What Experts Know (And How to Use Their Advice)
Most topics worth talking about touch upon science, philosophy and other complex fields of knowledge. Certain people are quick to put forth that few of us understand these fields in enough depth to discuss them intelligently. The self-taught, these people tell us, are but self-deluded. An undergraduate degree takes one past the threshold, but little farther. Those engaged in advanced research may be qualified to speak about their areas of expertise, but even they do well to admit their ignorance of topics outside their specialisms.
When issues related to advanced academic disciplines arise, it stands to reason that those of us with less expertise should listen to those with more. This means we need to make sense of what we are hearing. We may even need to act on it. Therefore, even if we are not academics, we may wish to educate ourselves about the sort of knowledge academics possess.
My PhD supervisor, the late Professor Colin Gray, was generally recognized by his peers as one of the world’s leading thinkers in the field of nuclear strategy. As his student, I performed original research under his direction for three years. I then worked as his colleague at the University of Hull, regularly interacting with the international community of academic strategists in the process. This, I venture, has given me insight into what it means to call Gray an expert. In this essay I will use his example to explore what expertise consists of, and how the rest of us might use the advice experts provide.
When I left my country to study with Gray, my previous teacher told me that the thing I needed to understand about my new supervisor was that he was a professor. This might have seemed like a statement of the obvious. Of course Gray was a professor, he taught at a university and had the letters p-r-o-f in front of his name. My previous teacher, however, had the art of speaking at more than one level. Knowing that Gray was a professor was the key to understanding his work.
One thinks of a professor as someone who knows a lot, and Gray had indeed mastered a great deal of specialized knowledge. Before one can perform the type of research he performed, one must ground oneself in political science. One must then study the subfield of international relations and the sub-subfield of strategic studies. Only then can one proceed to the sub-sub-subfield of nuclear strategy.
Even after one has established oneself as a nuclear strategist, one must learn about the various research methods and technical issues which prove relevant to one’s research. One may literally have to study rocket science, not to mention mathematical game theory. Where some academic strategists simplify their lives by taking a theoretical approach, Gray insisted on the importance of current events and history. This forced him to absorb even more information than might otherwise have been necessary.
Unsurprisingly, Gray was always reading. However, his stature within his field did not come so much from his sheer volume of knowledge as from his ability to organize and deploy it. He exercised this ability in conversation with other specialists in his field. On some occasions this conversation took place in print, as Gray exchanged journal articles with other scholars. On other occasions, it took place over drinks after conferences.
Here is where Gray’s identity as a professor became integral to his work. Professors have advantages when trying to get other professors to listen to them. Some of these advantages come from having friends, from having the ability to do favors, and from being socially at ease in the academic subculture. Other advantages come from knowing what one’s peers are talking about, and how best to contribute.
In the 1970s, for instance, Gray noticed that the strategic studies community was discussing nuclear issues in a rationalistic fashion. Influential theorists argued that all logical people would respond to nuclear crises the same way. Gray pioneered an alternative approach which suggested that people from different cultural backgrounds might perceive the logic of nuclear confrontations differently. This concept of strategic culture was groundbreaking not because it introduced mind-boggling new data but because it was a cogent response to what other scholars had been saying up until that time.
One should also note that Gray did not destroy rationalism. As his former student, I hope I may be excused for holding the opinion that he presented the stronger argument. Nevertheless, the various kinds of rational choice theorists also have great standing in the academic community. They have gone on doing more or less what they were doing before, perhaps acknowledging Gray’s criticisms in passing. Undergraduate textbooks state nonjudgmentally that there are different ways of looking at things, and graduate students take care to choose the approaches their instructors find pleasing.
Gray seemed content to make his point and move on. Although many academics fight bitterly with their theoretical rivals, he seemed generally happy to coexist with them. Here, again, he was truly a professor. He was collegial, which is to say he valued professional relationships over virtually everything else. What was more, he was a man of humor, kindness and dignity.
Yet another reason why Gray was willing to coexist with his intellectual opponents may have been that he took academia lightly. There are a variety of schools of thought in international relations studies. Gray conformed to his colleagues’ expectations and picked a side. When asked, he described himself as a Realist. Nevertheless, I recall an occasion in which he wondered aloud whether it might be more honest to admit that Realism and reality are entirely different things. At times like this, Gray set his role as a professor aside, and although these were the moments when he relinquished the mantle of officially-conferred expertise, they were also the moments when he revealed his understanding of the substance of his subject.
Having explored the nature of Gray’s expertise, we are left with a fateful question. If Gray had told us to launch a missile, and if a quorum of his peers had confirmed that his instructions reflected orthodox thinking within a recognized sub-section of the discipline, should we have shut up and pressed the button? I would like to say yes. In my judgment as a strategic studies professional, I find Gray to have been well-informed and sensible.
I must, however, qualify that by adding that Gray would have been supremely unlikely to confront anyone with that sort of diktat. He had a well-founded skepticism of received academic wisdom. It would have been unlike him to ask the rest of us to accept such wisdom as holy writ. To the contrary, I think, he would have wanted others to understand his reasoning for themselves, and to accept or reject it on its merits. He knew how to explain his thoughts clearly and he habitually approached others in a spirit of respect. Gray did not require unquestioning obedience, and I venture to propose that those who do may not be as knowledgeable as they would like to claim.