The Rise and Fall of Expertise: Respecting the Niche, How to Reach, and the Power of “I Don’t Know”
This past week I completed a feature section, a mega-article, for Oceania’s most popular Triathlon magazine. The subject? Heat-Training and Heat-Adaptation. Last year’s hipster topic has graduated to the big-time, and people want to know all about it. WTW signed a partnership deal with the excellent Thanyapura Sports Resort in Phuket because of the outstanding opportunities in Sports to bring teams and individuals to hot locations, chasing increased adaptations while the family rests by the beach. How many research papers have I published in the area of heat adaptations? Zero. How much time have I spent in the environmental laboratory chambers looking specifically at the body’s response to heat? About a dozen. So does this mean I should never speak about heat training? Should I have turned down the opportunity, or can I reliably construct a research review and basic instructional overview for the triathlon communities of Australia and New Zealand? On the latter side of that coin, I do have two research degrees in Sports Sciences and was lectured on the subject of heat adaptations by Dr. Phil Watson, as good a mind in this area as any. I know people more qualified on the subject than I, and I consulted them at length in the construction of the article. Lest this come across as me patting myself on the back, the question must be asked:
What is expertise, how can it be recognized and respected, and how should it best be expressed?
Too often in the fields of health and performanceâ€”actually, in any human interactions the qualifications/experience/name-dropping game can become a real dick-waving contest. Anybody worth their salt will tell you that the best in any field are often the quietest. Naturally due to modern media there are significant exceptions, but if you ask an avid twitter reader and then an in-the-trenches scientist whom the five best protein researchers are, you’ll get slightly different lists. Nowadays there are so many exciting questions to answer in my field, most of the best researchers out there are very versatile. This, to me, is somewhat paradoxical when I have just entered the business world and had pounded into me the idea of the niche as the most important facet of my business model. Find a super narrow niche, then expand from there. Does this model apply for expertise? I look around and see prominent exceptions which prove rules: Andrew Jones is THE Beetroot Guy, Bret Contreras is THE Glute Guy, Kevin Tipton is THE Protein Guy, but many of the other top names out there have extraordinarily varied skillsets. It is my opinion that we should respect the niched expertise yet with equal energy learn how to un-hear less secure statements made by any and all respected, “leading minds” people.
What makes someone an expert in the first place and how will you recognize one if you see them?
I hope we can all agree and be smart enough to know that anyone who calls themselves an expert is not one. Humility is probably among the five most important human qualities for success and happiness, after all! Bro-Science Bloggers calling themselves fitness and nutrition experts in their website bio should be avoided like the plague, that much is obvious.
I hope we all know not to listen to these guys. But beyond that it gets murky!
But how can you know if you should listen to someone’s advice? How can you vet the validity of their information and determine how genuine and confident they are? It’s plain to see that saying I Don’t Know is almost as un-sexy as It Depends. When I’m at the pub and someone finds out my profession and begins peppering me with 2014 bro-science FAQs:
What do you think of the paleo diet? How low carb can I go? Is Cross Fit good for me? Is Olympic Weightlifting the best method to get more athletic? Should I take (supplement)? Should I train with low muscle glycogen?
The conversation simply doesn’t go very far or very fast when I answer it depends to each question. Usually the person across the table wants to hear me either blindly support or else slate the subject at hand, using big words and wild hypotheses. Nobody wants to hear, you donâ€™t need to take that. Just sleep more.
Controversy in the form of polarizing content will always sell: We picked up more Twitter followers from making fun of Bulletproof Coffee than we did from THREE articles explaining the physiological mechanisms behind coffee! This makes me wonder, in these pub situations, what moral obligation we as scientists have to play Cato anytime someone approaches us with a question, and opportunity, or (scary!) a microphone. Being put on the spot is never fun, it’s much more enjoyable to interview someone for a podcast after several days of reading up in their research areas. Luckily for myself and Rowan, educated minds can learn new things fairly quickly when they are in our learned areas. But learning more, knowing more, and telling more should not go hand in hand. Per my above point about less-secure knowledge from esteemed minds, I really struggle when I see people blindly believing in every word that a person says because one or several things said by them are true or secure.
Keep this in mind next time you read something from an expert™. More importantly, show increased respect and attention when someone says, “I don’t know” or “It depends.”