For a long time, experts have been defined as people working and trained in a particular field. So an expert in botany was someone with a PhD in botany, and an expert in physics was someone with a PhD in physics. That’s fair, someone who spent years and years of their life studying physics should probably be considered an expert in that field; however, it is also incredibly limiting and dismissive of people who have not been trained in the narrow academic way.
The field of science communication is finally starting to wake up to the fact that there are many ways to become an expert without significant or any academic training. Some people pursue their interests, training themselves to be experts in botany or car engines or bicycling. Other people have lived experiences that make them experts, like a disabled person is an expert on what it is like to be a disabled person. Expanding the definition of expert makes our ability to engage in, communicate, and make relevant science more effectively. This expansion makes science less of a thing that happens in the strict confines of the ivory tower and more something that everyone interacts with everyday. Instead of experts talking to the masses, the public is seen as made up of scientists of all stripes who can communicate with each other.
This movement is seen with particular clarity in blogs. Anyone with access to a computer and the Internet can start a blog. Getting readership is more difficult, but creating that personalized web space that focuses on the creator’s passion is pretty easy and it means that now more than ever, people can actively engage in science and science communication. Now, with the expanding definition of expert, it is important to clearly and honestly state what someone’s credentials are, but saying “20 years of plant collection and identification experience” should hold just as much weight (if not more, in some cases) as someone who says “PhD in plant systematics.”
That’s what I love about these science reality TV shows and about all these fun science blogs written by everyone from traditional scientists to self-taught scientists to incidental scientists to people who just think science is fun. There are many ways to be an expert and each of them should be recognized and given weight in the discussion of what science is doing and what it should do in the future. As an exclusive club, science sort of sucks, but as a free-wheeling conversation between everyone about the joys of exploration, well, that’s pretty darn cool.