Nicholas Kristof, in an op-ed piece (p. A23) in the NYT on 26 March, “Learning How to Think”, attacks appeals to “experts”, citing a 2005 study by Philip Tetlock of experts’ forecasts on economic matters that concluded:
The predictions of experts were, on the average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.
Though Tetlock’s findings were unsurprising to me, I was dismayed at the way Kristof framed the discussion, as a denunciation of “experts” and “expertise”. Dismayed because I’ve become accustomed to having people dismiss what I (and my colleagues) say about language, in particular grammar and usage in English, as tainted because I’m an “expert”, and therefore in some way prejudiced. This is especially galling because because one of the messages of many technical disciplines (of which linguistics is one) is
Some things you are sure are true are significantly mistaken.
So slamming “experts” and “expertise” is a way of buttressing folk wisdom in these matters. Pointy-headed self-aggrandizing “intellectuals”!
Yes, I know, Kristof is undercutting one set of “experts”, people who propose to predict the future. Lord knows, such people are sitting ducks, especially in financial matters (though I believe they do better in some other domains), and it’s scarcely a surprise that so many of them get it wrong.
Other “experts” offer aesthetic judgments — for Beethoven, against Beethoven, for Mendelssohn, against Mendelssohn, and so on — and still others exhibit competence in diagnosis and treatment (such experts are often called specialists); garages might have a transmissions expert/specialist, in the same way that a medical practice might have an infectious diseases expert/specialist), and stlll others simply possess extensive knowledge about some domain (medieval Bulgarian, the life history of the liver fluke, prime numbers, whatever).
The links between these different sorts of expert/expertise are tenuous, though not negligible. Meanings radiate in different directions from earlier meanings, but the (phonological/orthographic shapes of the) words remain. The result is the mildly Whorfian one that people are inclined to view the different meanings as subtypes of a single meaning, just because they are manifested in the same phonological/orthographic shapes. So experts of one sort are tainted with the misdeeds of another.
[Fo some years, I've had a piece in preparation on the uses of cheat -- cheat on an exam, cheat on your taxes, cheat on your spouse, and so on, all extensions, in different directions, from an earlier sense of cheat 'seize'. Though these different uses have little to do objectively with one another -- by the way, if you want to dispute this point, you have to do it without using the verb cheat, of course -- the fact that modern English uses a single word for these different situations inclines people to think that the situations are really "the same". People in another culture, speaking another language, might well be baffled by this idea.
Note that I'm not saying that current speakers of English can't differentiate the situations, only that they're disinclined to, so differentiation takes some work. That's the "mildly Whorfian" idea I mentioned above.]