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14 May 2013

Everyone's an Expert--except When They're Not

Has this ever happened to you: you share something that you think is relatively settled academic fact* on Facebook only to find several people challenging you in the comments? Every sociological statement I make to friends and family is open, in their eyes, to debate. People feel entitled to question my expert pronouncements without having rigorously studied the field. Can you imagine a physicist being forced to defend the existence of gravity over Thanksgiving dinner? The difference is that the things that we sociologists study are the stuff of people's lived experiences. We interrogate marriage, family, religion, and government. We dissect race, class, gender, and sexuality. People may live in the physical world, but they don't experience quarks, bosons, or leptons; they experience tables, desks, and chairs. Because all people directly experience the social world, they feel an entitlement to make pronouncements about it. In no way, however, does this qualify them do to so. After all, all fish live in the water, but none is an expert on the chemistry of water. Expert status requires immersion in an existing body of knowledge (i.e. standing on the shoulders of giants) as well as, typically, a direct contribution of original knowledge to that field. Think of it this way: I've lived in my body for a few decades now and know it pretty well, but if something goes wrong with my heart, I'm going to trust what the cardiologist tells me. I'm not comfortable making the proverbial defiant comment on the Facebook status that is the physician's diagnosis. There is something different about the social, though. As human beings, we are so radically social that it becomes difficult for us to engage that nature critically.

* - Of course, there really is no such thing. Too often, debate within academia is interpreted among the laity as evidence for dissensus. (See here.) In reality, the debate in academia happens largely on the margins, and the margins are always being pushed out further as previous questions are generally settled, leaving a large and expanding body of accepted knowledge. By "fact," I mean the stuff that science sets aside as generally understood.

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