Jun 02, 2019

Sometimes ‘experts’ aren’t who they say they are

We appear to be surrounded by ‘experts’ these days. And that is a good thing, right? After all, if there are all those amazingly bright, capable people out there we should benefit from their experience and smarts to solve all kinds of problems and make the world a better place. Who would be against such a plan?

Except that some of those who proclaim themselves as experts – or who are proclaimed as such by others – do not appear to be who they say they are. Case in point a hearing in Toronto where a dad is trying to get his kids vaccinated over the objections of his ex-wife. The children’s mother got an arbitrator to ‘lend legal credence’ to anti-vaccination views by qualifying two witnesses as ‘experts’, including an Illinois physician who abandoned her practice to focus on homeopathy and who is a mainstay in the anti-vaxxers movement. The father has on his side four real doctors who came forth of their own accord to back the need for vaccinations. So, which side has the real experts? And how can a judge give any voice to an anti-vaxxer crusader in 2019??

As an aside, if you are into homeopathy good for you: you don’t threaten me or my family but please don’t write me to push your views. On the other hand, if you are an anti-vaxxer you are simply ignorant and do pose a threat to those around you. Not only do I not want to hear from you I want you to stay away from my grandson and any future grandchildren I may have until after their parents wisely have them fully vaccinated. Thank you.

I raise this issue because terrorism studies and commentary suffer from the same malaise. Everyone is an expert on terrorism, or so it seems. I cannot count the number of occasions on which I have read and heard this term and often my first reaction is “Who is this person and why is s/he an expert”? No, I do not know everyone on the planet but I do know (sometimes personally) a lot of people who work in counter terrorism or who have been studying terrorism for decades and there are some I would designate as experts. The rest? Nope.

It is for this reason that I never refer to myself as a ‘terrorism expert’ and I never ask others to do so on my behalf (some do and I regret that). What are my qualifications to write and speak about terrorism? Well, I am a former CSIS analyst who has been working on/studying Islamist extremism for more than two decades. I have written five peer-reviewed books on the phenomenon. I have delivered thousands of lectures, taught courses, and spoken at hundreds of symposia on terrorism over that timeframe. And I still do not like the title ‘terrorism expert’. Mostly because it has lost all meaning in light of its overuse. I suppose I could just go with the flow and refer to myself as an expert but I have chosen not to.

So the next time you hear of a terrorism expert ask yourself if the moniker fits the wearer. If you do a little digging I think you will find that it often does not. And if you reach that conclusion you need to take that person’s views (or more often recommendations) with a grain of salt. Or a whole box of salt if required.

We do need experts as we have a lot of serious problems to fix. We also need more humility. And fewer pseudo experts.