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Open for Debate

Knowledge qua Expert

26 June 2023

As modern society becomes increasingly specialised, the need for laypeople to identify experts is more pressing than ever. But as everyone is more reliant on the internet, which is difficult to navigate, they need to be able to identify the right experts. Most of us have no medical or financial expertise. So, if we need advice on flu vaccines or tax returns, we must consult doctors or accountants in whom we can trust. The more knowledgeable and dependable they are, the more informed decisions we can make about our health or finances.

But how do we discern trustworthy experts in the right areas if we’re all in the dark about such matters? Wouldn’t we need the very expertise in question? It looks like we face a dilemma: if we don’t have the expertise ourselves, we aren’t able to identify the right experts, but if we did have the expertise, we wouldn’t need to identify any. How do we solve this expert identification problem?

In some areas easy tests are available: expertise in sport is readily identifiable by trophies won or world rankings, assuming laypeople can tell without difficulty whether these trophies or rankings are legitimate. But in other areas such as music or art, we need trained sensitivity or skilful intuition to judge aesthetic qualities. Or maybe laypeople can indirectly calibrate the right experts, by first identifying some experts in an area where easy tests exist, and then trace a line of trust through overlapping disciplines to areas where no such tests exist. However, such cumbersome reasoning is unlikely to always yield the desired result.

Another approach is to appeal to specialised training and official credentials. The advice would be to only consult certified, licenced, or accredited experts, as these labels are indicators of reliability and trustworthiness. While this won’t apply in all domains either, most of us are aware that doctors are on medical registers and accountants are chartered. In our society there are institutional bodies—such as the General Medical Council or the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants—which are epistemic authorities: they are a kind of meta-experts who have given their seal of approval to ensure that laypeople will be advised and treated in a fully qualified, committed, and accountable manner. Not only is a certain education and training needed, the relevant experts must also follow codes of conduct setting out norms, rules and responsibilities of proper practice. And if in doubt about rival experts’ relative degrees of expertise, laypeople can seek evidence about them by referring to these authorities, assuming they speak with one voice and can be readily identified.

Because the epistemic authorities underwrite a high level of trust in, and reliance on, certain experts, laypeople can reasonably expect them to satisfy their relevant epistemic needs. Suppose Dr Smith is my local GP. Then we can say that Dr Smith occupies the role of practising general medicine in the UK which requires a registration with a licence to practise. And that, in turn, not only guarantees that Dr Smith has the necessary training and experience, it also gives me confidence that she will deploy her medical skills and knowledge as best she can—in compliance with the ethical standards of good medical practice. Thus, I reasonably expect Dr Smith to know about flu vaccines and how to apply that knowledge in my case.

We can say that Dr Smith has that knowledge qua (or in virtue of) occupying the GP role. Dr Smith may occupy other—professional or recreational—roles. If she is an FA qualified football referee, she will know in that capacity all about the rules and regulations of the game. All such roles are typically flagged up as reliable sources of information. Obviously, Dr Smith has a rich and multifaceted epistemic life, not constrained by any role occupancy. She acquires knowledge about politics or culture by accessing news outlets, just like everyone else. But when it comes to the acquisition and application of medical knowledge, relying on those ordinary channels isn’t always good enough. The standard for knowledge qua GP is stricter. I would reasonably expect her advice on flu vaccines to be informed by peer-reviewed research rather than some newspaper article, even if reliable.

In the case of the GP role, every occupier must possess general medical knowledge and skills. If all I need to know as a patient is whether a common infection is bacterial or viral, who exactly occupies the role is less important. An assessment of the role occupied is sufficient to determine that any role occupier must know the answer. Such knowledge is widely associated with the role and sanctioned by the relevant epistemic authority. It isn’t unimportant, though, as someone may not know what they should know qua occupying a role. Similarly, someone may know what they should not know qua occupying a role. Suppose Dr Smith accessed personal data by breaching patient confidentiality, which is regarded as gross misconduct. In either case, the role occupier is rightly subject to blame and feelings of resentment. In fact, if someone performs badly enough in a role—say, they commit egregious errors by failing to possess or apply basic knowledge—they will be subject to serious disciplinary action up to eviction from the role. Thus, doctors are occasionally struck off the medical register.

But suppose instead I need to know whether an extremely rare infection is bacterial or viral. If not all occupiers of the GP role can reasonably be expected to know the answer, then who occupies the role becomes more important. An assessment of the role occupier is needed to determine how well they perform in it. If Dr Smith is more experienced, skilful, or knowledgeable than most other GPs, then I should approach her. In that case, she would know not just what can reasonably be expected of her qua occupant of the GP role, but she would possess medical knowledge over and above that role—knowledge for which she deserves special credit or praise. She might hold a PhD in infectious diseases, or maybe she has even won prizes for ground-breaking research in this area.

These distinct normative dimensions concerning laypeople’s expectations of what experts should, or should not, know, as well as the standards that apply to their knowledge, are all part of their expert role occupancy. Those expectations and standards, and their grounding in epistemic authorities, are all key to understanding the ways in which laypeople can identify and trust the right experts.

Photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash


Acknowledgement: Thanks to the AHRC Digital Knowledge (AH/W008424/1) project for supporting this work.