In My Expert Opinion

Experts. They come a dime a dozen. You can buy one for either side of the courtroom and they can support any supposition you want them to support. Some "experts" do nothing but make a career out of being "experts" and a fine living it is.

Who needs experts then?

We all do. Law enforcement needs specialized assistance, prosecutors and defense lawyers need expert testimony for court, and families looking for help in solving the homicides of loved ones need help getting evidence - all of these folks may end up calling in an "expert" for an "expert opinion".

This "expert" will render that opinion for some amount of money and this opinion will do some good - or will it?

Let's examine two of the central issues involved in the use of an expert: WHAT makes an expert an expert and of WHAT value is the information rendered by this expert?

What is an expert?

This at face value seems an easy question to answer. An expert is someone who is an expert in his field!! But is everyone in the field an expert simply because he is in the field? Or do the years in the field determine expertness? Does a person become an expert after five years in the field? Ten years in the field? Or twenty? And what if he is still a doofus after THIRTY years in the field? Is he an expert?

Perhaps, if it isn't years in the field that make one an expert, it must be educational degrees that is the deciding factor. Is one an expert with a BA? Or should one at least have a Masters? Or is that still not good enough and a PhD should be required before calling oneself an expert? What happens to the individual who has thirty years experience but no degree at all? Or perhaps we should argue over WHERE the degree came from? Do all experts come from Harvard or is a degree from a small college just as acceptable?

What happens if that PhD from Harvard with thirty years experience STILL has no great skill or brains? Is he more of an expert than a young person who just happens to be brilliant right from the start?

From this, one can probably surmise that an "expert" is only an "expert" in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has a different view on what qualifies a person in their minds to render an opinion they will accept.

It is this problem with determining expertness that makes the concept of "an expert opinion" such a foolish idea. An opinion is only an opinion, so how can it automatically be "right?" Should we accept an opinion just because a so-called expert renders it?


Anyone who decides to call himself an expert or is called an expert by someone else and asked to give an opinion, should decline and offer instead an "explanation", and toss all this "expert opinion" foolishness out the door.

Explanation vs. Opinion

An explanation is different from an opinion in that it is expected to be more than just a couple quick words. An opinion can tell us nothing near to an explanation, as in a doctor telling his patient, "In my professional opinion, you are having problems with your gallbladder and you need an operation." It is not an explanation and an explanation may never follow. If the patient actually ASKS for an explanation, the doctor may give one or he may simply huff out of the room yelling at the patient for questioning his expertise! An opinion ought to simply be the opening statement for the explanation but too often it stands alone and leaves the requestor no wiser and possibly in more trouble as NOW a professional has rendered an opinion and how dare he, the lowly and uneducated, continue to ask questions!

The status of an opinion giver is the only way to "judge" the worthiness of that opinion. Hence, the constant argument over credentials and the scathing attacks some have suffered as others try to demean their "expertness". An explanation, on the other hand, depends on its facts and logic as proof of its validity. The background of the person giving the explanation has value mostly in the skills they bring to the table, which helps them gather and analyze the facts and present them well. Our ability to judge the person's "expertness" will come from his explanations rather than his "expertness" or from him telling us his opinion is right just because he, this God of his field, has one to give.

Let's take an example. An "expert" states that, in his opinion, a man has died of suicide by hanging. His opinion states that "in his experience, there were no signs of foul play and the man had shown ideation of suicide." The report is all of half a page. He sends a bill for $300 for that opinion. He gives no explanation of how there are no signs of foul play nor does he explain what ideation of suicide there had been. Does this "opinion" clear anything up? Does this opinion help people understand what happened? Does this give any facts for another professional to work with? The police investigator simply files the report and the family remains as confused as ever.

However, an explanation is much more useful. If indeed the "expert" determines that this is a suicide, he should then carefully and specifically explain all the reasons as to why. Even if one disagrees with the final conclusion, there are many elements of the explanation that may be helpful. The explanation may convince us that the "facts" are erroneous, or the logic illogical! But, regardless of whether the explanation convinces us to agree with the explainer or disagree with the explainer, it will still add more information to the debate. Information, not opinion, is what is needed for others to make decisions.

Next time an "expert" says he will offer his opinion, tell him you would rather have a full and clear explanation of all the issues involved; THAT might be worth the money.

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