Because I Said So: The Trouble with Experts

20,679 Physicians Prefer It Toasted by clotho98 (CC BY-NC)

20,679 Physicians Prefer It Toasted by clotho98 (CC BY-NC)

New York Journal headline after the Stock Market Crash of 1929
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ―Shunryu Suzuki
Picture all experts as if they were mammals. ―Christopher Hitchens
The expert knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. ―Unknown
Because I said so.
—Mothers to unconvinced children everywhere



As children we’re taught to trust parents, teachers, doctors, and cops. We’re told that these grownups know more than us and when we’re children, they often do. But even kids narrow their eyes at because I said so. So why, years later, do we put so much faith in experts’ say-so?

So-called experts aren’t smarter or more important than anyone else. They’re not omniscient or infallible. They just know more about a particular subject than the average Jane. (Interestingly, the word expert comes from a Latin word that means try. Not succeed, but try. Experts make educated guesses; it’s all any of us can do.)

There’s nothing wrong with expertise. Knowledge is powerful and immersing yourself in a subject that interests you can be rewarding. But powerful players—political hopefuls, media conglomerates, pharmaceutical companies—use experts to manipulate impressionable audiences for their own ends. And because we’re raised to believe that others know more than us, it can be hard to resist experts’ supposed authority.

To help offset the hype, here are three major problems with experts:



The universe is wonderfully complex; we learn more about it—and us—every day. No one, including experts, knows everything there is to know. The world’s leading doctors and scientists still haven’t cured cancer, Alzheimer’s, or AIDS. The world’s top politicians, strategists, and diplomats still struggle to create peace. With so much left to do and discover, how can any expert’s word be final?



Then there’s the stumbling block of specialty bias, a kind of tunnel vision where professionals tend to look at problems through the lens of their own field. It’s why a nutritionist, a psychologist, and a priest will trace the same symptoms to three very different causes. Put another way, every problem starts to look like a nail when your only tool is a hammer.

Bias can also be intentional, like when corporations fund studies to promote or exonerate their products. In court, prosecutors and defense lawyers hire expert witnesses to give opposing testimony. Personal or professional conflicts of interest can compromise anyone’s honesty and rigor. Experts’ bias, whether unconscious or fully funded, is a real problem.



And finally, experts are human. Even the world’s most talented and accomplished people have bad hair days and catch colds and fall in love. Beneath the titles and degrees they have their own experiences, challenges, and opinions. They’re fallible, just like us. Despite the credentials and accolades, they make mistakes. Unfortunately, those mistakes can snowball into serious problems because people hesitate to challenge experts’ claims.


Fortunately, how much influence experts wield is up to you. Real authority isn’t found in titles and degrees, badges and uniforms, media and followers. It lies in each of us. It’s up to you to think critically about what people say and what they leave out, where they’re coming from, how they know what they know, and what you’ll do with the information they give you.

That’s the irony of authority: no matter how qualified the expert, you’re the one who decides what to think about what they say. You can accept it or reject it, break it down or laugh it off. Remember that when someone impressive starts talking, whether world-renowned scientist, cutting-edge designer, CNN, Oprah, or your favorite artist. In the end, it’s your judgement that matters most.



  1. Well presented. Your characterizations remind me of the old business expression that “…an Expert is anyone who is working over 50 miles from home…”. Today it may be more like one who works in a presence which lacks personal social media access.

    To be fair, truthful real useful experts do exist in every field. Their value lies in what the qualitative value of their work product may be. But to determine that value one may need …an other expert!

    So in the end you are exactly right, we are all in the end the final expert that counts even if we do our best work from or near home.


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