The Subject Matter Expert Versus The Diligent Researcher

As election 2016 came to its surprising conclusion, more than a few subject matter experts (SMEs) found egg on their faces. The results confirmed findings presented by political science writer Philip Tetlock in his book, Expert Political Judgment. At the risk of oversimplification, Dr. Tetlock argued that non-SMEs who apply critical thinking may have an edge over SMEs at forecasting political outcomes.

Likewise, analysts with less in-depth knowledge about a single topic, but who are rigorous and diligent researchers who consider and explore all alternatives, may produce stronger analyses than their SME counterparts. What gives non-SMEs an edge over the so-called experts? Here are a few factors I’ve observed.

  • Non-SMEs interpret facts with fresh eyes. They don’t have preconceived ideas because every circumstance is new, so they evaluate data with less bias. 
  • Non-SMEs don’t have comprehensive knowledge of a subject like the expert, so they research. In fact, they are so driven to understand every angle of a problem they don’t know when to stop. They tend to get lost in rabbit holes. But the exhaustive process leads to a strong understanding of the core issue, as well as the factors that shaped and fed it. 
  • Non-SMEs can’t rely on their expertise, so they are more willing to let structured thinking techniques guide their conclusions. Formal methodologies generally produce more accurate results because they reduce personal bias. 

There is also a lesson for managers who hire based solely on a potential hire’s subject matter expertise, degree, or experience at a prestigious agency. A less decorated candidate who displays intellectual curiosity, tenacity, and a healthy dose of humility may be the tortoise that overtakes the hare.

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