Expertise and Cognition

There are two commonsense ways of thinking about expertise that trace at least back to Plato’s Statesman. The first is to think of expertise as performative: an acquired level of skill in a domain. This includes domains of crafts, like blacksmithing or pottery, domains of services, like piloting a ship or training horses, of art forms, like dancing or playing a musical instrument, and of athletic abilities, like wrestling or running. The second is to think of expertise as cognitive: an acquired level of knowledge or true belief in a domain. This includes knowledge in abstract domains, such as logic or mathematics, knowledge in concrete domains, such as art history or biology, and knowledge in practical domains, such as knowing how to hire and organize various specialists to build a house (carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc.).

Truth-Based Accounts of Expertise

Philosophers who are primarily interested in epistemology, especially as it relates to expert testimony and the value of science, tend to focus on cognitive expertise.

For example, Alvin Goldman (2001; 2018) developed an account of expertise that he calls “veritism,” which states, roughly, that someone is an expert if they have a minimum threshold of true beliefs in a domain and they have more true beliefs and fewer false beliefs than most other people. Similarly, Elizabeth Fricker (2006: 233) says that if an expert were asked to form a conscious belief about her domain, that belief “would almost certainly be knowledge.”

I call such accounts of expertise “truth-based” because they share the commitment that having a substantial number of true beliefs is necessary for cognitive expertise.

The Case for Truth-Based Accounts

Truth-based accounts of expertise are attractive for at least two reasons. First, they ground the authority of cognitive experts in traditional epistemic aims. And second, they establish expertise as an objective feature of the world (as opposed to something merely socially constructed). If expertise were not grounded in truth or knowledge, expert testimony might be no more authoritative than a casual suggestion.

Further, without an objective ground for expertise, presumably any group would have an equal claim to who counts as an expert. For example, climate skeptics could claim expert authority alongside climate scientists. But if expertise depends on having true beliefs in a domain, then genuine experts have more authority than novices or naysayers.

Objections to Truth-Based Accounts

Despite these selling points, truth-based accounts of expertise face a number of challenges. One is simply the classical challenge of how anyone can know when experts have true beliefs. If there is no objective criteria for determining who has a true belief (also called the problem of the criterion), then it is not clear how anyone would know if they were an expert, much less how anyone else could identify experts. If we say that experts are identified by other experts in that domain, this only pushes the question back a step: How does that group know they are experts?

 A second challenge is derived from the history of science. Intuitively, we regard iconic scientific innovators, such as Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, as experts. But contemporary physicists now believe that a substantial portion of their beliefs were false. Are we wrong that Copernicus and company were experts?

We might say that Copernicus and company were experts during their lifetime but wouldn’t be today. This presumes that they still met some minimum threshold for true beliefs back then. But truths about physics haven’t changed. So, if Copernicus and company wouldn’t meet that threshold today, they didn’t meet it back then. And we cannot treat expertise as solely a matter of whether someone’s beliefs agree with other experts’. This would threaten the objective ground of expertise that truth-based accounts are supposed to establish.

A third challenge comes from psychological research on experts. Although it is intuitive to distinguish performative and cognitive expertise, empirical studies on various types of expertise cast doubt on this distinction. According to some researchers, expert abilities, whether to know things or perform, are best explained by extensive, specialized practice.

Even in domains regarded as highly cognitive, such as mathematics and art history, exhibiting expertise is more than simply recalling propositions as if from a repository. It requires the ability to recognize connections between information, how those connections are used to solve those problems, and the ability to adapt those solutions when new problems arise. This is certainly cognitive, but it is clearly much more than propositional knowledge.

In tomorrow’s post, I will explain how psychologist K. Anders Ericsson (2008) argues that, even in highly cognitive domains, the sort of “knowledge” that truth-based accounts regard as necessary for expertise, come only with a certain kind of training for performance.

References

Ericsson, K. Anders (2008). “Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance: A General Overview.” Academic Emergency Medicine 15 (11): 988-994.

Fricker, Elizabeth (2006). “Testimony and Epistemic Autonomy.” in Jennifer Lackey and Ernest Sosa (eds), The Epistemology of Testimony, 225-250, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Goldman, Alvin (2001). “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63 (1): 85-109.

_____ (2018). “Expertise.” Topoi 37 (1): 3-10.


Jamie Carlin Watson, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Medical Humanities and Bioethics at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, AR and author of Expertise: A Philosophical Introduction.

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