Thursday 29 March 2018


We define an expert as someone skilled or knowledgeable in a given field, or at least that's the simple version. I think the real definition of that is more nuanced, truly, has more to do with the perception of others than with verifiable competence.

How do you verify competence anyway? I suppose with some things it's easy – you could look at the work of an illustrator for example and see expertise or the lack of it. A musician is either a virtuoso performer or they're not.

And of course a lot of us are just OK at what we do, not especially exciting, not powerful figures in our fields, just decent enough at it without rocking any worlds. The average still provide most of the population of the earth. More people want to be experts than trust experts, or at least that is what my gut tells me.
Experts are out of fashion right now, mind you, or at least some are. When celebrity Dungeon Master Michael Gove said that people were sick of experts, it didn't seem surprising, and it's intensified since then. Only today I saw a history professor having been lambasted on Twitter for daring to correct a pro-Brexit hack on a point of fact. How do we get to here?

In a 2015 paper entitled “Measuring Laypeople’s Trust in Experts in a Digital Age: The Muenster Epistemic Trustworthiness Inventory (METI)”, Hendriks, Kienhues, and Bromme put forward that being good enough at stuff isn't enough for people to recognise or trust an expert, and that you had to think about “epistemic trustworthiness”, and you measured that by comparing indexes of the expertise (actual skill), integrity (honesty) and benevolence (good intentions) attributed to our hypothetical experts by laypeople.

When things are divisive, when disagreements become the sorts of things where you characterise the people who disagree with you as by default hypocritical or evil, then the tests of integrity and benevolence fail spectacularly and no amount of simple expertise will convince anyone of an expert’s trustworthiness. And a subject like Brexit, where the epistemic conflict is between freedom from and freedom to, and the stakes are, for many, literal life or death questions, is the sort of argument where these passions become inflamed.

Or to put it more simply, if you're inclined to think someone is a bad actor from the beginning, it doesn't matter how qualified they are, you're not going to trust them. It's not about distrusting clever people (and although some people frame it that way, it isn't really), it's about not trusting people who start by denying what you believe is the moral truth.
And of course, experts can be wrong. Francis Fukuyama, an expert, declared that history was over, because liberal democracy existed, and it doesn't take a PhD in political science to spot that he might have been off base. And let's not even go into the chaos that policies sourced from experts like Friedman and Hayek have wrought upon the world.

In the circles I move in, the stakes are quite a bit lower. I mean, you still get death threats and stuff, but it's for things that don't involve actual life and death.

In the last few months I've been asked to do several talks about the things I write about, and twice now I've been called a “folk horror expert” in publicity. People are using the word “expert” to refer to me.

I've never applied the term to myself, and it doesn't sit comfortably. If I have a field of expertise with academic qualifications, it might be the history and literature of Late Antiquity, but I only have an MPhil, so honestly that makes me someone with a grasp greater than the layman, but somewhat less than, say, Stephen Mitchell, Ceri Davies and John Morgan, genuinely benevolent, honest experts who taught me that history and literature while I was an undergraduate, all of whom published in peer reviewed journals and taught for decades.
(If I were an expert, you wouldn't be able to see my foot) 
Among the gaming fraternity, I have a reputation for expertise in the mythology and literature surrounding Atlantis, but again, my knowledge and understanding pales beside a sceptical writer like Richard Ellis (whose Imagining Atlantis is the go to for the sceptic) or Joscelyn Godwin (whose Atlantis and the Cycles of Time is, if credulous and uncritical, the most thorough survey of the mystic Atlantis there is). Neither of these guys are particularly benevolent (Ellis is brutal towards cranks; Godwin speaks positively about Evola, and make of that what you will) but the breadth of knowledge between them dwarfs mine.

Game design, maybe? Don't make me laugh. Yeah, I've got a list of credits that might look as long as your arm if you're not familiar with the insane work ethics of the games industry, and a couple of appearances at small local conventions (I'll be at the SCGC again by the way, 5th May, doing a talk and personing a table and you should come say hi) to talk about that. But I work alongside people who have written hundreds of books, and go to the big conventions, and have a theoretical basis that I'm just a little bit wobbly on. Like Malcolm Sheppard, for example, who knows his stuff better than any single person I know. Anyway, you should buy Chariot because it's objectively the best thing I've ever written.

As for being a folk horror expert… I don't know. I never set out to be one. I watched a handful of films and wrote about them, and that became a few dozen films, and then that became a bunch of films, and then a handful of times the writers, directors and producers of the films I wrote about read what I wrote, and approved or engaged, and other websites ask me what I think about films, and I got asked to do those talks, and someone asks me what I think of a film or TV show at least once a week. But look, have you heard of Adam Scovell? That guy's written the book. That guy has a PhD in film studies. That guy makes films. I just have a blog.

In the three years I've been writing this blog my readership has gone from my knowing the names of literally every reader, to knowing roughly the venue through which every reader came, to having literally no clue, and look, it's a modest readership still, just edging into four figures, and even so, it's humbling to have so many people read my writing regularly.

But am I an expert? Honestly?

Look, it'd be disingenuous for me to pretend I don't have any expertise. I do know a lot about how to read film, and about ancient history, and Atlantis, and games. I'm just not the world authority on any of those things. I'm a jack of several trades, and wouldn't presume epic level mastery of any of them. I am not lecturing, or teaching here. I'm sharing thoughts with equals. I want to start conversations, not deliver the last word. I want to stoke  enthusiasm, not hold forth with authority.

I admit it, I do have a modicum of expertise. And I'm honest. And I mean well. And if you want to consider me epistemically trustworthy, or at least interesting to read, I'm honoured, and I'll never cease to try to live up to that, and I'll always admit that there are many other people of greater expertise on whose shoulders I stand.