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Expertise: talk the talk vs walk the talk

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 23, 2008
Filed in Communication

Social scientist, Harry Collins, has spent his career hanging out with gravitational wave physicists and learning to talk like one. Harry’s research is on expertise and working out whether someone who can talk like a physicist can be indistinguishable from some who can do physics if you only talk to them.

The key to the whole thing is whether people have had access to the tacit knowledge of an esoteric area—tacit knowledge is know-how that you can’t express in words. The standard example is knowing how to ride a bike. My view as a sociologist is that expertise is located in more or less specialized social groups. If you want to know what counts as secure knowledge in a field like gravitational wave detection, you have to become part of the social group. Being immersed in the discourse of the specialists is the only way to keep up with what is at the cutting edge.

Harry did a simple test to work out whether we can sound just like an expert.

The original version we did was with color-blind people. What we were attempting to demonstrate is something we call the strong interactional hypothesis: If you have deeply immersed yourself in the talk of an esoteric group—but not immersed yourself in any way in the practices of that group—you will be indistinguishable from somebody who has immersed themself [sic] in both the talk and the practice, in a test which just involves talk.

If that’s the case, then you’re going to speak as fluently as someone who has been engaged in the practices. And if you can speak as fluently, then you’re indistinguishable from an expert. It’s what I like to call “walking the talk” [I think he means talk the walk because in my book walking the talk means you can do what you say]. You still can’t do the stuff, but you can make judgments, inferences and so on, which are on a par. We picked color-blind people because they’ve spent their whole lives immersed in a community talking about color. So we thought color-blind people should be indistinguishable from color-perceivers when asked questions by a color-perceiver who knew what was going on. And we demonstrated that that was in fact the case.

I guess this means that the only way to determine someone has real expertise is to see them in action. This simple point is particularly important in light of the problems Australia is facing when some overseas doctors are gaining their Australian credentials and then patients discover their incompetence [the latest example from Melbourne]. But this approach is not going to be easy for every type of job. Think about those jobs that involve the application of subtle judgement where the outcome remains unknown for years (and tracing the outcome to the decision is impossible)—I’m thinking of policy makers, engineers, leaders. In these cases we have to rely on stories of experience told by people we trust.

Interview from Scientific American

via Mind Hacks

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

2 Responses to “Expertise: talk the talk vs walk the talk”

  1. joitske Says:

    Hi Shawn, very important subject! I am suspicious of people only talking the talk, but apparently it works for others, they can learn from people talking the talk. That’s why I really like to see the walk, and not only hear the talk.

  2. Drunk Munki Says:

    in other words; Actions speak louder than words.
    Being a parrot and reciting information is one thing, but getting that parrot to use that information is another.

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