The other kinds of expertise

Scientific American
If you read my old and new posts about the media, science journalism, etc., you know I come down strongly on the side of specialists and against generalists. But it is a caricature, a simplification I have to use to make my posts clearer, and to cut my posts down to a semi-manageable length ;-)

Yes, people are hungry for information. They are asking to be educated, not served content. And education requires expertise.

If people were not hungry to be educated, and if there was no inherent trust in experts, there would be no interest in either editing or using Wikipedia, there would be no interest in TED talks, and there would be no interest in either producing or using MOOCs and other forms of online education. I am far from being the only one who sees an article in a newspaper and, before sharing the link anywhere, first double-checks it with an expert blogger. Which is why expert bloggers are so popular.

We used to read a newspaper, nodding along, assuming they got it all right, until we get to an article that covers a topic on which we actually know something, an article within the domain of our own expertise. Then we scream bloody murder: "Why can't they ever cover X correctly, idiots!". The assumption everyone had was that media covered everything well except the domain of our expertise.

The emergence of the Web, especially the expert blogs (and expert commenters), opened our eyes. We saw that every expert is complaining about (and skillfully dissecting) the coverage of their own area of expertise, leading to the conclusion that the traditional media covers everything poorly. We started losing trust in the media and consuming it less. The way media reacted to economic consequences of lost trust was to fire experts and hire generalists who were asked to cover seven different topics per day, not covering anything well. Audience asked for expertise and for education that could only be provided by specialists, yet the media responded by offering more and shorter articles all written by diluted generalists.

But these are extremes I needed to use in my past writing in order to make a point clearly and strongly. So, here is the missing piece, about varieties of expertise that exist between the two extremes of super-expertise of hyper-specialists and the super-diluted non-expertise of hyper-generalists.

Temporary Expertise

If you work for one of those media mills, expected to churn out several articles per day, good luck with that. The work will, inevitably, be shallow, superficial, formulaic and sprinkled with inaccuracies.

But if you have the luxury of having time to write something longer, perhaps a feature, or a series of articles or blog posts on the same topic, then you have time to become a temporary expert. You have time to read books and articles on the topic, to study, to interview many experts, to take a class, to go to a meeting or conference or a series of public lectures, to think about it, process it, digest it, internalize all of that knowledge. You have time to learn enough to be able to write a piece that is accurate.

Expanding into new Expertise

Every one of us is an expert on something, at least one thing, probably several things.

This also means that each one of us is completely non-expert on many other things.

One can argue that each one of us is the expert on our own personal experiences. And if one writes about that, this can certainly be wonderful, riveting reading. But it's fiction, and entertainment, even if it hints at some bigger generalities about human condition. It is not expertise, and it does not educate or inform.

And then there are topics we all think we are experts on and like to pontificate about. For example: politics. But even there, there are people who know the arcane rules of the Senate, or details of how Electoral College works, or actually sit down and read through thousands of pages of the bill going through the House. Such people have a much more deserved reputation of being experts than the rest of us cheering for our side.

My personal rule: never write about topics I am not at least somewhat expert on. And if I write about politics, to make it clear it is personal opinion, colored by my own background - from comparing USA to ex-Yugoslavia, to having studied some psychology of voter behavior.

There is no money you can pay me to write about exoplanets (or baseball!!!). I find the topic fascinating, but I have zero background. It would take me months of intense, focused, time-consuming study to even reach the level of "temporary expert" (and several years to become a real expert). Thus, I'd run my draft of the article by real experts...who should have written the piece themselves anyway, right?

My narrowest expertise is in "role of gonadal steroid hormones in the development of individual, strain, age and sex differences in circadian and photoperiodic time-measurement in Japanese quail". While doing my own research on this, I also read a lot and thought a lot about related topics. I know quite a lot about sex hormones, brain and behavior, about circadian rhythms, and about bird physiology and behavior. Even more broadly, I studied quite a lot about animal physiology, animal behavior, and evolution. I took several graduate courses in history and philosophy of science. I have written blog posts about biological clocks in non-bird organisms, from bacteria, protists, fungi and plants, to arthropods, mammals and even humans (although I systematically avoided the literature on humans throughout grad school). I have written blog posts about other aspects of bird behavior. I have written about evolution and ecology and hormones.

So, a few weeks ago, when a bunch of people started asking if NYC subway rats would drown or survive Sandy, I decided I had enough background to be able to extend my area of expertise to rats. This is not my area of expertise, but I knew enough to know where to look, how to evaluate information, and how to quickly get up to speed. So I wrote a blog post about it (and a follow-up) and ended up linked and quoted all over the media. I was a 'temporary expert' on rat behavior during floods, but this expertise was not isolated from my other expertise - it is tangential to it, quite closely related.

When I write about human clocks, that is expanding my expertise. When I write about sleep, that is expanding my expertise. Those are not the cores of my expertise, but they are related enough, close enough that I can figure it out pretty fast.

The worst situation is when one is not even aware that a topic requires expertise and pontificates anyway. Remember a few years ago when old-skool, curmudgeon journalists wrote op-eds making fun of blogs (and later Twitter), each one of them instantly revealing they have never actually seen a blog?

Or today's example - this one - which appears totally ignorant of a decade of writing, studies, companies, software and other stuff related to Open Access publishing (and scientific publishing in general, and alternative methods of peer-review). How does one even start critiquing such a piece? Where does one start, when so much has happened in the decades since the last time those arguments may have appeared valid? With the definition of "publishing"? Or "what is publishing for?". Or "at what point in the timeline of scientific process does publication fall (hint: not at the end)?" Or "when did pre-publication, publisher-driven peer-review become accepted (hint: around 1960 or so, before which science worked perfectly fine for a few centuries)?"

So, better to stick to one's own expertise, and then slowly expand to neighboring topics. Don't jump head first into a topic you know nothing about. People will know. And they will point and laugh.

Technical Expertise

There are many more ways to tell a story than just a block of text. There is art and illustration. There are comic strips and cartoons. There is data journalism and infographics. There are talk podcasts and non-talk sound files. There are photography and slide-shows. There are animations and videos. And there is interactive stuff - "move the sliders!" - where users can change inputs to see how it changes the output.

Just like long articles (and blog posts) have a much longer staying power than short ones, good multimedia packages also are treated differently by users, regarded as valuable resources, something to save, bookmark and share with friends.

People who make that stuff are not topical experts. They have other kinds of expertise. They have technical skills needed to make that. They may have heightened sense of visual aesthetics. A really good ear for rhythm and timing. They may be really good at math. And as this kind of work usually takes more time, they may become 'temporary experts' on the topic as well.

Just like we, as users, run to topical experts, our "Go To" people to learn about the topics that are in the news, so producers of media run to their own "Go To" people when they want to produce videos, or infographics, or multimedia packages.

Many people produce videos, but not all have the same appeal. There are many good cartoonists out there, but there is a reason why we all flock to XKCD, PhD Comics and The Oatmeal - they are really, really good. For data journalism, infographics and interactive stuff, some big old organizations are really good at that, e.g., The Guardian and The New York Times, but we also check out ProPublica which really specializes in that format and sets the standard for everyone else.

For a multimedia package to work both short-term and long-term, it has to be appealing, inviting, intuituve to explore, entertaining, informational, educational, beautifully and clearly written (the text parts of it), and 100% factually accurate. Thus such a package is usually done by a team, at least two people: a topical expert, and a multimedia expert. Both are experts, both are specialists, both are journalists, and both can become hot commodities in the media market.

Amazing Writing

Let's go back to the wild days of those silly "bloggers vs. journalists" op-eds a few years ago. It is interesting how they all had the same pattern, using some of the same arguments.

"But who will report the news as it happens, from the scene?" BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did exactly that.

"But who will do in-depth, investigative reporting?" BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who do that every week.

"But who will cover local town councils and school boards?" BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who are doing an amazing job with that.

"But who will speak truth to the power?" BOOM. Here are twenty examples of bloggers who did just that.

"But who will effect positive change, affect legislation, diplomatic efforts?" BOOM. Here are twenty examples when bloggers did exactly that.

"But the word Blog is funny!"

Eh? That's an argument? Well, "nut graf" is funny, too. And so is "lede". And "word limit" is a funny concept.

"B-b-b-but at least we can write! So there!"

To which the only appropriate response is a throaty laughter.

I don't think you mean what we mean when you say "writing"....

Writing is not just the ability to compose grammatically correct sentences. Writing is not the ability to put together sentences really fast in order to turn in the copy on deadline. Writing is not the ability to follow the formula of the 500-word inverted pyramid news piece that is just like all such pieces everywhere, including all the tired old metaphors, topped by over-hyped headlines. Though all of those skills can be useful sometimes. And writing is not keeping readers' attention because they cannot avert their eyes from the train-wreck of an op-ed you just wrote.

Writing is the ability to get the reader who finished your first sentence to decide to read your second sentence. And third. And then fourth. And all the way to the end. And then say "Wow, this was good, let me share with all my friends". Topic, length, form, format - those do not matter. It can be a tweet, it can be a book. It can be about duck penises, it can be about cancer. A good writer writes riveting, beautiful prose. Not convoluted, Victorian-style prose, but clear, exciting prose imbued with one's personality.

Writing is also the ability to write riveting, can't-put-down prose without giving up one inch of factual accuracy.

People who write riveting prose but what they say is BS are not good writers, they are what I like to call 'seductive' writers. I already mentioned David Brooks last week as a good example of a 'seductive' writer.

The way he invented stuff out of thin air about neuroscience and psychology was much worse error by Jonah Lehrer, another 'seductive' writer, than any plagiarism, "self" or "non-self" (non-responsiveness to expert criticisms in comments was his #2 error, and complete lack of interest in being a part of the science blogging community from which he could have learned both neuroscience and ethics was his #3).

There is a reason why we all stop whatever we are doing and go read long new pieces by the likes of Deborah Blum, Steve Silberman or David Dobbs. They do beautiful writing, their writing is assuredly 100% factually accurate, it is always interesting, and we always learn something new.

What I am trying to say is that good writing is a form of expertise. Many can quickly put together a formulaic news piece. Relatively few are really good writers in the sense I am trying to convey here. Media organizations that want to be successful have to try to lure in and hire some of those good writers, no matter what their area of topical expertise, or how much they explore neighboring topics to extend their expertise, or how much they tend to hit new topics and become temporary experts on those (and how much time they need for this). Some topical experts are also good writers. Some technical experts are also good writers. Mix and match, combine the different types, give them freedom and incentives to collaborate with each other, and you can have an awesome newsroom.

Expertise: the next generation

You are probably aware that one of the things I most like to do is "scouting" for talent, discovering new, up-and-coming science writers, bloggers and journalists, giving them opportunities, mentoring them, promoting their work, helping them become visible and successful.

Several science writing programs in the USA are churning out small armies of such amazing new writers each year (unfortunately, most other US schools and all the rest of the world are yet to catch up).

Many of them have background in science, thus have real scientific expertise to draw from. Others have always been fascinated by a topic and explored it in great detail over the years. So they are topical experts, always working on expanding their expertise, but being careful not to jump into something they don't know anything about.

Many of them are skillful with a variety of modern tools, can troubleshoot them, modify them, and generally get them to work the way they want. Many experiment with a variety of other, non-textual forms of communication. Many can code and thus make their own tools if needed. Thus many of them are also technical experts.

They tend to be sticklers for accuracy. They do triple fact-checks on every word, number, symbol and punctuation point before turning in the piece. This also makes them good temporary experts whenever the assignments calls for it.

And many of them are beautiful writers as well, keeping my attention all the way to the end.

So, the new generation seems to combine all kinds of expertise. And working with them is a pleasure. They are so...professional!

Working with one of them, e.g., for a Guest Blog post, is so easy! We do not exchange 500 emails, half of which are irrelevant, half of which are CCd to irrelevant other people, half of which contain bits and pieces of the assignment (and I am the one who needs to track the most recent versions and patch them all together?), half of which contain images in wrong formats I cannot use, etc. No, the usual exchange is about six emails:

Email #1: Hey Bora, here is my pitch.

Email #2: That sounds great. Do it. When do you think you can have it done?

Email #3: How about April 15th?

Email #4: Deal. April 15th at 12 noon EDT it is.

Email #5 (on April 15th at noon): Here it is (attached), let me know if you want any changes.

Email #6: Perfect. Published. Thank you so much. The URL is: http.... "

What I get is perfectly formatted text (not for Word, for Wordpress), perfectly sized images with links and credits, author bios, and perfect embed codes that render multimedia exactly the way they should look. Publish-ready.

I sit down ready to edit and realize, fifteen minutes later, that I have come to the end without having to make a single change, not even to fix any typos as there were none. And I really enjoyed reading it. And that is not easy - I am a jaded, old blogger with ADHD, so keeping my attention all the way to the end is hard, and making me enjoy it even harder.

Yet these new generations keep doing this to me! Over and over again (sure, some of the veterans are also extremely good, but there the experience varies). Just the latest example - this post was due at 1:00pm. I received it (including images, embed code, etc) at 1:00pm. It was published at 1:16pm. It came in perfect. All I needed to do was read, copy, paste and click "Publish", then spend a couple of minutes promoting it on social media and my work for the day was done. Easy. How nice for me. More time for me to read something else, or write a post of my own. Or take a long weekend.

They are really good, which makes me hopeful for the future. Now go ahead and hire them (you can find many of them in the archives here)! If you don't, they'll start their own media empires and vanquish the competition that still hires generalists ;-)

Related:

Nate Silver and the Ascendance of Expertise

Beats vs obsessions, columns vs. blogs, and other angels dancing on pins

#sci4hels - 'Killer' science journalists of the future ready to take over the world!

The SA Incubator, or, why promote young science writers?

Science Blogs - definition, and a history

#scio12: Multitudes of Sciences, Multitudes of Journalisms, and the Disappearance of the Quote.

Blogs: face the conversation

Is education what journalists do?

Telling science stories...wait, what's a "story"?

The line between science and journalism is getting blurry....again

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