Expertise vs. visibility of expertise

Anyone with expertise in any job always has a tendency to assume other people’s jobs are trivial. For example, I think that managing a programming project is pretty easy compared with the actual programming; but I bet if you asked a project manager, they’d tell you the opposite.


I think this is a universal tendency. We look at anything — carpentry, marketing, baking, merchant banking — and think “Well, that looks easy. It’s just a matter of having the right tools/bluffing/learning some recipes/knowing the right people”. That’s because we don’t see the complexity that people who understand the field do see. It’s related to our old friend the Dunning-Kruger effect and I think it’s a big part of why the people of this country have had enough of experts: because they simply don’t recognise expertise.

So the tendency is universal. Wise people check that tendency in themselves — in fact, you could say that that’s part of what wisdom means. The problem comes when great power (often in the form of money) is manifested in someone who lacks that wisdom.

In the most extreme case, a powerful but unwise person might think “How hard could it be to be president?”, and so ignore everything that everyone knows about how it’s done. I don’t know if this think-others’-jobs-are-easy effect is strongest in politics — it might be. But what is certain is that it has the most damaging effect there.

So. How can we think more clearly about expertise? Here is one concrete question we might ask.

1. There is a scale of how much expertise is required in a job. Doctors need a lot of expertise. City traders apparently do not (based on studies that show they are outperformed by random picking). Carpenters are probably somewhere in between.

2. There is also a scale of how visible expertise is, with doctors again at the top (you can tell, quickly and painfully, if they don’t know their job) and politicians near the bottom (because the results of their choices are often not apparent for many years, or ever). Footballers are right at the top of the visibility-of-expertise scale, because they get an public objective assessment of their skills, lasting 90 minutes, every week.

My question is: to what degree are those two scales correlated?

Suppose you took 1000 jobs, assessed each for how much expertise is needed and how apparent that expertise is to laymen. If you plotted them on a scatter diagram, how close would they cluster to a line?


I don’t know, of course. Has any work been done on this problem?

You could gather perceived expertise with opinion polls. (“On a scale on 1 to 10, how much expertise do you think nurses need to do their jobs?”) But how would you go about measuring actual expertise in a way that makes any sense across domains?

11 responses to “Expertise vs. visibility of expertise

  1. You keep coming up with questions that almost have no answer. Always interesting but you give me brain ache.

  2. Love the Dilbert strip! I’ve know program/project managers like that! :-)

  3. Pingback: Interesting Links for 13-02-2017 | Made from Truth and Lies

  4. andrewrilstone

    A man sends for a plumber because his boiler is rattling alarmingly.

    The plumber takes one look at the boiler, hits it with the flat of his hand, and the rattling stops. He charges the man £100.

    “That’s outrageous” says the man “All you did was hit it.”

    So the plumber writes out a detailed bill:

    “To hitting boiler: 50p
    To knowing exactly where to hit boiler: £99.50”

  5. andrewilstone: The oldest version of that story I heard involved Westinghouse’s Steinmetz in the late 19th century with Steinmetz brought in to fix a troublesome dynamo, spending a week listening to it, then tightening one critical bolt. I’ll bet there are older ones, but probably not pre-industrial.

    One of the problems with real expertise is that a real expert makes it look easy. When you aren’t an expert, it’s hard to guess how much expertise a job requires. You tend to ask questions in domains you can understand. Does it require a great deal of physical skill? e.g. footballer, ballerina. Does it deal with something exotic? e.g. astronaut, zebra wrangler. Does it have a science or training marker? e.g. violinist, physician. In contrast, you tend to discount the familiar: I can drive a car. I can use a computer. I can play the guitar.

    I think you can populate three quadrants fairly easily, but the fourth would be harder. There aren’t all that many things that look hard, but are actually easy.

    There’s an old koan about expertise from the MIT Artificial intelligence Lab. Knight, in the story, is Tom Knight, a key designer of the Lisp machine.

    ‘A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on.

    Knight, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: “You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong.”

    Knight turned the machine off and on.

    The machine worked.’

  6. I love the AI koans.

    You are dead right that part of the reason for persistent misapprehension about expertise is that part of being an expert is reaching the stage where thing really are easy for you, and that this makes them appear easy to other people.

  7. You’re already in trouble by (seemingly) assuming a single dimension of expertise, even at a single job.

    Expertise at what, for instance? What if most doctors believe eating fat causes heart disease… but they’re wrong? Is the information they learned about it expertise or not?

    What about expertise in layers of convention each of which seems a good idea in context, but together form a pyramid of stupidity? The web developers that produce the horrible-inside-and-out web sites we see around us using HTML, CSS, Javascript, arbitrary amounts of memory and CPU time, cookies, fashionable ad pop-up styles, and three conflicting frameworks? They have a *lot* of expertise, right? But, considering the total result, does it count? As a positive number? These are experts in dealing with and putting up with problems caused by the fact that people like them put up with the problems in the first place. (I think that’s true of a lot of fields and situations.)

    What about expertise in convincing people that one is an expert? How much of the expertise of being in a field is about internal politics, conformity and dues-paying? Jargon, obfuscation and knowing how to manipulate the customer are all forms of expertise. And often they blend into what might seem legitimate and necessary customer relations, or customer education skills. (I think the gap between perceived and real expertise, and for instance the notion of transparency, are legit customer relations issues.)

    Related but different: a politician is successful if they [singular] get elected or otherwise obtain or maintain power. Evolutionarily, that is their measure of fitness. Two things about the getting-elected case: this form of expertise is by definition measured by what is visible, and 2) this form of expertise consists in convincing people that one has another kind of expertise: say, that they can make a certain agenda succeed. But even if politicians have any expertise at what they are experts at pretending to, it’s expertise about fighting for something that other experts are against. So in what sense is it expertise? Expertise at being a soldier in the service of a mass of non-expert opinion? This issue is also not unique to politics per se.

    I think the sense of expertise per se as a valuable thing contributes to the overtrust/ corruption/ resentment cycle around experts. This is one of my favorite issues: how can we as relative laypeople and thru cultural mechanisms evaluate experts, expert-produced information, and fields of expertise?

  8. And how can experts in a field publicly expose BS, debunk myths, and in general increase transparency, without alienating their peers and seeming non-expert to the public? The irony is that the notion of Reason, cards-on-the-table open vetting of ideas, is what led to the explosion of knowledge that bad ideas can now hide behind.

  9. Well, Steve, I won’t say any of your caveats on the notion of expertise are incorrect, but …

    There are only two responses, really. One is to throw up your hands and say “The whole problem is too complicated, forget it”, in which case we learn nothing. The other is is to say “Then we will find a proxy that lets us go some way towards measuring what we really care about, and see what we can learn from it”. I prefer the second.

  10. In my experience, the better you do a job the less others think you’re doing. This makes work a frustratingly poor form of self-expression. Sadly it takes most of the time and energy, even so.

  11. I think you’re right, Simon. It’s the great paradox of expertise that when an expert does a thing, it looks easy.

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