Friday, July 8, 2011

What is the difference between experience and expertise?


ABC news has announced that Elizabeth Smart has been hired as a special news correspondent on stories related to child abduction and victimization. Smart herself was kidnapped and abused for nine months when she was fourteen years old. The Faculty Lounge blog calls this new hire “creepy” and Salon.com asks if it is exploitation. But the most interesting question for me is whether having been kidnapped makes her an expert. Her victimization gives her a specific and important perspective on such incidences, but this experience constitutes data and may not be understanding. Does her experience give her specialized or general knowledge about child abduction victimization?

Expertise, I would think, involves knowing an entire field of study, being able to apply this knowledge in a range of cases, and being able to articulate details about particular instances in order to advance knowledge in the field. Maybe this is just an academic point of view, but I don’t know that her experience would necessarily lead to this kind of knowledge. She has become a victims' rights advocate and even written a book for victims, but advocacy isn't expertise either. The first is politics and the second is analysis.

I once heard Tom Brokaw say that the big shift in television news in the 1990s was moving from telling people what they should know to telling people how they should feel. I found this particularly insightful, and if Brokaw is right, Elizabeth Smart will certainly advance the mission of ABC news. She will make people feel for the victim, which is, no doubt an important part of knowing. But will people learn more because of her comments and is she a better use of resources than hiring someone who has studied these kinds of cases for twenty years? What, in this and in other circumstances, is expertise?

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