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CNX 100 - Information Literacy Guide

What is Expertise?

Expertise has two different, but related meanings. It either refers to expert knowledge or the know-how, skills, or expertness in something. I.E. it either refers to knowing-that or knowing-how.



With knowing-that, think about an expert opinion witness. They provide their professional testimony because they know particular facts. When thinking about knowing-how, think about professions like a mechanic. They have the skills informed by knowledge to do a task that someone without that skill and knowledge would not be able to do.

What Makes an Expert?

There is a lot of debate over what makes an expert. This partly stems from the two-part definition mentioned above, but largely because expertise looks differently in different contexts. Various disciplines may value different characteristics of expertise.



Generally, an expert needs to know the truth, to tell the truth, and to look the part of an expert (Yes, this is highly problematic. More on this later).

There are also various ways for a person to gain expertise and/or prove their expertise.

  • Study a subject for a long time (How long is long enough? It depends).

  • Is credentialed (Does simply having a Ph.D. in a subject make you an expert? Maybe)

  • Experience an event firsthand

  • Can communicate their knowledge effectively (Have they published? Can people actually understand what they are trying to say? These are important in proving someone's expertise, though it doesn't necessarily make someone an expert).

Let's Talk About Marginalized Knowledge

You may have noticed something above, many of the 'traditional' tools academia uses to determine authority have a bias towards a traditional Western framework. For instance, many indigenous people in the Americas primarily passed knowledge down through oral tradition. Historically, academia has not recognized this as a 'valid' form of expertise and has dismissed this knowledge, sometimes with dangerous and chaotic results.

For example, Native tribes in what is now known as California used to hold yearly burns to better manage the wildfire-prone region. However, Americans banned the rituals and focused instead on fire suppression, counting on the perceived superiority of their science and technology. What we have since found is, instead, that the Native tribes were right all along: Controlled burns help mitigate wildfires, while fire suppression worsens it.



Because authority is determined by a community, the biases inherent in that community shape who is allowed to claim it. This is true of both academic and cultural communities!

We encourage you to seek authoritative voices. We also encourage you to challenge what it means to be authoritative in the first place. By using your own critical thinking skills, you can start to dismantle systems that keep marginalized knowledge in the shadows while still recognizing that opinion is not objective truth, and not all systems are equally right or wrong.

Honoring marginalized knowledge requires a more dynamic way of thinking about which sources you value. It will necessitate you to take more time to think about a source than a simple checklist. However, if done right, you will build a better, healthier way to think about what resources you trust.