How researchers get heard

How to Become a Public Expert

Most experts struggle to define what their expertise means publicly.

Which means the public struggles to understand most experts’ value.

By “means publicly,” I don’t mean “how other experts define your expertise.” I mean: how you as an expert translate your expertise into something the public can understand and use — solutions, a paradigm, a new frame that addresses a challenge the public cares about (or should).

Most experts usually summarize their subfield specialties. They list their affiliations and link to their books and papers and talks and media appearances. They summarize their work with public bodies in outputs, not outcomes. But they don’t articulate what they are pursuing — what they are trying to accomplish — with their public expertise.

And for challenging reasons. For instance: Because articulating your goals as a public expert is scary. Because it makes you accountable. Or because it might feel wrong — as if you’re putting social change ahead of your research. Or because you’re just playing at trying to bring that change about through your expertise. Because you’re not committed to it.

What does an articulation of the goals of your public expertise look like? See the website of Glen Weyl, the absurdly interesting political economist and social technologist in Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (or OCTOPEST).

Weyl is one of the most original thinkers on everything from blockchain to wealth taxation to new forms of voting for optimized allocation of public goods. And he articulates what he’s trying to accomplish right at the top of the landing page: “I work to imagine, build and communicate a pluralistic future for social technology truer to the richness of our diversely shared lives.”

You might call that a mission statement. But all of us who’ve written mission statements will recognize that it’s far more than that: It’s a pledge. His public expertise will pursue these goals. Everything you see on this site falls under this rubric. For instance, the public commitment he makes at the top of the “Microsoft” section of his website: “I help a corporate octopus reimagine itself as democratic infrastructure rigorously accountable to those it holds power over.”

These pledges create Weyl’s public expertise. They position it, differentiate it, create accountability and expectations around it. Those things are, in fact, what public expertise is about. I was listening recently to Weyl on an episode of Tyler Cowen’s “Conversations with Tyler” Weyl guested on last summer when he made just this point:

COWEN: Now, you’re a reformer. How would you reform the economics profession, which you’ve seen from a number of different vantage points, right?

WEYL: Yeah, one of the most important failings of the economics profession right now — and I think this is something you’re doing a great job of trying to rectify with the engagement work you do — has to do with the lack of accountability to public discourse. This is something that’s really systematic across American society, not just in economics.

There’s a very unhealthy relationship to expertise, where either there’s a total disregard of and distrust of expertise or a deference to it, rather than the notion … If you look at someone like Milton Friedman — the way you judge an expert is by their ability to distill things down and convey a message that becomes part of the public discourse. That’s hurting us in the COVID situation, and it’s been a disaster in the economics profession.

We can argue about whether Weyl’s argument (that expertise’s demise in the modern world is largely the failure of experts to “distill things down and convey a message that becomes part of the public discourse) is quaint in the face of rampant misinformation about climate change, vaccines, GMOs, wind turbines, and an increasing number of other topics that have bodies of evidence and expert consensus behind them but much bigger forces arguing and spending to suppress and discredit the expertise POV.

But Weyl captures what’s at the heart of any expert’s public expertise: its unique value as a public good, and the expert’s need to commit to it. Public experts like yourself — for your own good and the good of your organization, as well as those who benefit from your knowledge — should be intentional about what you are trying to contribute to the public discourse. About what your public expertise is pursuing.

Without that public pledge, you’re adrift on the stormy, fickle seas of media hits and Twitter acclimation.

With it, you and your organization can set a course.