say that this was broadly against the vast majority of expert opinion.

The more experts the better?

You’ll be relieved to know this blog isn’t about Brexit, but about the nature of experts themselves. I am a scientist by training and profession, and you would be amazed how often I’m asked to provide expert opinion. Moreover, my University and funders love it when I do. It makes me relevant and impactful. There’s actually quite a lot of pressure to be an expert, and it can be a real ego boost to have people listen to your words like they actually matter.

Increasingly I have felt uncomfortable being touted as an expert. My training is in psychology and neuroscience; I would say my expertise is in child brain development, kids’ cognition and more specifically developmental disorders. You would be amazed how often I am described as a clinician, or asked to provide guidance on children’s anxiety and depression. It makes me deeply uneasy because anyone in my field, or even close to it, will know that I have no clinical training or grounding in depression or anxiety. Yes, it is relevant to my research, and we often measure those symptoms as part of our larger studies. But that is a long way from being an expert. We recently published a paper reporting levels of depression and anxiety symptoms in children during lockdown. After about two press interviews I decided that I shouldn’t be doing them, at least not on my own. The discussion always went beyond what we had shown in our paper, and called for clinical recommendations that I am simply not qualified to give.

Sure, I have decent general knowledge about depression and anxiety, but relative to my colleagues who research it day-in-day-out, I am no expert. The problem arises because it takes knowledge of a particular field to know whether or not someone has relevant expertise, rather than just being an expert in something related. In many cases it may not matter – I know enough to give an informed perspective. But the difference between genuine expertise and generic good knowledge can be massive, and the consequences of misplaced confidence can be devastating.

The misplaced authority that comes with ‘expert’ status

Meet Baroness Susan Greenfield. In one of her best-selling books she argued that autism was linked with digital technology use. The press described her as an expert, a Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University, no less. However, closer inspection reveals that she is an expert in molecular neuroscience in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. You’d need only a basic training in developmental psychology to realise that the evidence marshalled in favour of the autism claim was nonsense, and none of Greenfield’s ideas would pass muster with peer review in an autism journal. However, the public are not to know that her expertise happens to be in something not particularly relevant to autism. The end result? An incorrect and damaging message was promoted with misplaced authority. When someone, myself included, is labelled as an expert their words receive carry authority. This can be a toxic combination – an ignorant message delivered with all the confidence and assurance of a professional expert. This is the fear that haunts me when I am invited to give expert advice.

The above example sounds extreme, but there are many like it. In the current pandemic it is not unusual to see medics of various stripes giving expert opinion. One salient example is oncologist, Professor Karol Sikora, who has provided a critical opinion on national lockdowns, in essence arguing that they are not necessary. However, whilst distinguished I am sure, he has no background in virology or epidemiology. In many ways this is potentially more damaging than the anti-lockdown opinions of other public figures, who do not have privileged expert status. It muddies the water, both undermining the specific public health message and eroding people’s trust in the very concept of expertise itself.

Misplaced expert status can mask the desperate need for genuine expertise

Finally, I think misplaced expert status can mask the need for genuine experts. Take for example healthcare for trans kids, which was recently the topic of a case in the High Court. I won’t get into the specifics, but here is a description if you’re interested. The heart of the case was whether young people can give informed consent to take puberty blockers. The case against them having that capacity rested on young people being unable to understand the potential consequences of their decision. Various expert witness testimonies were marshalled as evidence. The problem is that these testimonies came from people who were not specifically experts in this area. They were high-profile experts in other things.

With so many apparent experts keen to have their say, we mask the real underlying issues for which we urgently need genuine expertise and better evidence. This apparent ‘debate’ sucks the oxygen away from more important questions. In this example, we never seem to get around asking how we create a standard and evidence-based clinical pathway that empowers young trans people and their families to access excellent treatment when they need it. Building a proper documented evidence base, alongside genuine specific expertise, is necessary for people to make informed decisions about their own healthcare. But this progress is impeded by people incorrectly claiming expert status, thus giving the impression that we know all we need to. More to the point, with so many apparent experts needing to be heard, the voices of actual trans people and their families are implicitly downgraded.

Who decides who has expertise?

The million dollar question. It is made difficult because you need to have some knowledge of an area to evaluate whether someone’s expertise is relevant. In the end, it will be for the individuals themselves to know, and friendly colleagues to gently query the fit. If it is in anyway helpful, these are the questions I have started asking myself when asked for expert opinion. Firstly, my willingness should be calibrated against the forum in, and purpose for, which my expertise is sought. Speaking for a few minutes on the radio about someone’s paper is relatively low risk. By contrast, providing non-expert testimony in a court case, whilst badged as an expert, could have devastating consequences. Secondly, do I have first-hand research experience, or will I have to read the work of others to get up to speed? It is only when you really research something yourself that you are aware of all the important nuance and caveats – you won’t get that depth from reading someone else’s review paper. And thirdly, is there someone better qualified to be doing this? If there is someone you might ask for advice in this area… then they should probably be doing the interview not you.

I am not for a second trying to diminish the importance of experts. Quite the contrary, we need expertise more than ever. My point is that this need for genuine expertise is undermined by people claiming expert status, simply because they are an expert in something and have become very used to their opinion carrying weight.

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