Essay

Specialists and Experts

Saying that modern life is complicated is a bit like saying that snow is cold. We face a bewildering array of challenges, from assembling Ikea furniture to writing wills, with lots of other stuff in between. It’s no surprise that we enlist specialists for many tasks. A lot of specialists. And oddly, they don’t overlap much: Should you trust your mechanic to recommend a mutual fund? More than you should trust me, certainly, but you’d probably do best by consulting a financial analyst. Similarly, don’t ask your lawyer to change your transmission for you – not if you want her to continue honoring client confidentiality. And so on.

Almost as inevitable as specialists are the many species of jargon they use to communicate with each other. Listening to surgeons chatting over dinner about appesiotomies and angioplasties and anxiolytics, you might assume they’d made up this language just to confuse outsiders. But they don’t even notice; it simply works for them; they’d be unable to do their jobs without a mountain of special terms. A non-lawyer might find “Taint hearing” and “talesman” vaguely embarrassing terms to throw around, but to a licensed barrister such lingo is bread and butter – so to speak. It’s very likely that even you, dear reader, have a specialized argot that you use with your co-workers, and that you’re just as oblivious as any high-powered attorney about how mystifying your funny words sound.

So specialists good, right? I certainly think so, at least until I get my MBA, pass the bar exam, finish my medical residency, and complete my trades school trifecta of HVAC, Automotive Mechanics, and Electrical Wiring certification.

But there is a problem: a species of creature going around masquerading as a specialist, and what they really are is experts. And oddly enough, I’ve never found that I have a need for an expert. What are these people good for? Well, the next time there’s a school or workplace shooting, the news networks will dutifully dig up some experts to either state the painfully obvious (“We’ve seen this sort of thing before” – Gee, really?!) or express a view oddly similar to that of the network hosting them. Another kind of expert gracing the news shows is so noxious, gathering like rats around a dumpster before every election, that we have a special name for them: “pundits.” Their specialty is seeing a future different from the one that actually happens. Other experts are called upon to tell us how to talk to our children, or that we’ve been eating fried food, or that everything we’ve been doing in the bedroom, we’ve been doing wrong – so wrong.

Like the specialists, experts have their own special terms, too. Feel like you’re attentive to your child’s needs? You’re probably a “smother mother.” Think you might need to cut your caloric intake? There’s a good chance you actually have a “food addiction.” Even more vague terms experts like to throw around are “liberal” and “conservative,” or, even better, “blue-stater” and “red-stater.” Notice the pattern? For an expert, the most important objectives are:

a)     That their terms mean nothing, or nearly nothing; and

b)    That you feel worse about yourself after listening to them.

Sometimes it’s not the experts’ fault: they didn’t know they were experts until someone dragged them in front of a camera, did their hair for them, and slapped a mic on their lapel. These people could have been left alone, ruining their eyesight in university libraries, but our masochistic need for experts to make us feel dumb demanded that they be brought in to testify.

What can be done about this plague of experts? The solution starts with you. First, stop listening to them – or at least listen critically. Second, watch out for jargon that either means nothing, or means something so ordinary you didn’t need a new word for it. Third, if you have a child in school, encourage him or her to learn something useful. Remind him or her that language is a tool, and we use tools to make things, not to tear each other down.

Lastly, regardless of how awesome you think your area of expertise is, and how clever you know yourself to be, when those camera crews come knocking and start powdering the shine from your nose, ask yourself, “Do I have something helpful to say, or am I just going to make everyone feel ignorant, with my fancy words? Am I really going to tell people something they didn’t know, or am I just going to be another expert?”

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An Irishman's blog about the English language.

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