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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Kalt on "Experts" and Journalists

A nice piece by law professor Brian Kalt at Quillette, arguing that, as the headline puts it, "Journalists Need to Do a Better Job Matching 'Experts' to Their Actual Expertise." Although Kalt is writing mostly about law professors, of course it is true of many subjects.

I note Kalt's piece for purposes of adding two things. First, as Kalt observes later in the piece, perhaps too gently, this is something the experts themselves could help with. I would go further than that. By definition, the "experts" themselves are the ones who are supposed to get it right: to know the subjects on which they are or aren't qualified to opine. Kalt writes, correctly, that when contacted by a journalist, one may not know enough to opine, but may have some idea who is an expert in that area and to offer those names to the reporter. It's a good thing, and perhaps a professional obligation, to help in that fashion. But the most important word in the sentence "No, I'm not an expert on this subject and thus won't talk to you, but here are some people you might contact," is "No." The most important obligation an actual expert has is to refuse to talk qua expert about any subject on which one isn't actually expert. 

Expertise is not relative. Some professors may console or rationalize a willingness to talk on such subjects on the grounds that they certainly know more about the subject than the reporter or than many laypeople and thus can be of some help. But expertise consists of a high level of skill or knowledge, not a better-than-average level of skill or knowledge. And it is topic-specific. Teaching a survey course in some area does not make you an expert on everything contained within that course, and most people who teach, say, constitutional law focus their scholarship on some particular area rather than the whole megillah. If you're not genuinely expert on the topic you've been asked to opine on, just say no. The headline of Kalt's piece notwithstanding, it seems to me that the burden is first and foremost on the "expert," not the journalist. (Nor, of course, is it sufficient that being quoted is seen as being good for your law school or university. Even if it were true, which I doubt, that it's genuinely good for your institution for you to talk about questions outside your expertise, your primary duty is to your discipline and to your professional integrity. Being an academic means never having to say you're sorry when you tell your institution's press person that you're unwilling to talk to a reporter.)

Second, Kalt offers a useful stylized account of what he thinks and says when asked to opine on some issue about which he has "only a glib understanding and no special expertise," in which he explains to the reporter that he doesn't know more about some question than "your average lawyer." It seems to me that this is the key to the dialogue Howard had a while back with some commenters about why he would not sign a law professors' letter addressing the question of a judicial nominee's demeanor. Howard wrote that that question "did not call for any scholarly expertise"; some commenters argued back that this was a question on which one could be an expert. There is some truth to the commenters' counter-argument, at least in the abstract. But it is not a question on which most law professors, or even most teachers of subjects like legal ethics, are expert, and they are certainly not expert simply by virtue of being law professors or lawyers. If your opinion on a subject is ultimately, and at best, just that of "your average lawyer," again, you should not opine on that question.       


Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 18, 2019 at 02:08 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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