How to tell an expert from an "expert"
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg
I don't think anyone in the blogosphere is, against expertise and professionalism. The question is whether some of our country's self-proclaimed experts -- and media proclaimed experts -- really deserve to be considered experts. What, for example, is the nature of Michael O'Hanlon's expertise on the broad range of subjects (his official bio lists him as an expert on "Arms treaties; Asian security issues; Homeland security; Iraq policy; Military technology; Missile defense; North Korea policy; Peacekeeping operations; Taiwan policy, military analysis; U.S. defense strategy and budget")
It's not that the entire VSP community is bad. The question is how do you tell the difference between a hack and someone who is a genuine expert? This actually isn't too hard to figure out. First, regional experts generally tend to be more well informed than functional experts because of their narrower focus. There is a long list of foreign policy experts who specialize in the Middle East (And did so before 9/11 came around). Jon Alterman, Brian Katulis, Mark Lynch, Ray Takeyh, Steven Simon, Flynt Levrett, Vali Nasr, Steven Cook, Rob Malley to name just a few. Most of these people speak Arabic or Farsi. Most have spent sigificant time in the region or spent a great deal of time studying the history of the region and the intimate details. They know much more than you, me, Matt Yglesias or Gideon Rose do about the Middle East. Not surprisingly a large majority of these regional experts were opposed to the Iraq War. The problem is no one listened. The issue became so main stream that many functional experts who knew very little about the region stepped in and start calling themselves Middle East experts and make assertions as "experts" on what the U.S. should be doing. During the Cold War everyone was a Soviet "expert." Today everyone is a Middle East "expert". (Ken Pollack is the clear exception to the rule. He has rigorously studied the Middle East, but was just flat out wrong about Iraq).
Another of indicator of expertise is the think tank bio page. As Matt hints at, there is an inverse correlation between the number of areas of expertise listed in your bio and your actual expertise. What also matters is whether the listing of expertise makes any sense and whether the various areas are related. For example, Tony Cordesman, who quite frankly knows more than you, me, or just about anybody else about the Middle East, only lists four areas of expertise on his bio: Energy, Middle East & North Africa, Defense Policy, and Terrorism. This makes absolute sense he is a Middle East miliary analyst and has been for more than 30 years. You really can't study that region without also learning about oil and terrorism. O'hanlon on the other hand has a much longer list that makes no sense. How can someone who is a Tawain policy expert (People dedicate their entire careers to studying the cross straits issue) also be an expert on homeland security, also be an expert on Iraq, also be an expert on North Korea. Either he is just smarter than all of us, or more likely there is much less rigor.
None of these rules are hard and fast. There are some really smart, knowledgeable functional experts and some very irresponsible regional experts. Some people really are genuine experts in a lot of stuff (They usually have gray hair). But generally speaking a careful look through the bio can quickly distinguish an expert from an "expert."