Who really knows what they are talking about

As a blogger, I am competing, (in theory) with millions of other bloggers for your attention. In my mind, the hardest part of the job is coming up with things to write about that others have not already explored. As of late, I have discovered that the best blog entries arise out of the intersection of my personal interests, input from others and recent events in my life. This week’s blog came out of that same place. It explores the question of how do we know who really knows what they are talking about?

As I have noted often recently, my daughter is starting college. Though she is in quest of a degree, some career clarity, further definition of her interests, lots of life changing experiences (and a plenty of fun,) there is one more thing she should be in search of above all else. She really needs to figure out who really knows what they are talking about?

In an age when nearly every pursuit has become so complex that no one person can excel at everything, it is a given that each of us will turn elsewhere for expertise. The Internet now offers us a wealth of such information and expertise. But, it also has blurred the lines in terms of “how do we know who really knows what they are talking about?”

As things become ever more complex, we all need to better evaluate who we listen to and why. Over the years I have worked hard to become something of a connoisseur of expertise. The place where I have really developed this skill is in reading the New York Times Book Review. Each Sunday (or Monday, depending on my workload,) I sit down with that section of the paper and read about the various new books. Many are books I care nothing about, but some of which will end up on my “to read someday list.”

My favorite part of the review is what looks to me to be an almost “blood sport” kind of reviewing process. By way of background, keep in mind that most publications have staff reviewers for movies, restaurants and the like. While the Times does have a staff of book reviewers, most book reviews at the New York Times Book Review are assigned to non-staffers, who are usually writers with some kind of interest in the book they are reviewing. Some of the chosen reviewers are experts in the field that the book explores while others are, for example, experts in the style of writing that the author of the book uses. The brief bios of the reviewers sometimes explain why they were chosen to do the review, though just as often they leave me scratching my head to figure out why a given writer is doing a given review.

Often, a week or two later, the book’s author, publicist or editor writes to condemn the review and especially the choice of reviewer who was reviewing “their” book. From the outside, it looks like whom-ever assigns the book reviews to the various writers/critics often aspires to provoke controversy. The one thing that this strategy does assure is that the reader of the New York Times Book Review gets a wide range of dialogue about the books that are under discussion in that publication.

Whether a given reviewer in the New York Times Book Review is the best choice, or has an axe to grind with a given writer, is a question that has been explored elsewhere. What I like about the whole process is that is clearly and openly raises the question of “how do we know who really knows what they are talking about?”

A friend in a recent e-mail raised essentially the same question. The important parts were:

“I’d love to see a blog from you about the epistemology of photography. That is, how does someone know that they know (i.e. “know” what they’re doing or that a given “expert” or authority really “knows” what they know or knows what they’re talking about when advising others.) If you go to any public forum on photography or a topic of photography, on the web, on Facebook, in a public form, etc there are any number of self styled authorities who often are will lead people astray with false authority or their own rigid understanding of things. There are even professional photographers who will pick a beef with a specific vendor and then make inflexible statements, as authorities about that vendor, e.g dedicated Nikon shooter who will attack those who use Canon…”

That is a great question with no simple answer. I started thinking about why anyone would listen to me and then I extrapolated it out to the general question of expertise. After all that, I still had no simple answers. (In fact if I gave a simple answer that is all the more reason not to consider me credible.) My students always hear me say “… I know this is along answer but at the end I hope I will have answered your question…” followed by “…if I have not answered the questions at the end, ask me again.”

I started blogging a few years ago because I only recently felt comfortable speaking authoritatively. I also started teaching photography in my late thirties. From the beginning I was sure of what worked for me as a photographer but only in my late thirties did I feel comfortable teaching others.

I have long wondered about the wisdom of anyone becoming a college professor without some serious experience in the field. In some ways, I am old school in that a part of me thinks that a college professor should be someone whose first career was in the field, working in the area of interest that they teach about in their second (or third career.) Photojournalists who spend the first part of their career traveling the globe for work and the second as professors are the epitome of this model.

I need to make a bit of a disclosure here. My wife started to study photography seriously at age 29 and she became a university professor by the time she was 35, so her career arc contradicts what I just wrote….

Having said that, age is not the only criteria. Though the importance of experience, which is often a function of age (but may not be the same thing) does help. One thing I do see a lot of in the photography world is institutions that graduate students and then turn around and hire them as teachers. The argument goes that the younger photographers bring a new level of energy and a wider diversity of backgrounds than the “old white men” of yester-year. But being one of those old white men, I know that my experience and expertise often vastly exceeds that of the youngsters who are ostensibly my teaching peers.

I am skeptical of so-called experts who have too many areas of expertise. This is so whether in my reading about photography, as I read book reviews or op-ed pieces, as well as in my life in general. It may just be a projection of my limited brain-power, (or my limited capacity as a photographer,) but I only work within (and teach about) a narrow range of photography.

I am always looking for an agenda on the part of some expert. For example, I am currently an Olympus Visionary, so I appear to have an agenda when it comes to promoting their camera gear. Having said that, I used their gear before I had an affiliation with the company (and I would bet that I will continue using that same gear if our affiliation were to end.) When I talk about why I use the gear I do, I go through a very specific list of how the cameras solve my particular set of problems. I would never argue the Olympus camera solve all problems for all photographers. When it comes to evaluating the expertise of another photographer (or book reviewer or…,) I am much more likely to give them credibility if they explain why they think the way they do.

As I was thinking this through I naturally segued to what is often called third party validation. An example of that is how I am being featured in the current issue of Photo District News as one of “The Best Workshop Instructors.” On the one hand, being labeled that way through a relatively object process such as the reader’s survey that PDN performed suggests that the results are fairly credible. So, third party validation is good.

On the other hand, I have blogged about in the past how I am notoriously suspicious of much of the same third party validation when it comes to anointing who are the important people of the day. A serious reading of the history of photography will teach you that what I call the “contemporary anointing mechanism” is notoriously inaccurate. Many photographers (or artists or political figures or musicians or….) who were declared very important at one moment turned out to be historically irrelevant, so the validation offered by so-called third parties is of some but limited value.

Self-styled experts who have their own self-promoting sites can be well worth listening to or they can be equally worth ignoring. I fit into that category myself with this educational site, The Wells Point. On the other hand, enough students have told me they find this valuable and enough other sites as well as so-called experts link to the site that I must know something about what I am doing.

The correspondent whose query triggered this blog also wrote:

“True masters of any craft are open to criticism, flexible in their methods, style and results and humble about their own results.”

Well, I would like to think I meet most of those criteria. I will point out that when it comes to multi-media projects, I am VERY open about what I have been doing as I learned multi-media technology over the last couple years. If you compare my earliest podcasts to my most recent ones, you will see a world of growth. So, I would add that an expert worth respecting should be open about their growth and evolution.

I have started blogging recently for B + H insights and writing articles for photo techniques magazine. I mention that because both of those media outlets are edited by people who should know who is an expert and would therefore be experts in knowing who to have writing for them. So the point might be that if enough other people consider someone an expert and that purported expert is widely published, you might start from a default point of considering them in fact just such an expert.

The problem there is that expertise can be self-perpetuating, so the expert of ten years ago may be clinging to his or her knowledge, which worked well in that point in time. They may not be growing and changing with the times.

In some ways it would be a lot easier if, like in the New York Times Book Review, a week after someone pontificates, someone else with equal or better credentials chimes in to shoot down or back up the thoughts of the first “expert.” Since that is not likely, we are left, like my daughter, to be continually trying to figure out “….who really knows what they are talking about?”

The one thing I did learn in terms of this larger question way back when I was as college goes something like this: “Just asking the question alone is big step. It means that I am questioning the credibility of each supposed expert. Simple awareness of an expert’s fallibility is a key step. Asking the question alone is more than half the battle.”

One response to “Who really knows what they are talking about”

  1. “Question everything” is sound advice with strong philosophical underpinnings. Probably best followed by “question everyone,” including ourselves.


    “Just asking the question alone is big step. It means that I am questioning the credibility of each supposed expert. Simple awareness of an expert’s fallibility is a key step. Asking the question alone is more than half the battle.”

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