At the beginning of every manufactured crisis, omnipresent Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) return from dormancy and begin pontificating on regional and cultural geography of an area or country in crisis. When a crisis ends, the SMEs return to dormancy and wait for their next opportunity.
SMEs that an average person may notice in media belong to one of the following groups. In the first group are genuine SMEs, a minority with a consistent record of measurable abilities and expertise. In the second group are opportunistic dilettantes and charlatans willing to make any outrageous and unverifiable claims to be in spotlight. The last echelon is a conglomerate of “true believers” in their own analytical abilities who repeatedly continue to shower the public with a repertoire of substandard analyses.
The overwhelming majority of SMEs covering cultural geographic affairs come from the last two groups. They easily overshadow rare instances in which the general public—particularly in the United States, where it is most needed—can be exposed to genuine SMEs’ contributions to the knowledge of regions and topics related to the latest crises.
[Governmental organizations, Military, and the Intelligence organizations are not immune to influence from such SMEs either.]
Cycle of Crisis
This crisis season we are witnessing a rapid advent of experts on Venezuelan and Latin American affairs. In the not so distant past, analyses on Ukraine, all things Iraq (including the Yazidis trapped on a hill), Yemen, Syria’s Turkmen Mountain, Vladimir Putin, Catalonia, Saxony, and my favorite, Afghanistan, were present all over media.
Degradation of public knowledge about international affairs has significant roots in the proliferation of and impact by non-genuine SMEs. This is extremely dangerous, because it creates a skewed picture of real conditions on the ground and leads the public and decision makers to support counterproductive actions; i.e., endless military interventions. For example, I personally know one of the very significant—yet unregretful—contributors to the propaganda that greatly influenced public opinion for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Years later, despite being proven wrong, this expert’s opinion did not deviate from the original viewpoint, while hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American servicepersons were dead. This is just one among the numerous instances in which I became painfully aware of such attitude.
Figure 1. Non-genuine SMEs’ expertise is often as reliable, and trustworthy, as is this temperature meter display in South Dakota for the latest crisis pertaining to the climate change issue. (Photograph was taken by the author.)
Charlatans and true believers share their disdain for genuine SMEs, and try to eliminate them from participating in public discourse. The charlatans are aware of their own limitations and absence of genuine expertise; hence, they do not want to be exposed as fakes in a debate. The true believers, certain in their own superiority, “know” that anyone who disagrees with them is intellectually and analytically inadequate; therefore, such people should be removed from the stage.
[Both groups also use colorful language and all sorts of labeling to describe genuine SMEs neither which have any relevance to the person’s actual subject matter knowledge.]
Fake experts have been rather successful thus far. An ordinary citizen seldom hears from a genuine expert today, because in many instances a genuine SMEs’ research and opinion will not support blanket stereotypes created for and distributed by the mainstream media.
[I clearly remember a “suggestion” that came from a general officer’s staff that the atmospherics field reports about Afghanistan’s population should focus on positive; i.e., they should ignore and avoid publishing the population’s negative perceptions and feelings. How about that for supporting counterinsurgency efforts! Of course, such reports can easily end up in the hands of journalists who then present the American public with an inaccurate picture of the real situation. This, in turn, shapes public opinion, which the opportunistic politicians carefully observe and make decisions based on skewed reality.]
In order to try to minimize the damage from the cultural geographic expert charlatans and true believers, allow me to provide a check list—with linked suggestions to my other essays in brackets—of how to recognize them in a public arena or a professional workplace, be that within government, military, or private sector. Although not bulletproof, the following list should assist in identifying fake SMEs and, I hope, eventually minimize the damage and disservice they have been providing for quite some time.
- They refer to themselves as Subject Matter Experts
- They rarely talk in specifics about their own relevant work, of which they tend to have very little if any, while exclusively focusing on criticizing other people’s well documented expertise
- When they criticize other people’s work and professional viewpoints, they always respond in general terms, unsubstantiated with facts, and rely on clichés and stereotypes
- They struggle to articulate and apply relevant terms and concepts
- Their field work experience relative to subject matter expertise in particular is minimal or nonexistent; e.g., military and intelligence experts can claim in-country cultural geographic expertise and field work—from a deployment in which many have never left their base except to travel to another base and back—yet rarely mention the specifics about their field work
- They manipulate visual data to confuse an audience and act superior to them, instead of providing clear and understandable explanations that to which the audience can relate
- They do not question the establishment’s actions even when the establishment changes
- They believe that their narrow content expertise is methodologically and geographically transferable; i.e. today’s expert on Syria is tomorrow’s expert on Venezuela]
- They do not see value in visiting places and people who live there, but claim expertise about those places from a distance
- When discussing cultural geographic regions, they focus on a small number of minute cultural differences rather than explaining an overwhelming number of cultural similarities, frequently parroting mainstream media messages; i.e., “Russian versus Ukrainian speakers in Ukraine.” While doing so, they tend to elaborate on all things cultural in a political context, including issues of space and boundaries, which are two key issues in any conflict.
Recognizing snake oil salesmen in the form of regional and cultural experts is not easy, because there are so many of them. It is, however, possible to develop much better analytical skills–a “BS meter”–to identify their agenda and not buy into their message. This is incredibly important for building an informed citizenry who can then make the right decisions for the sake of themselves and, by extension, for people in other countries and regions. By so doing, they can help shrink, rather than expand, the seemingly never-ending continuum of manufactured crises, so greatly supported by the “SMEs.”