I’m thinking today about identifying experts. When learning about any new topic, it’s important to source your information from reliable sources. Even (maybe especially) if you want to develop new theories or understand the state-of-the-art in a field, then you need to start with the current state of knowledge there. Figuring out how to get that basic, background education can be difficult, particularly when you don’t know enough to be oriented to what is and isn’t necessary for you to learn. Since most of you are here to expand your self-defense skills and knowledge, here are a few important things to look for when examining your reading material, videos, and experts for that area.
Your sources should take to heart the idea that what we teach has life or death consequences. The gravity of what can go wrong, and the value of what we are protecting, should always be a driving force for the person passing along education in this field. Concepts like acceptable casualties and acceptable risk of injury are generally not okay for most of us living normal, everyday lives here in the United States. Uninformed opinions and “works for me” have no place when it comes to instruction that, if it goes badly, can cause someone to die or be seriously injured unnecessarily. That’s not to say you can’t trust anybody who wants to make money or chase fame as a purported expert in self-defense, but you need to pay attention to whether they will do so at the expense of your well-being.
What makes someone an authoritative source is having the experience and study to speak to the specific thing that they’re talking about. That may include training and participating in discussions with a wide variety of other experts (more on this in a moment), reading relevant literature, and performing their own research. Experts aren’t people who simply regurgitate facts that sound true without having done the work to examine whether or not they really are true, or remain true today. One of the things that means is that military or law enforcement experience, without more, does not automatically make someone knowledgeable about self-defense for regular people. Nor does having a prestigious-looking platform or a lot of followers or viewers, or even a lengthy time in that or a related field. Expertise in one sub-field does not necessarily cross over into expertise into another sub-field. For instance, a martial arts expert doesn’t necessarily know anything about using or even fighting with guns. Just like an excellent technical shooter doesn’t necessarily know anything about the problem of shooting people when they need to be shot.
That’s one reason that you can sometimes figure out if someone is an expert by asking them questions. One of the most frustrating parts of consulting someone who knows a subject very well is that they will often not have simple answers for you. The fact that they want to know more about you, your skills, your equipment, and your context, or that they include a number of caveats with an answer, is often an indication that their knowledge isn’t surface-level in a way that encourages glib answers. The fact that they can answer “why” and cite sources and arguments for and against their positions also indicates that they’ve truly thought through the relevant material to come up with their conclusions. If a person isn’t able to be nuanced, doesn’t demonstrate their own understanding of the topic, or isn’t willing to answer your polite questions, it might indicate they have less knowledge than claimed. Don’t confuse that with frustration with simple questions that have been asked a million times, though. It’s a valid frustration on the expert end, but one you can work with by deepening your own background to ask more precise questions that require more detailed answers.
Experts also tend not to be big fans of “it feels like…” instead of having actual, measurable metrics to back up their theories. It’s one thing to say you saw or heard about a guy once who responded a certain way to being kicked in the testicles or sprayed with pepper spray. It’s another thing entirely when you’ve observed many people going through similar physical experiences in a variety of settings, or when you can draw on the conclusions of those who have. Talking about what’s “fast” or “precise” or “far away” or “close up” isn’t meaningful without hard numbers that compare to other numbers. Part of using metrics means that experts are willing to be proven wrong when presented with new evidence, whether from another source or as part of their own work. Changing minds or adjusting positions isn’t always a sign of being wishy-washy; instead, it can be a sign of maturing viewpoints based on new knowledge, new equipment, or new skills.
Another way to evaluate a potential expert is to look at who their teachers and colleagues are. Someone who has trained broadly and deeply themselves is likely to have a wide base of knowledge from which they have formed their own opinions. As well, someone who continues to challenge their conclusions against others who are established in the same and related fields is likely to have been able to think through counter-opinions and address the holes in their arguments. Once you’ve identified one expert, take a look around at who they surround themselves with. That will be an indicator of others you may want to pay attention to. And if you discover that your expert only works within a very small circle, then you might want to consider if their views have been challenged enough to reflect true expertise, or simply the collection of a single group’s knowledge and experience. While some groups of experts may seem very closely-knit, watch to see if they bring in folks who aren’t just their students and who don’t just agree with them. If so, you’re likely to have found a true community of expertise.
It’s not that experts know everything. They definitely don’t. However, they know more than Average Jane who just got a video camera and a YouTube channel, and took a self-defense seminar last weekend. She could be an expert on another field entirely, and certainly she knows best her journey. She could become an expert as she continues learning, training, and studying. But in the meantime, get your information from places that fit more of what I talk about above so that you can be sure you’re heading down the right path.