The Write Stuff
Everyone’s an Expert
Annoying Word Phrase of the Month: Subject matter expert
During the Age of Trump, we’ve seen a sneering assault on the status of experts and the whole notion of expertise. The President knows more about everything than anybody — the generals, the courts, taxes, technology, trade, you name it. And people have noticed the underlying assumption in his assertion, which is that the elites really don’t understand very much, even about their own areas of specialty.
The idea seems to be that those fancy diplomas from the most prestigious institutions of higher learning aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. (Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters is a characteristic examination of this phenomenon.)
But here’s the strange part: At the same time this assault on expertise has intensified, claims to expertise have shot up. We’ve seen a kind of inflation of such claims, which calls to mind Gresham’s law, with the dangers it suggests. More and more businesspeople — coached by their PR firms — are encouraged to present themselves as experts, with special qualifications to write for trade journals and speak at conferences.
And, within limits, there’s something healthy about this. People can know a great deal about the unique challenges they face in their work and the hard-won experiences they have had. They gain a kind of wisdom that comes from doing and can be attained in no other way. This wisdom is not theoretical but concrete, and it should be valued and not disparaged.
What’s annoying is that it is no longer good enough, apparently, to be an expert.
You have to be a “subject matter expert,” which seems at once highfalutin and redundant.
“Subject matter” is itself redundant. “Subject” and “matter” mean the same thing. And if you’re an expert, it’s fair to assume you are an expert on something, as opposed to everything.
And it is now insufficient to be a mere “subject matter expert.” Now you have to be a “leading expert,” as if your expertise sets you apart from all the other experts.
But it’s useful to remember, when you think about all this, something the late, great Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek said: “We are all experts in our own little niches.” And he knew all the answers.
For more information, contact Alan Crawford, editor of Impact.