April 28, 2021

How to Find an Expert

This is the tenth in a series of short essays I wrote as part of the Ship 30 for 30 program. You can read all thirty essays here.

There’s a famous Lyndon B Johnson quote, which goes:

“What convinces is conviction. Believe in the argument you’re advancing. If you don’t, you’re as good as dead.”

It’s hard to disagree with him, especially as he states it with such conviction.

The more conviction someone has when stating their case, the more authoritative they seem. I have seen plenty of people climb the corporate ladder by sounding like they know what they are talking about while not actually knowing that much.

Humans are wired the default to the truth—when we hear something, we tend to believe it rather than seek further proof. We only question something when the person saying it doesn’t sound convinced themselves. Hence why conviction is so powerful for driving home a point of view.

But there is a problem with this. By stating their case forcefully enough, someone can convince people of all kinds of untruths. This may be an honest mistake—someone has their facts wrong and believes what they are saying, so they sound convincing, despite being incorrect.

But, more sinisterly, someone may deliberately lie with conviction to deceive and get you to buy into what they are saying. This is a favourite trick of people with an agenda, such as conmen and politicians.

So, how do you know when to trust what someone is telling you? The answer, perversely, is to look for doubt, not conviction. A true expert understands a subject’s nuance and complexity, so they will usually keep an open mind and opt for conditional statements instead. The hallmark of an expert is someone whose answers tend to be some variation of “it depends.”

So, resist your natural tendency to be swayed by conviction, and beware false confidence. When seeking a reliable expert, look for someone who will tell you “it depends.”