Thursday, November 3, 2016

Experts and Credibility

I recently ran across a post on LinkedIn titled Expertise is relative. Here's how to identify who's truly credible. The author contends that "expertise is relative." and suggests how one might identify whether someone is "truly credible." That caught my attention. For better or worse, a significant role of adjudicators is determining witness credibility. Litigated cases present to us with a variety of questions: did he or didn't he, can she or can't she," should he or shouldn't he, will she or won't she?" 

You can make these questions about many things. Will she or won't she improve further with surgery? Did he or didn't he search for work within his restrictions? Can she or can't she physically perform the job that the employer has offered? Should he or shouldn't he lift over 15 pounds, return to work, undergo recommended therapy, have surgery, etc. 

In a great many cases, adjudication is dependent upon the credibility of those who render their perceptions and conclusions. They may be factual witnesses, which we often refer to as "lay witnesses," and they may be doctors, engineers, therapists, scientists and more that we refer to as "expert witnesses." Often, there are multiple perspectives, one doctor says she should and another says she shouldn't, one vocational expert says he did and another says he didn't, one therapist says she can and another says she can't. And the adjudicator has the responsibility of listening to all and then deciding who presents the best, the most persuasive, assertion. 

The author of Expertise is relative, Dan Levitin, is an academic from McGill University. I am amazed at the differing perspectives on academics. Some people revere their independence and their studious perspectives. Others suggest that their distance from the "real world" may cause us to discount their conclusions. I have heard both arguments repeatedly. But regardless of what connotations academia might bring to a particular reader, it is fair to acknowledge at the outset that the view expressed are from academia. 

Dr. Levitincontends that if "the authority comes from having been a witness to some event, how credible a witness are they?" He suggests several steps in "evaluating a claim by some authority." The first of these he says is "to ask who or what established their authority?" Interestingly, to some extent, Dr. Levitin's authority to propose these steps is established by his own academic credentials and his position as a Dean of an established and recognized school. But he candidly admits that "venerable authorities can certainly be wrong," and he cites some examples which he finds supportive of that.

Dr. Levitin says that "experts talk in two different ways." He says that anyone attempting to determine the credibility of an expert would need to understand this, and to be able to differentiate between the two. 

He explains they sometimes "review facts and evidence, synthesizing them and form a conclusion based on the evidence." This method also requires that "along the way" the expert will "share with you what the evidence is, why it’s relevant, and how it helped them to form their conclusion." Dr. Levitin contends that "this is the way science is supposed to be." From this process he assures us we would get our best "business decisions, medical diagnoses, and military strategies."

Dr. Levitin contends that the second method is where experts "just share their opinions." He is quick to declare that this method is not "wrong;" he says "some good, testable ideas come from this sort of associative thinking." He is critical though that such testimony should not "be confused with a logical, evidence-based argument," which he associates with  the first method. 

He contends that this second method is fodder for publications aimed at non-scientific audiences, which he calls "popular audiences." He says that the opinions of this second method are potentially "rampant speculation," which is accepted because of our reverence for the expertise or presentation talent of the writer or speaker. In the adjudication field this is the witness. 

Dr. Levitin argues that in any event, the expert should "lift the veil of authority, let you look behind the curtain, and see at least some of the evidence for yourself." This, it seems, might be a valid acid test for the determining the credibility of the testimony, the conclusions, and the opinions. 

After an explanation of how society determines the existence of expertise, Dr. Levitin cautions that the designation may be fleeting. He points out that Einstein was one of the great physicists of his time, but that if Einstein were alive today with the training and education he possessed half a century ago, "he would probably not be considered" an expert. Thus, to be an expert, he contends, one must remain current, persistently acquiring and refining knowledge. 

Dr. Levitin acknowledges and laments the experts with similar credentials and experiences will "not necessarily agree." And, he notes that when they do agree, "these experts are not always right." Both are likely fair observations. He cites numerous examples of subject matter experts mistakenly assessing ideas, personalities, and trends, often to their financial detriment or failure. These examples support the contention that expertise is fallible, and that humans will not enjoy 100% accuracy and success, despite the training and education and experience he or she might possess, maintain, and expand. 

Because of these variables and further examples cited in Expertise is relative, Dr. Levitin concludes that "it can be difficult to figure that out for yourself" which expert is best qualified, most credible, and most believable. He concludes that some are persuaded by the presence of peer-review for conclusions, awards, prizes, and financial success. He notes that others might be persuaded by "university or governmental positions," or the volume of publications or presentations, or even by the number of times they have testified or been consulted. But, he cautions that in each of these there "are always elements of politics and personal taste."

In the end, Dr. Levitin seems to conclude that any or all of this might be persuasive. He does not provide any conclusion or measures or standards. There apparently is no "gold standard," by which all credibility can be easily and instantly measured. As an aside, I am always amazed by one reference to education. Asked about someone's credentials, one reply: "he went to ____________," or "she is ____________ trained" (insert school or institution name) has become a bit cliche and perhaps laughable. Does the fact that someone attended a particular school automatically afford credibility? The fact is that among many with whom I have spoken, certain schools that could be inserted in those blanks create greater skepticism than trust. 

So, how is credibility measured, in the absence of magic solutions or simple, objective, gold standards? Before lamenting the need for this too much, perhaps we should remember that if there were some objective "gold standard" then a computer could be programmed to determine credibility. It would need only ask "did he or didn't he attend Harvard" or "has she or hasn't she performed over 50 such surgeries," etc. And believe it or not, computers are being programmed for just that purpose. 

I would suggest that in the absence of any absolute standard or litmus test, a good place to start would be credentials. First, does the witness have the relevant education, training, or experience that makes the finder of fact confident that she/he is an expert in that field? Second, is that education, training, or experience current? And then, finally, perhaps look to the way the expert explains the findings. 

In other words, perhaps those who speak in the "second way" and just share their opinions" are not as credible or as persuasive as those who "review facts and evidence, synthesizing them and form a conclusion based on the evidence." Remember, these are the experts that "along the way share with you what the evidence is, why it’s relevant, and how it helped them to form their conclusion." In other words, perhaps credibility and persuasiveness come not from where an expert went to school, or how many of these procedures she has performed, but from how well the expert explains her or his opinion and the facts and, findings, and process that led to the opinion?

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