July 2013

Out on a limb: Sins of expertness

Jordana's TweetsJordana Bieze Foster, Editor

In journalism, as in much of healthcare, we tend to focus our attention on what is new. But every once in a while we’re reminded that words and ideas published more than a decade ago still have the power to challenge the way we think.

For me, it was an essay titled, “The sins of expertness and a proposal for redemption,” published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on May 6, 2000, which I read for the first time earlier this month. The author, David L. Sackett, OC, FRSC, MD, FRCP, explained that he had retired from his first career in the field of therapeutic compliance when he realized he had become an expert.

Experts, Sackett contends, impede scientific progress in two ways. First, their own ideas are too frequently not challenged, and second, reviewers of grant applications and manuscripts become biased by the expert’s accepted opinions and are unable to objectively assess new ways of thinking. This realization led Sackett to retire from his field of expertise and call on others to do the same. That was in 1983. By 2000, when the BMJ essay was published, he had become an expert in yet another field (evidence-based medicine), again retired, and again called on other experts to follow suit.

It’s a pretty radical proposal, and I’m not sure it’s a practical one for most people. But the phenomenon of overreliance on expert opinions and reluctance to challenge those opinions is one that I can definitely relate to.

Journalists love experts. Experts tend to respond promptly to requests for interviews, excel at explaining complicated concepts, and cite numerous previously published articles to illustrate their points. Experts make a journalist’s job easier.

But that’s a problem. Because experts are not just knowledgeable, but also accessible and articulate, because they make our jobs easier, it’s far too tempting to accept what they say at face value and to keep going back to those experts time and again rather than reaching out to new sources.

As an editor, I have similar challenges. I know that readers tend to be drawn to articles written by experts whose names they recognize and whose resumes they respect. Those experts also tend to be experienced writers, which usually means less work for me as an editor. And, if I’m honest, I’m instinctively less likely to question statements in an expert’s manuscript, even statements that might seem less convincing if written by someone else.

But I’m happy to say that quite a bit of what you’ll read in LER is not all about the experts. The author of an article or the source of a quote might well be someone you’ve never heard of—at least not yet—and might well take issue with expert opinion. That’s a good thing, and I’m going to make a conscious effort to make sure it happens more often going forward.

And in the unlikely event that I myself ever become an expert? Sackett’s retirement plan sounds pretty good to me.

I’ll be at the beach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.