A Rose by Any Other Name: The Nature of Expertise

05/11/2012 17:46 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

When is an expert (not) an expert? That's a question somewhat in the news this week, following a fairly furious reaction from women not at all impressed by Radio 4's apparent inability to find female "experts" to discuss breast cancer on the Today programme.

Quite. It took women all of about five minutes on twitter to identify a range of experts who could have presented a female perspective on what is generally regarded as an issue that affects women rather more directly than men. Some of these suggestions undoubtedly had letters after their name and learned titles beforehand.

The unexpected expert

Yet it wasn't that debate that had me, initially, pondering the nature of expertise. Quite co-incidentally, writing about Ria Cooper, last week, I found myself wondering about the nature of expertise, what role "experts" play in public debate on high profile subjects - and how the press determine such-and-such person is, or isn't, an expert worthy of citing.

No. This isn't another delve into the issues surrounding transition - beyond the fact that I probably count as something of a transgender expert myself. A single par from the original story quite jarred. This was the bit where they quoted the views of "child psychologist Karen Sherr".

Karen, who is also, according to the Mirror, "formerly of Great Ormond Street Hospital" seemed broadly opposed to what Ria had done. Though it's not entirely clear whether Karen herself was reacting to the reality of Ria's situation - on hormones, deciding not to go forward with surgery - or to some potted Mirror version of same (as I wrote last week, the story was severely bowdlerised in the popular press).

That's important. Following up another story last week, I spoke to a disgusted Tory Councillor about Brighton's supposed plans to "ban" the use of "Mr & Mrs". Expecting rabid unreasonableness, I ended the conversation feeling a tad sorry for her: the local paper had phoned telling her that plans and proposals were afoot (not true!) and she had reacted to what she was told - thereby creating the very story she was reacting against.

But back to Karen. My instant reaction was mild surprise. As someone who writes about trans issues regularly, I thought I knew most of the experts in the field. Who she?

I dug a bit. She runs a group for babies and small children - Musical Minis - that focuses on child development through music. She has a degree in psychology, obtained from Warwick University back in 1984 with a special focus on child psychology. After this she was a play specialist, her role again based on child psychology, on the cardiac unit at Great Ormond Street hospital until around 1988, when she set up Musical Minis. All of the above is easily obtainable through the interweb: and I was pleased also to make contact with Karen who happily confirmed this.

Protected expertise

Does this make her a child psychologist? Well, yes, no, maybe. What on earth IS a "child psychologist" anyway?

It is not, intriguingly, one of those titles "protected" in law. As a spokesperson for the British Psychological Society helpfully confirmed: "With only nine titles protected under the regulatory legislation this permits widespread use of the term 'psychologist'. Not only is there a real risk that services may be offered under similar but non-protected titles, leading to public confusion, but this also provides limited protection of the public. The Society remains concerned regarding this loophole and the absence of tighter control of the use of the title 'psychologist' and other related titles".

Ye-es. I know what they're getting at - and consumer programmes regularly make a great song and dance about self-styled "therapists" of one kind or another who mislead the public into spending vast sums of money on flaky "treatments" with no proven efficacy. On the other hand, "Rip-off Britain", presented by Angela Rippon - geddit! - recently highlighted the perils of protected designation in the food area, asking an "expert" Cornish pasty maker to make two pasties in the middle of a bridge between Devon and Cornwall.

Yep - you guessed it: the pasty made from inferior ingredients was allowed to call itself Cornish; the better of the two was not.

Thus, on what little I know of Karen, which may be more than the Mirror, I have no reason at all to diss her qualifications, experience or expertise. I'd quibble slightly with the Great Ormond Street reference: accurate, but maybe there to add weight it doesn't merit. But anyone who has spent almost thirty years working with children possesses expertise that outranks mere academicism.

She is happy her views weren't misrepresented: the Mirror, all credit, gave her readback. She genuinely feels that the pathway travelled by Ria is broadly wrong.

Expertise over experience: which to value?

How did they find her? She appears on "Expert Sources", a perfectly respectable site (I am on it myself), which allows journalists in need of expertise to do a quick and dirty search for individuals with knowledge of a topic.

Is that acceptable? Again: yes, no, maybe. In matters of psychology there is a difficulty when it comes to obtaining views: the psychologist responsible for a patient may not hold forth in public (confidentiality); but nor may a colleague practising in the same area (unprofessional).

Besides, papers as respectable as the Times have happily quoted as an "expert" on trans matters a certain Ken Zucker. That's problematic: because in terms of lifetime's work, focus and involvement, he undoubtedly has an expert voice. Its just, from the perspective of the trans community, asking Zucker for insight is on a par with asking Joseph Goebbels for insight into matters of Jewish etiquette.

Oh: he knows the area alright. He really does know the area: it's just that his conclusions are controversial and widely rejected, even by many within the professional establishment within which he works.

But back to the Mirror and Ms Sherr? Did either of them do anything wrong? Not really. Certainly not Ms Sherr, who appears to have received a mild publicity boost from a slightly off the wall request. But she answered honestly: at no time misrepresented herself.

As a journalist myself, I can sense the desperation of the reporter pulling the story together. Its there - and then the editor bounces back with a demand for "expert input". But its Friday: and all the experts are abed (or out at posh soirees).

The real problem, which takes us back, I think, to Radio 4, is an apparently insatiable social demand for "expertise", when mere humanity would do. Were the Mirror asking detailed questions about hormone regimes, Ms Sherr would have been a wholly inappropriate interviewee: but they weren't. Rather, they were asking for a view on the entire package, which she gave.

So, it's bad that Radio 4 could not find female experts to talk on the subject they did. At the end of the day, though, the real issue seems more basic: a world view, across the media, that sees expertise as necessary, when sometimes experience would do just as well. Worse, a world view that holds expertise as somehow superior, even when dealing with the day to day, to experience.