Emerging Tech and the Fake Experts Who Inevitably Emerge With It
Blockchain, cryptocurrency, AI, VR, whatever the latest thing is, it always arrives with self-proclaimed experts who, for a fee, will explain it to you.
We live in an era with a constant stream of new fields emerging, oftentimes because of a new technology or concept that didn’t exist (or didn’t evolve from a similar form). For example, 15 years ago, nobody would have understood the term “social media marketing,” let alone had an expert on their team to help them navigate waters. But today, more than 88 percent of companies are using social media marketing in some form. Bitcoin launched back in 2009; before then, nobody knew what a “cryptocurrency” was, yet today, less than a decade later, there are thousands of cryptocurrency “experts” all claiming to know what’s next for the digital currency.
These new fields are exciting opportunities, for businesses and individuals alike, but there’s an inherent danger in the recurring pattern of their emergence. As soon as they start catching on, there arises a significant expert vacuum, where few, if any true experts exist -- yet thousands of people claim to be one. So why does this problem exist, and what can you do to guard yourself against it?
The problem with new fields.
At first, it may seem like the correlation between the rise of a new field and the rise of experts within it is justified, but there are three main problems here:
- Lack of data. In statistical calculations, the reliability of your findings is always constrained by your sample size; larger samples have the advantage of providing more data to work with. The longer a field exists, and the longer it’s been studied, the more data we have; both in terms of how many studies have been conducted and how long those studies have run. New fields, by definition, don’t have much data to analyze. Therefore, many new experts resort to speculation, rather than objective analysis.
- Lack of true niche experts. If nobody is an expert on a given topic, anybody with a few hours of research under their belt automatically becomes the top expert in a field by default. In some fields, you need eight years of experience working toward a PhD to be competitive, but if nobody has more credentials to usurp you, you can name yourself an expert in a new field without challenge.
- High demand. The final issue here is high demand. In 2017, Bitcoin went from around $900 to nearly $20,000 by the end of the year. Accordingly, Bitcoin investors and passive speculators were desperate to learn more about the currency and see how far it could run. Bitcoin-related content got lots of clicks, views and shares, so it naturally attracted more writers to produce those types of content.
How the expert vacuum is filled.
You might be wondering why people would be incentivized to portray themselves as experts, given the limitations of a new field.
Publishers trying to satisfy demand. Some publication sites want to meet user demand no matter what. Sometimes that means reaching out to non-experts or experts in related fields to weigh in on a new field that’s developing. For example, a general marketing expert in 2007 might have gotten a request to write a piece on the burgeoning field of social media marketing.
Newcomers overestimating their expertise. Some authors are working toward becoming experts in the new field, but in the early stages of their journey, they overestimate their expertise. This is easy to do because so few experts exist at the time.
Opportunists looking to profit. There are also those who take advantage of the flexibility in a new field, and intentionally brand themselves as experts in order to turn a profit -- or build their reputation.
Strategies to avoid fake experts.
So what can you do to avoid these so-called experts, emerging rapidly to fill the void of a new field?
Evaluate credentials. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has an excellent guide on how to spot fake news, and many of its pieces of advice apply here. The first and most important tip is to consider your source -- and by extension, check the author of the work. Always question the expertise of the authors you’re reading. They claim to be an expert, but what gives them right to that claim? Do they have years of experience in a related field? Were they part of the field’s development?
Look to the data. You may not be able to trust someone’s personal opinion, but you can always trust hard data. The numbers won’t lie to you, provided they come from a reliable source. If you’re in question, Columbia College has a solid guide for how to evaluate a research source for credibility.
Understand field novelty. Finally, work to understand how long a given field has been around. If you know it’s relatively new, you can treat any information you read on it with an extra degree of skepticism.
There’s not going to be an end to this stream of new fields -- or at least not anytime soon. The best you can do in the meantime is realistically evaluate your own expertise, be critical of the expertise of others and understand that most new fields are going to be uncharted, unexplored territory, with little, if any data on which to base your decisions. This is a new era of perceived and demanded expertise and we all owe it to ourselves to tread lightly.