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The difference between expertise and confidence

By Dr Muiris Houston - 23rd Sep 2022

confident speaker

There are some tips to bear in mind to tell if you are listening to a true expert or just a confident speaker

The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.

Charles Bukowski

As medical professionals we give our opinions on a regular basis. Most consultations with a patient will involve us at least sharing our professional opinion for the person to consider. And any of us who are called upon to offer an independent opinion on the management of a particular case will do so as an expert witness.

How do you feel about being referred to as an expert? Is it a comfortable place to be? Have you ever listened to somebody who came across as an expert, only to find that they had no clue after all?

The way expertise is expressed is very similar to how confidence is expressed. When someone states their thoughts with high confidence, we assume they know what they are talking about and we are inclined to believe them. However, it’s relatively easy to express certainty in language without having any sort of expertise to back it up.

Thora Tenbrink, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, UK, has studied how people communicate their thoughts through language for over 20 years, including how they demonstrate expertise and confidence in their discourse. Writing in The Conversation recently, she shared her ideas on how we might tell whether the person we’re listening to is an expert, or just a confident speaker.

“Experts may know exactly what they cannot be sure about, while non-experts may confidently claim pure nonsense, if they believe in it. Some may even be skilled at claiming nonsense even if they don’t believe in it – this might help their political career or other interests that can be served by misleading people,” she says.

And in a post-Covid era, where misinformation spreads easily, being able to recognise real expertise is vital. Here are five questions she suggests using to help you decide whether the person you’re listening to is an expert, or simply a confident speaker:

1. How likely is it that this person is an expert?

“Consider their background, their possible motivation, their skills and goals in the present conversation. People may have true expertise and knowledge in areas you wouldn’t expect. But, seeing no relation between what you know about this person and their proclaimed expertise, is an indication that they’re just overconfident in a topic they actually know little about…. In daily life, awareness of someone’s background can help you treat their statements with appropriate caution.”

2. How does this person communicate in general?

People differ in their communication styles. Some tend to talk over others as a habit, needing to dominate a conversation. Others listen more, offering opinions and views only when they’re well-founded.

“Sometimes it is wise to listen to the quieter voices: They might have more value to add than non-stop talkers,” Tenbrink suggests.

3. Does the person go into depth?

Sweeping statements are easy to make. While experts know more details and will be ready to provide them, people without true knowledge have to stay on a superficial level. They might repeat the same general message over again, unable to elaborate. “This presents another problem: If a message is repeated often enough, we will eventually believe it – that’s only natural. When it comes to Covid-19, research has shown people believe repeated false information, especially about less known aspects,” the linguist notes.

4. Is anybody actually certain about the topic?

An expert will readily acknowledge the limits to certainty. Their statements will contain uncertainty markers (words, such as “maybe” or “could”) where appropriate.

An expert knows whatever can be known about an issue. In some cases, this goes as far as stating explicitly what the likelihood of a certain event is. Climate experts can demonstrate how the occurrence of severe weather events has increased in the past, and based on this they can provide the statistical likelihood of catastrophic events for the future.

5. Can they provide information flexibly?

“True experts use concepts and terminology in their field (jargon) flexibly and with ease – and they are typically able to adjust their communication to accommodate the specific needs of their audience,” the professor says.

Bertie Ahern was fond of referring to “wafflers and spoofers” when in full flight in Dáil Éireann. Politicians in general are not especially admirers of experts – former British government minister Michael Gove famously said, “the people of this country have had enough of experts.”

I reckon as professional experts we should embrace humility and recognise the need to convey why we can be trusted.

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