Question the Experts

Often as not, expert credentials don't translate to "what can you actually do?" Learn how questioning the experts makes everyone stronger.

December 30, 2019

Expertise has a lifespan like anything else. While our experiences may lead us to a position of authority or expertise, that experience must be continually validated to remain relevant. Said more simply: Things change, and professionals don't always change with them. One of our reoccurring themes here is a balance of relevance and context, which we view as the foundation for any and all expertise.

Periodically, we try and assess our approach at ISG. We want to be as effective and introspective as we can be so that our readers know that beyond a doubt, anything that we say is delivered with some crucial qualities. In the past, we've taken hard (and obnoxious) positions on what we view as experts selling bad information. In this article, we want to roll our sleeves back down, and start over.


Because we expect more from ourselves and whether we've lived by our own code or not, we have one... and this is part of it.


Colin Powell once said:

The Secretary of Education... he's kinda stupid, but he does a pretty good job.
"Experts often possess more data than judgment"

It's important that while we respect the person, we understand when and where to question the data.

Sometimes there's a moment to gripe, and we believe one belongs here:

We're raised to accept authority, not question it. We spend 12+ years in institutions in which authority requires that we simply color within the lines. That's a great solution for teaching mass amounts of people as quickly as possible so that they meet a desired outcome. It does not, however, do anything for our ability to intelligently question and respond to challenges of authority, and we want to address this from a philosophical and intellectual position.

Another issue is that typically those who adopt the mantle of expertise (and those that challenge it) tend to be more dominant personalities. They aren't afraid of conflict, and they're quick to turn what could be a productive dialog about the viability of an idea into a personal battle of ego and credentials.

Here's the problem: Colin Powell was right. Even some very well credentialed professionals can lack relevance and context. So how do we break from our social conditioning to ask the hard questions of volatile personalities.

Questioning Authority: Timing, Tact, and Dosage

In my youth, I was kicked out of school so many times I ultimately stopped going back. At one point, a guidance counselor, visibly disappointed that I couldn't simply stop challening authority sat me down with paperwork for my expulsion. He told me:

"You're a bright enough kid, and I hate to do this. I think you'll be ok in life, but you need to learn three things: timing, tact, and dosage."

It's important to know a few things when addressing an established expert, whether they're competent or not.

First, no one likes an upstart... especially those who don't know when they aren't qualified to make an assertion or statement. We discussed this a bit in our article "Tampons Stop Bleeding and Other Fairytales"; we've seen countless people make the assertion that their impromptu solution is "better than nothing", even in the face of expert testimony that it is not. Check your ego when you check into a discussion. It's like a big, neon insult magnet, and if you accidentally leave it on, you might forget that the discussion is about the topic, not about you.

Too often, we're unable to look at ourselves and say for certain that we don't know. This phenomenon leads to the "confidently wrong" state discussed in Dunning-Kruger's syndrome.
So be sure that you check a few boxes before you start jabbing questions at experts.

  1. Have a mental "5-minute rule". The 5 minute rule in conversation is that you don't inject your opinion until you've listened in for 5 minutes. This allows you to orient yourself to the discussion and thereby have relevant contributions. If you are in a race to be heard, you run the risk of looking foolish by failing to fully understand what's going on. This is a part of "Situational Awareness". Interpersonal communication skills are largely about listening, and letting others do the communication.

  2. Be polite. We all have the impulse to roll our eyes and go for the throat when we hear something that we think is stupid. The problem is this is the approach we see on TV from the time we're children. The main character delivers a quick one-liner, and everyone else just hushes.

    Here's the truth: that doesn't work. Toss it out and be polite. Certain attitudes are contagious; panic, aggression, confusion... but so is composure. Composure illustrates that not only are you confident in the position you're taking, but that you're not insulted by the person or their idea. If you want to be taken seriously, composure (tact) is a non-negotiable component.

  3. Know when to Quit. At some point, you'll find yourself at a standstill. No one can agree 100%, and that gray area leaves room for intellectual development. Sometimes it's best to leave the discussion and file away the points that don't strike you as intuitively correct. Reflect on them as you gain knowledge and experience.

  4. Words mean things. One of the fastest ways to identify yourself as insufficiently equipped to handle a professional discussion is not knowing the language. Take great effort to learn precisely what words mean in context, and use them correctly. If someone calls you out, you should never rely on the "well, what I meant by that was..." argument. If you do, consider it a sign that you need to measure twice, and cut once when it comes to discussion. Been there a few times myself.
Responding to Challenges

This is one of the most pivotal points we can make on this topic. When challenge, you've been given an opportunity to do one of two things:

  1. Explain how your position is relevant and represents best practice, or;
  2. Explore better options.

Ask yourself though, when was the last time you challenged an expert and had them respond in that way? When was the last time you were challenged and how did you respond?

Words and phrasing mean things.

Ego plays a major part in expertise, and the most common and natural reaction to be challenged when you are an expert is to route the criticism away from your established concept, and allow your ego to absorb the blow.

If someone challenges you, remember it's not about you. It's the content that needs to be examined, and as such, a thoughtful reply that acknowledges this does a few things that we think are noteworthy:

  1. It shows that the expert is indeed capable of evaluating their position, which is an excellent quality in a teacher and expert.
  2. It illustrates that the expert has the temperance to withstand contest. That's a mark of experience and confidence.
  3. It demonstrates a commitment to continual improvement.

To quote Colin Powell once more:

Don't be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own back yard.

There's a difference between a professional, and a true expert. Often, people who work in a profession are *not* the best in their field, and with social politics being what they are, connections can work miracles for the mediocre minds.


We've written this so you know what you can expect from us. If you ever get less, call us out. We're students too, and whether or not we allow ego to briefly cloud our judgment, we will put it aside to ensure we're not growing complacent.


ISG Team

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