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August 18, 2007

How to tell an expert from an "expert"
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Matt and Gideon Rose are having a pretty interesting exchange regarding expertise and the Democratic foreign policy community.  I completely agree with Matt when he writes

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." 


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You missed what should be the most important gauge: "track record".

Someone can have read all of the books, speak all of the languages, done all of the travel, and spoken to all of the cabdrivers in all of the cities around the world that they want, but if they have poor judgment and they keep making bad predictions, and the guy with the English degree and a computer and a blog can judge the situation better than they can, then they may be an "expert" but they're not an "accurate" expert.

Anybody who's done a few things can write a colorful biography--written a few myself. But the bio doesn't tell you, as darrelplant points out, what the person has actually accomplished, or how smart they are, or, in the case of Mr. Cordesman, how independent and open-minded they are. These are traits that can't be seen in a bio, no matter how short or long it is. It goes back to the track record that dp mentioned--a person's reputation. An illustration:
excerpt from the Tracy Press

We were impressed with the commentary of two so-called war critics in The New York Times on July 31. The headline over Michael O’Hanlon’s and Kenneth Pollack’s op-ed proclaimed patriotically: “A War We Just Might Win.”

The conclusion of the American visitors to Iraq: “We were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily ‘victory’ but a sustainable stability that both the U.S. and the Iraqis could live with.”

If a senior fellow and a director of research at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think-tank, can conclude from frontline observations and interviews with Americans and Iraqis that the surge in Baghdad and Anbar province is working, it must be true.

However, we started to doubt O’Hanlon and Pollack’s assertion when the third member of their study group, Anthony Cordesman, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, published a vastly different assessment. He declared in a “trip report” that “Iraq is a gamble,” and that it was lucky timing and the hatred of Sunni tribes of a common enemy — al-Qaida — that compensated for a “failed surge strategy.”

We thought it was just a difference of opinion among scholars, until we discovered the logistics of this July 7½-day “trip” to Iraq.

It was arranged and planned by the Department of Defense, from the air flight, to the living accommodations in Baghdad’s Green Zone, to the Americans and Iraqis interviewed. With military security in tow, O’Hanlon and Pollack ventured out of the fortified Green Zone up to just four hours a day, never leaving their secure area after dark.

They admit they never got an objective view of the surge from an Iraqi perspective. Yet, they give the impression, in a travel-log style, that Iraq has turned the corner on national security.

Cordesman didn’t simply take the word of these Pentagon puppets. He researched intelligence data and government watchdog reports, comparing what the selected interviewees said to the written summaries. He questioned the unchosen ones on the streets.

Unlike O’Hanlon and Pollock, Cordesman observed all sides.

For starters, how about ignoring privately funded "think tanks" altogether? They are nothing more than propaganda outlets for a particular agenda. Only consult academics in the field, preferably with a doctorate in something that resembles the area of interest. You don't go to a "doctor" when you are sick, you go to a guy who received an M.D. from an accredited medical school and you don't go to proctologist if you are getting open heart surgery.

The overstating of one's expertise is something grad students with little in the way of actual interests and a limited knowledge base tend to do. They naively believe drawing on every academic fad males them more marketable, rather than demonstrated that they are unfocused pseudo-scholars.

The sad thing is that this ploy has worked for O'Hanlon and his ilk.

By the way, Pollack is considered an expert on Iran, despite his inability to speak Farsi, the fact that he's never set foot in Iran, and that his book on the subject does not sight a single non-Western source.

So much for "expertise."

I think the key to being an "expert" is that you agree with what all the other "experts" say and you are able to articulate these opinions in an intelligent sounding way which would appear as if you're adding something new to the discussion, rather than just regurgitating what you learned from the others. But if the establishment doesn't want to hear what you've got to say, then you just won't be heard. Few "experts" fall into this category. They speak, not to be right, but to be heard.

I gotta say, this site has the stupidest, most clueless writing this side of Althouse.

And that's saying a lot...

I've always wondered how our self-proclaimed "military expert" managed to get his start in that rather important field as "an investment banker at Salomon Smith Barney."

Seeing as I speak Arabic and Hebrew (well, up until the bar mitzvah, anyway), have served two tours in the region (three in my lifetime counting Desert Storm), and also opposed the invasion, why don't I count myself as an "expert?"

Sure, sure. There's the post-graduate schooling, and the deep immersion in Iraqi culture, not to mention the direct experience of combat.

But I think it boils down to "hubris." Anthony Cordesman wouldn't assume that he speaks profoundly of combat or power projection or Iraq.

Why do so many "experts" here?

Soldier Not in Iraq, did you not get a job a Solomon Smith Barney or something?

I checked Goldenberg's bio: he's never referred to himself as any type of expert, let alone a military expert.

It is fair enough to criticize his ideas, just don't get personal. Or at least get it right when you make it personal.

Here is how I tell an expert from an "expert". If you were wrong once, then spent the next four years that you weren't wrong, because everything is going to turn around six months from now, you are not an expert at anything except job security. I dare you to try screwing up for four years straight at my job or any other except editor of the National Review.

The word "expert" comes from "experience" which ultimately comes from the Latin for "out of peril."

I suppose one could ask what test of peril a proclaimed expert has faced to gain insight.

If it is the peril of being out of a job for straying from the frames and filters, the pale of acceptable discourse within the chosen tanks of group-think, then I'm not terribly impressed.

There is no subsitute for thinking for one's self. Take indoctrinated pronouncements of disciplined pecking orders with all the salt in the Dead Sea.

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