What’s an expert?

5 August 2015, 1139 EDT

Yesterday’s post Confidence and Gender in International Relations got me thinking. The post draws on the excellent survey data from the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project at William and Mary’s Institute for the Theory & Practice of International Relations and notes that in the snap polls conducted by the project over the last year, women international relations scholars choose the response “I don’t know” more often than their male counterparts. They conclude that structural factors such as socialization might explain this “confidence gap” between female and male respondents who possess similar levels of knowledge and expertise.

Full disclosure: I have dutifully completed several TRIP snap polls, I have often selected “I don’t know” and I am a woman. I do not lack confidence in my expertise, but I do know the limits of it, which is why I respond, “I don’t know” when asked about topics outside my realm of expertise.

What is an expert? Experts possess a stock of specialized skills and knowledge about a specific topic. Expertise is acquired either through formal training, education and fancy credentials (the scholars polled by TRIP all have Ph.Ds. in political science) or through experience and practice (policymakers working for the government, the U.N. or a host of other organizations). This specialized knowledge, use of science and evidence, and analytical reasoning confers authority upon IR scholars; our responses on the snap polls are credible and authoritative because of our expertise.

It is useful then, for us to consider Friedman’s distinction between being “in authority” (possessing an institutional role—a professorship—that gives us the right to speak) and “an authority”—(deriving from our knowledge, research, experience).   I answer, “I don’t know” because while I am “in authority” as a professor of political science, I am not necessarily “an authority” on nuclear proliferation, FIFA or climate change.

As a discipline, we might consider having a conversation on how we define “expert” and what our professional responsibilities are when called to give expert opinions. If “everyone is an expert” doesn’t that dilute our power and authority? Political pressures have prompted us to debate the value-added of political science—what do political scientists bring to the table that the pundits on television do not? I would argue that the value of a political scientist is recognizing the limits of our expertise; we supply informed analysis on some topics, but not all. We degrade the value of our expertise and the authority of our discipline when we say, “I do know” when we don’t know.

Perhaps there are gendered views on what it means to be an expert. Perhaps more women political scientists intuitively make the distinction between being “in authority” and “an authority.” Perhaps that is a good thing for the discipline. I look forward to seeing the next iterations of this TRIP project that might provide some answers to these questions.