June 21, 2013

The Relevance of Expertise in the Atheist Community

The Areas of My Expertise
The Areas of My Expertise (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the sciences, expertise is fairly easy to assess. We look at each others' curriculum vita (CVs), lengthy academically-oriented resumes listing our degrees, work history, and every peer-reviewed paper we have published, conference presentation we have given, grant we have received, etc. The strength of one's CV tells us something about one's standing in one's discipline. We also recognize that this sort of expertise tends to be quite narrow. For example, an expert in molecular biology is unlikely to have expertise in other areas of biology and certainly not in other fields of study. In fact, few outside the sciences realize just how narrow this sort of advanced expertise really is within disciplines. Thus, the CV needs to be both strong and relevant.

At the interface of science and law (i.e., forensic science), we find scientists serving as expert witnesses in court. Expertise in this setting is also typically assessed on the strength and relevance of one's CV. When an attorney calls an expert witness to testify, the court first establishes whether the scientist qualifies as an expert. This decision process often centers around the contents of the prospective expert's CV. Once the scientist is qualified as an expert witness by the court, he or she gains a measure of credibility in the minds of the jurors.

In this post, I'd like to take a look at how expertise is assessed in the atheist community and whether it is something we find relevant.

The Relevance of Expertise

I'll look at the second part of the question first. I believe that expertise is - or at least should be be - relevant in the atheist community. I do not assume that it is equally relevant to everyone or that it should be equally relevant in all circumstances. But it is relevant to me, at least some of the time.

Expertise is most relevant in the atheist community when we are interested in learning something new. I do not find expertise to be relevant when I am merely seeking entertainment. This is something I rarely do on the Internet because I am usually focused on learning something. I want to be informed and not just entertained. But when I am seeking pure entertainment, expertise becomes irrelevant. Someone can make me laugh without knowing anything about the subject matter in which they are dealing. It may even help.

On the other hand, when I read a blog or a book, listen to a podcast, or watch a YouTube video, expertise is usually relevant to me because I am usually engaging in this activity to learn something. I assume that the author is knowledgeable about his or her subject matter. Nothing will make me stop reading, listening, or watching faster than the realization that the author does not know what he or she is talking about. If I am not going to learn anything new, I'm probably going to move on.

When I read a blog about feminism, I hope that the author knows something about feminism. If not, I am unlikely to return. When I listen to a podcast about philosophical atheism, I hope that the podcaster knows something about philosophy. If not, I'll move on very quickly. You get the idea. When I am focused on learning, expertise becomes relevant.

What Counts as Expertise in the Atheist Community?

I have explained why and under what circumstances I believe expertise is relevant in the atheist community. We should all be able to comprehend what is meant by scientific expertise, but is there even such a thing as expertise when it comes to atheism. I believe there is, but I acknowledge that it is much more difficult to assess than scientific expertise.

For those who doubt that there is any such thing as expertise when it comes to atheism, I'll simply offer the observation that I tend to get far more out of reading atheist blogs written by prolific readers than those written by people who rarely crack a book. And I'll add that I did not even begin to feel competent in atheism until I had read quite a few books on the subject myself. Thus, reading is one way to acquire expertise about atheism.

Once again, it boils down to this: does the author strike me as someone who knows what they are talking about or not? If not, I'll pass. It would not, for example, occur to me to read an atheist blog written by someone who lacked even a basic understanding of the meaning of atheism. It makes no difference how popular someone might be. If it is clear that they offer nothing of value, I'm not going to stick around.

If expertise is at all relevant in the atheist community (as I think it is), how do we assess it? My guess is that we all assess expertise even if we do not always realize it. We do so informally. We ask ourselves whether the author seems knowledgeable about the subject matter. We pay attention to whether we are exposed to new information and learning anything.

I am confident that each and every one of you has had the experience - at least once - of visiting a blog or website and concluding that the author seemed to know far less than we did about the subject matter being addressed. If you have attended conferences on any subject, you've probably had the same reaction to at least one speaker. This suggests that you were assessing expertise.

Expertise Does Not Mean Everyone Must Have Advanced Degrees

None of this means that I expect everyone to have graduate degrees. I do not expect anything of the sort. Even at atheist conferences, I would not expect every speaker to have a graduate degree. What I do expect is that each speaker has expertise in his or her subject matter that exceeds that of most attendees.

In some situations, relevant expertise does come from life experience and not academic study. Were I to attend an atheist conference, I'd probably be more interested in hearing Rebecca Watson talk about how to market oneself as an atheist blogger than I would in hearing from a distinguished scientist without any blogging experience talk about this subject.

On the other hand, there are going to be times when I am probably not going to be interested in what someone without a graduate degree has to say. These tend to involve complicated scientific subjects I already know a bit about. Someone without a relevant degree lacks credibility in some of these subjects, and I am unlikely to learn much from listening to them. For example, I am more interested in hearing what an evolutionary psychologist has to say about evolutionary psychology than what Rebecca Watson has to say about it. None of this means that I cannot learn anything from people without advanced degrees; it just means I am less likely to do so when it comes to complex material. And since I lack infinite money and time, I must exercise some selectivity.  

What Do We Do With This?

That's up to you. In describing why I think expertise is relevant in the atheist community, I am not trying to persuade you of anything. I am merely trying to explain why and under what circumstances I find it relevant. If reading a book on science written by someone who has no formal scientific training appeals to you, go for it. You'll find plenty to chose from, and I will not be competing with you to buy them. If hearing someone speak on a topic who I find unqualified to do so is something you enjoy, then go right ahead and enjoy it. I promise I will not be there to distract you. I only hope that you'd consider the possibility that what you are hearing might be deeply flawed.

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