"We should have respect for expertise, but not too much."

In his final column for Computer magazine, Bob Colwell writes the following:
Early on, I wrote a column about quantum mechanics (Mar. 2002, pp. 8-10), a topic I find endlessly fascinating. I've taken college courses on this and done extensive reading, but I'm by no means an expert. I had two objectives in writing that column: The first was to stimulate thought and discussion by relaying some of the ideas I've absorbed on the topic; the second was to establish the idea that it isn't necessary to be an "expert" at something to have the right to discuss it.

I think we have too much compartmentalization in science as it is, too much autodeferring to people that we hope know more about something than we do. It's all too human to substitute jargon and acronyms for true understanding, and if an expert can't explain something to an intelligent layperson, then that expert's understanding isn't what it should be. We should have respect for expertise, but not too much.

I got the reader feedback I had expected - physics gurus accusing me of "quantum mystery mongering," as though there's no real mystery there, I just hadn't broken through to their enlightened stage yet. Richard Feynman once said that anyone who said they understood quantum physics was wrong. That's good enough for me. Others wrote that I should stick to what I know. Where were they when I proposed that Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton were offering design tips?

In his book To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Henry Petroski makes a similar point about engineering:
I believe, and I argue in this essay, that the ideas of engineering are in fact in our bones and part of our human nature and experience. Furthermore, I believe that an understanding and an appreciation of engineers and engineering can be gotten without an engineering or technical education.

In the book he gives many examples of newspaper ads and other types of media coverage where details of engineering failures were covered and it was understood that most people reading the paper could understand what had caused the failure and that engineering was not some "black art" that others couldn't learn and they needed it explained to them.

I like these examples because I think that we too often differ to experts and we think that it's impossible for "normal" people to contribute ideas. I hear people say things like "I read it in that book so it must be right..." or "All the textbooks agree..." or perhaps (my personal favorite) "Once you've read more on the topic you'll understand...."

That's one of the reasons why I like the LAWST style workshops so much. They are rooted in the idea of experience. People who work on projects getting together to share what works and what doesn't - no one more expert then the next. Each person is the expert of their experience - because they are the one who had it. By sharing actual experience, instead of propagating testing folklore (if I can steal some of James' terminology), each person is able to contribute to the field.

It's also for that reason that I like reading blogs so much (thanks to Antony for all the hard work he does on TestingReflections). I've got more then a couple of half-baked ideas that I need to cook. Workshops and blogs give me a place to cook them where I don't need to be an "expert." All I need to do is understand what the issue is I'm talking about, know some of the prior history on the topic (not necessarily all of it), be willing to stand up for my ideas, and be willing to be wrong.