Erica Seelemann discusses common psychological phenomena that contribute to our media environment becoming increasingly unreliable and shares how to know when you’re expert enough to be considered a credible source.
Credible scientific news is becoming harder to identify as armchair experts saturate the media with their, by definition, uninformed views. Misinformation can create irreparable harm in our communities and has been prevalent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We desperately need true experts who are knowledgeable and experienced in their field commenting on scientific issues. But, what constitutes an expert and at what point does someone have enough experience to confidently comment on a topic?
This question is complicated by the Dunning-Kreuger Effect and Imposter Syndrome. The former is the tendency for people who know little on a topic to feel very confident in the knowledge they possess because they don’t know what they don’t know. Such people may present themselves as experts. These are the armchair experts and this effect is dangerous. Misinformation fuels egos, creates arguments, kills, and often distracts from the true experts on the other end of the Dunning-Kreuger Effect spectrum. Here we find the experts who recognize the vastness of a subject and how difficult it may be to fully comprehend it. The more they know about their topic, the less they feel like they have the authority to comment. This effect leads to the less-informed armchair experts speaking louder than the true experts.
Additionally, true experts are often affected by Imposter Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you aren’t qualified to be an expert or hold your current job or school placement because the people who hold such things are bigger, more prepared, and just generally not you. It’s similar to what experts experiencing the Dunning-Kreuger effect manifest – those experiencing Imposter Syndrome don’t feel as though their work warrants the status they possess.
Importantly, Imposter Syndrome is very common among masters students, who often become PhD students, who often become post-docs, then university faculty, and sometimes, leading experts in their fields. At what point does a switch flick and someone knows enough to credibly speak on a topic?
I am a graduate student at Dalhousie University in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics and this is a question I often ask myself. I spend my days, sometimes 6 or 7 a week, in my lab conducting experiments. One of the most exciting parts of my work is making a discovery. However big or small, there’s a period of time when my supervisor and I are the only people in the world who know that piece of information. It’s exhilarating. Concurrently, I spend hours every week reviewing literature and ensuring that I know all there is I can know about previous research relevant and adjacent to my topic.
With all this in mind, I’m still early on in my degree. The seemingly countless hours I have dedicated to my subject are merely a blip on the timelines of those who have dedicated entire careers to the ideas that I contribute to today.
Which makes me wonder – am I a credible source? Specifically, do I know enough about my research topic to identify myself as an expert? What about my experiences as a graduate student navigating the Dunning-Kreuger Effect and Imposter Syndrome – do I know enough to write the article you’re presently reading?
I believe that credible sources are born in the space between the Dunning-Kreuger Effect and Imposter Syndrome. They need to know enough to realize that their topics are vast, complex, and unlikely to be grasped in their entirety, especially if they’re in a field that is constantly evolving. At the same time, they need to recognize when their work is novel and when they are the best person to speak about it. Overcoming these doubts and harnessing the confidence to share a message is incredibly difficult and needs to be done. With regards to my research, I have the expertise to confidently share what I have learned, and continue to defer to my mentors whenever a question is posed beyond the scope of my work. I can share my graduate student experience openly and without pause.
If you are someone with a scientific message or story you’d like to share who doesn’t feel qualified, then I would encourage you to think twice. Do you have something to say that is worthy of being heard and Imposter Syndrome is holding you back? Or, as a verifiable novice are you at risk of falling prey to the Dunning-Kreuger effect? Be it the former, I hope to read your article soon. We need informed voices loudly sharing cutting edge science in the media to combat the misinformation that is circulating. If you are in the latter group, it would probably be best if you sat quietly in your armchair.
Erica Seelemann is a graduate student at Dalhousie University studying cardiovascular physiology. She has a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in Neuroscience, a minor in Applied Ethics, and recently completed all the requirements of her Certificate in Science Leadership and Communication. @ericaseelemann