If you’re looking for a brain surgeon, you don’t want an amateur (and probably not Ben Carson, either.) But there are a lot of topics where “expert opinion” is of questionable validity. For instance, the paid media pundits who predicted Donald Trump would flame out long ago have been proved wrong. Spectacularly wrong. Many still haven’t learned anything from what should have been a humbling experience. They’re still making political predictions based on what they want to be true instead of looking at what’s happening in the GOP primary by the math. (Please don’t take this as an endorsement of Donald Trump. I cab’t stand him. I am pro-reality, however.)
What makes a person an expert?
If it’s for purpose of commentary (as opposed to digging into organs with sharp tools for therapeutic purposes), anyone can be expert and everyone seems to think they already are. A lot of people have instant opinions on topics they’ve given no thought to. Experts, it seems, are everywhere. The number of “Social Media Experts” on Twitter is staggering, and most of the time, that title means nothing.
Recently, Sean Penn was ridiculed by professional journalists for his interview of El Chapo in Rolling Stone. He responded that (a) they were focusing on the celebrity angle instead of the drug war, and (b) he dared them to show him their journalist licenses. It was a clever retort to a lot of envious whiners from a guy who risked his life to go into the jungle to interview a killer.
Whether Penn’s story was well-executed is another issue. The core of it was, anybody who is willing can be a journalist now. I have a journalism degree. It’s hanging in my downstairs bathroom over the toilet, where it belongs. It got me interviews and jobs with major publications but, as a license? Ha! Let’s just say any degree — or no degree — will do now.
Report on any issue you’re of a mind to. Citizen journalism may not be polished, but it often looks more honest. The value of the journalism degree has eroded since the Internet disrupted a once-great profession. It’s not all the fault of the Internet, either. Many outlets have abandoned the journalistic principles that once made the calling worthwhile. For instance, when network news shows backed by defence contractors interview shills for defence contractors and don’t tell you who they’re really representing? Yeah, no good. Many so-called journalists downgraded themselves to propagandists when they decided to help sell a war instead of reporting on it. If those reporters had journalist licenses, they should have been revoked.
It seems that most of the best journalism isn’t accomplished by big media, anymore. The best journalism and commentary I’ve seen in the last few years has been reported by comedians (e.g. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) and web-based shows with vast audiences they’ve earned through authenticity (e.g. The Young Turks.) These models of better communication dig deep, tackle tough issues in an understandable way and they don’t treat their audiences like idiots.
I bring this up because one of the books I’m writing at the moment is non-fiction. Someone (a fiction writer) asked me what qualified me to write it. As a former journalist, the premise of the question struck me as silly. Research any subject thoroughly and you, too, can be an expert. Read a bunch of books, go deep and bang, you’ve got yourself a qualified opinion because you are not informed by one expert, but many. You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist to have a worthwhile opinion about nuclear power. You don’t have to be a doctor to explain a vasectomy. (Just don’t try this at home, kids!)
I have 24 years of experience with the subject of my next non-fiction book. I’m also bringing in a co-author with multiple relevant degrees and 20+ years in the subject, too. Our backgrounds will undoubtedly make a better book and we can refer to real life case studies from our work lives. However, you can write a non-fiction book about anything. Okay, if you’re an idiot, maybe not but, in general? To claim expertise, all you have to do is research. To write a book based on that expertise? All you have to do is write the damn book.
Make the world better and better informed. Those two things are one thing.