The Paradox Of Expertise

How can you recognize an expert without having their expertise?

Consultants often question me if there's any way to measure their level of expertise. They want to cultivate it but don't know where to start. While I do have objective answers to this problem, the best starting point is asking yourself this:

Is there even possible to assess expertise?

Meno's Paradox

This question always reminds me of Meno's Paradox. It was first described by Plato, and is part of a dialogue between Socrates and Meno.

After they discuss whether virtue can be taught or not, Meno asks Socrates:

And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

This is the dilemma behind Meno’s paradox:

  • If you know the answer to the question you are posing, you won't learn anything by asking.
  • If you don't know the answer, you can't recognize a correct answer even if it is given to you.
  • The conclusion is that one cannot learn anything by asking questions.

The logic is impeccable, but we know the conclusion is not true. What are the flaws in the arguments?

Meno sees the inquirer as a complete ignorant, and this is rarely true. The solution here is to remember that, when we pose a question, we won't accept any reply as true.

Sometimes we know enough to recognize a correct answer, but not enough to answer on our own.

Why Assessing Expertise Is Possible

Here's how we would think about expertise assessment using Meno's Paradox:

  • If you're not an expert in X, you can't independently assess if someone is an expert in X.
  • You're not an expert in X.
  • Therefore, you can't independently assess if someone is an expert in X.

The conclusion is almost always false because the first argument doesn't stand. Here's how you can put it:

  • If there are a set of domain-independent proxies (DIPs) that can reliably inform you someone may be an expert, then it's possible to independently assess whether someone is an expert in X, even if you are not an expert in X.
  • DIPs exist.
  • Therefore, it's possible to independently assess whether someone is an expert in X, even if you are not an expert in X.

Once you accept this as true, the challenge of assessing (or cultivating) expertise becomes straightforward. You should research and discover which variables have a close correlation with domain knowledge, and then commit to acquiring or improving those features and capabilities in your consulting business.

Everything becomes easier once you have proxies or a general methodology to inform your efforts. I'll be sharing mine here very soon. In the meanwhile, here's a question to you: what is critical for you to trust either your own or someone else's domain knowledge and skills?

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