Ruminations on Eggsperts

There’s a post on Climate Etc. “Death of Expertise“. I’m not  commenting on this directly. Instead, I have a very simple question: what is an expert?

Two scales come to mind, the first is that in any given subject the probability that a person will be the source of the answer is greater than some arbitrary value. That value might be text books or google. The other scale is that in any given subject, the probability that the answer given by the expert is right is greater than some arbitrary value.

So, let us examine an uncontroversial subject on which there is a wide spread consensus 🙂 boiling eggs

Using the above definitions, an expert could be described either as someone who is likely to know how long a given egg needs boiling OR someone who’s timing is more likely to be right.

So, here’s a simple** question:

How long should an egg be boiled?

The equation will include the temperature of the egg, the size of egg, the desired outcome (running to hard ratio), the atmospheric pressure and the initial starting temperature of the water, the power output from the cooker. Also relevant could be whether the egg has a hole, the hardness of water, whether salt is added to the water and obviously, whether the eggs are placed in the water and then brought to the boil or whether the water is brought to the boil and then the eggs placed in.

Then we have “disaster” scenarios, such as the shell cracking. Also eggs vary in the thickness of the shell (battery eggs are noticeably thinner). Then there is the age of the eggs,  etc.

Or perhaps an expert is someone who knows how to boil an egg? But if you asked them to e.g. boil an ostrich egg or a humming-bird egg, they will not know.

In theory our “eggspert”, having this “spertisement” in eggs would know how to boil a humming bird – or would they?

Perhaps our “eggspert” would know how to boil the common types of eggs that are boiled and have enough experience to know what factors might be relevant to deciding how long to boil them.

So, how would we decide who is our “eggspert”?

If one could get a degree in “eggspertology” or “eggspert science”, then we might conclude that having such a degree was the mark of the “eggspert”. But as there is currently no such degree, who would be the eggspert that could teach such a course? Who is there to confer “eggspertise” when there are not “eggsperts”?

Academic accreditation does not work unless there is first an academic with the accreditation to accredit those who ordain this credit to others.

So, what does a person that needs to boil some unusual or new kind of egg do? The answer, is clear: they boil eggs until they find the “right” time. This is just practical experience, but isn’t this just what “research” boils down to (no pun intended!)

But what would happen, if e.g. this test were initially completed in the summer when eggs were delivered at room temperature, but then it was repeated in winter when the same (unheated) delivery van delivers them at well below room temperature?

So, perhaps we might guess that an “eggspert” is someone who is more than likely to know how “things” affect boiling eggs.

But what if those eggs were not bird eggs, but fish eggs, crocodile, turtle eggs?

Perhaps our eggspert is someone who has a theoretical knowledge of the process by which eggs denaturise and become hard, who is able to take this knowledge and apply it to areas where they had no practical experience?

This implies some kind of “deeper understanding” than just practical experience. But I am still struggling to know how to judge “deeper understanding”, except that when someone is asked how to boil an egg – they are either more likely to know, or more likely to be correct.


**As I’m sure you will appreciate this is an ironic statement as I’m sure marriages have been destroyed over the “mere” matter of how long to boil eggs. Add to that the making of porridge and whether to put the milk into tea first*** and it is surprising that any marriages last.

***Milk should go in first, because otherwise it does not get properly stirred as the tea is poured in. This however requires a level of eggspertise that is often missing in the amateur tea pourer who unable to estimate the required level of milk does not have the required competence to put the milk in first.

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3 Responses to Ruminations on Eggsperts

  1. TinyCO2 says:

    Is it weird Sunday and nobody told me? William Briggs going on about how atheists have a problem with evil and now you on eggsperts.

    The only way to tell an expert is after the fact.

    • Just a humorous gedanken experiement. In a totally new area of research “boiliing eggs”, how do we decide who is and who is not an expert?

      Your answer “after the fact”, does seem to be the ultimate criteria. But perhaps some of this “death of the expert”, is because … arhh yes … some are just communication channels for known knowledge, and as google and other electronic means makes it possible to bypass these channels and go direct to the source of the information, we are naturally seeing a “death of the expert”.

      Perhaps this is just a natural progression. When industry was automated, these experts cheered on from the side. But now the process of automation is de-skilling the role of “experts”, … suddenly all the experts want us to be sympathetic as their jobs fall to the bulldozer of new technology.

      Thanks TinyCO2 – that realisation that many experts are just gatherers and disseminators of information is very useful, it explains why google is such a threat … that’s another step forward!

  2. One of the differences between sciences and arts is that there is supposed to be a correct answer in the former. Thus expertise in the arts tends itself to be a matter of opinion.

    Unfortunately we have a lot of pseudo sciences where there is no acceptance of a single correct answer or of there being a way to measure it. Climate “science” is one where there is no accepted way of “proving” claims within our lifetimes (though the founder, Hansen’s 1988 prediction of a 6 C temperature and 4 ft sea level rise by 2050 is looking rather dodgy). Another is the nuclear no lower threshold (LNT) theory of damage which never had evidential support and now appears to have quite a lot the other way, but government appointed “experts” claim to believe in it.

    That may be the practical measure of a modern “expert” – the government appointed and pay them.

    Fortunately engineers are still held to the “being right” standard.

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