Have you ever wanted to express an opinion but hesitated because you’re not an expert on the topic at hand? Why? You have just as much of a right to an opinion on any subject as anyone else, expert or not.

You already form opinions all the time in areas in which you’re not an expert, and you take highly consequential action based on those opinions. You select a doctor. You decide whether your auto mechanic is over-charging you. You negotiate a fair price when buying a home.

Maybe you have a leadership role at work, and members of your team have deep expertise in areas you don’t. Do these experts always agree on the best actions to take? Probably not. What do you do? You listen to everyone’s input, you discern the facts the best that you can, and you make a decision. In some cases, you may even take action that goes against what all your experts recommend. That’s called leadership.

In fact, our system of government rests on the assumption that you are qualified to make judgments on almost any subject.

Imagine you’re a juror in a trial involving a complex financial scam. You’re not a finance expert or a legal expert. (If you really are either of these, just play along.) The prosecution brings in their expert witness to explain how the defendant illegally manipulated the market in a publicly traded stock to his personal benefit. The defense then puts their own expert witness on the stand to explain that, while maybe not perfectly ethical, the actions the defendant took in the market were, strictly speaking, legal. Now you must render a verdict. What do you do? Do you ask the judge to be excused from the case because you’re not an expert? Of course not. You form an opinion, because it’s your duty to form an opinion.

As a citizen, you have a right – and even a responsibility – to form opinions on all sorts of subjects. You’re not an expert in foreign policy, economics, health care, climate, taxation, and so on. Yet you vote.

So why wouldn’t you apply this same ability wherever and however you choose?

Anyone who criticizes others just for expressing opinions outside their area of expertise is hypocritical. Think of journalists. Their job is to examine information, listen to experts, deduce facts, and state conclusions. Sure, they often quote experts, but the experts they quote are the ones the journalist has selected and is asking you to trust. (Or, more likely, the journalist is just repeating a quote they found somewhere else.) Why should we trust these specific experts? It’s usually not difficult to find multiple qualified or even world-class experts with contradictory opinions on the same issue, although you do often have to be proactive to find them.

Now think of the audience of these journalists. When someone repeats an assertion he or she read in the newspaper or heard on TV, that person is forming an opinion – sometimes a very passionate opinion – about what’s true and what isn’t, or about the best course of action in a given situation, often without any critical evaluation at all, and without deep expertise on the subject. That still counts as forming an opinion, it’s just thoughtless and automatic. Anyone who chooses to passively accept the expertise they happen to encounter is almost always forming an opinion that contradicts other qualified experts elsewhere, and is thus “pretending to be an expert” by their own definition.

Unless you are completely silent about an issue, you are expressing an “expert” opinion.

Of course, there are other not-so-smart ways to form opinions, in addition to accepting media-amplified opinions and assertions as if they are fact. For example, acting as if you are a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber, or any other professional, and dispensing wisdom and advice – without consulting the work of experts, examining evidence, or at least having some relevant experience – is a bad idea. And it would be unwise for anyone to heed that advice. But acting as if you are an expert (not good) is different than forming and expressing an opinion or even taking action in an area in which you are not an expert (good and unavoidable). It’s a subtle but crucial difference.

The issues we face are far too important to leave to the experts. And besides, we don’t have much of a choice. Experts disagree and experts are wrong all the time, even if the mass media would have you believe otherwise. Your opinion may or may not be the correct one, but it’s yours, and if you’ve reached it thoughtfully, let’s hear it. If we all do the same – with modesty, openness, and civility – maybe we’ll find our way toward the promise of democracy.  

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