Saturday, February 7, 2015

"expert opinion"

I suppose there are greater oxymorons, but one that danced into my mind this morning was "expert opinion." The importance of the contradictory nature does not lie in the parsing and dissecting and explaining of the two words. It lies in the laziness of the one who may use them in conjunction and then rests on their implications.

Mark Twain defined and expert as "an ordinary fellow from another town" and Will Rogers seems to have been on approximately the same frequency when he defined an expert as "a man fifty miles from home with a briefcase."

And of "opinion," Twain wrote: "Mind is plainly an ass, but it will be many ages before it finds it out, no doubt. Why do we respect the opinions of any man or any microbe that ever lived? I swear [I] don't know. Why do I respect my own? Well -- that is different."

Buddha was an expert. Jesus was an expert. Einstein was an expert. News organizations feel they have done their readers a good turn when citing the expertise of others. And perhaps Twain and Rogers are experts. The realms of "expert opinion" are endless.

Check it out. Read your own laundry list of those who live fifty miles from home, whose expertise is damn near flawless, and, more important, less assailable than your own. If an expert says what I say or I agree with what an expert says, my own expertise may rise in the eyes of others but also -- and this is the sticky wicket part -- in my own.

I sort of dislike bringing the topic up because I think that the moment "expert opinion" is brought into question, there is a subtle or gross defensive effort to escape the lash. The mind fidgets and fusses and runs hither and yon in an attempt to justify and explain and reshape my reliance on figures or positions I consider reliable ... most of them fifty miles or more from home. It feels like an attack, whereas I prefer to think of it as a reminder.

And what it reminds me of is my own damned laziness. Obviously I can't know everything and can't investigate everything and can't be an expert about everything, so why should I NOT rely on the actions and words of the man or woman fifty miles from home? If I didn't have my opinions, how could I know who I was?

The trouble arises when the question is put somewhat differently: If I did -- as I do -- have my opinions, how could I know who I am? Or, as Twain put it, "Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul." Part of the devoted fidgeting and fussing that goes on in the mind when it comes to "expert opinion" lies exactly here -- in proving somehow that my opinions are not petrified: Look ma! I'm a loosey-goosey free-thinker willing to list to and digest and revise all my opinions, even the expert ones. So compassionate, dontcha know!

But is this true or is it simply an extension of my comfort-zone laziness? That's just a question, not an accusation or some tch-tch, über-moralistic critique.

Among the Internet dictionary definitions of "opinion" was one I thought was pretty good and pretty nervy: "belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge." For some, I think, there comes a time when positive knowledge (based, I assume, on experience) becomes more insistently desirable as a mode of living and being. 

Put less delicately, I get sick of my bullshit, expert and otherwise. And I am willing to do the work and sweat the sweat and suffer the lash of loneliness that comes calling when honest investigation kicks in? Hey man, take it easy -- I've got kids to raise, dishes to wash and a job to hold down!

The object of all this written re-chewed cud is not to suggest that "opinion," expert or otherwise, is off the charts -- stupid as well as foolish. My view is that everyone has his or her opinions. Like sex, everybody has one and there's nothing wrong or even particularly idiotic about it. Getting rid of opinions by means of some gushing and idealistic effort is a ludicrous waste of time. And that goes double for taking the counsel of those who may currently qualify as holding "expert opinions." Relativism, like absolutism, is a lazy man's game.

But to my way of thinking, it makes some sense to loosen the reins on expertise and opinion. Both may be par for the human course, but that doesn't mean I will be well-served by relaxing and lolling in their precincts. The trick, I think, lies in taking responsibility: I am responsible. Buddha, Jesus and Einstein may offer good pointers -- pointers worth attending to from where I sit. But if I am unwilling to investigate the taste of their tea, how can I possibly lay claim to knowing what tea actually tastes like? How can I be happy?

Yes, some people strike me as being pretty smart, pretty well-versed, pretty deserving of the laurels I see fit to dole out. Mark Twain and Will Rogers are two of them. I cannot disdain a wisdom that may seem greater than my own.

But to rest, like some news reporter, on the words of an "expert" strikes me as going too far. I'll do what I can to take responsibility for the wisdom I attribute to those who live fifty miles from home.

And that's my expert opinion.

1 comment:

  1. To me, expertise suggests a reliance. Maybe not perfect, but better to take my truck to a mechanic than a doctor. There are folks i respect and give careful ear to. But i hope i'm respecting their integrity and respect them enough to allow them to be imperfect.

    I had a conversation with someone once who mentioned "real knowledge", and that kinda stumped me. I guess i find reality too suspicious to think that such a thing is possible. But dumb luck has always stood me better than planning. And i don't hold any grudges against laziness. I guess i operate from the hope that if asked something, and i answer that i don't know, maybe they'll leave me alone.

    Of course i'm willing to share opinions. I've got 'em by the bushel and am willing to sow them willy nilly on the winds. But that's just for fun. And if they receive an angry reaction, i might even defend them... just for fun.

    Am i stupid? Evil? The saviour? A fun guy? Probably not, and why not? It'll all die with me. And it's not like i'm a huge influence anywhere.