2012: The Year of the Amateur

One of the topics that seemed to keep cropping up in the news this year was the growing power of the amateur in public life. This trend is not necessarily new but it has been gaining momentum as modern technologies make it easier for the average person to create things (i.e. books, music, videos or physical products) and deliver them to a wider audience. Combine this with an anemic economic recovery and you have the perfect environment for people striking out on their own.

American history is full of passionate amateurs who ignored societal rules or overcame an entrenched bureaucracy to introduce new and exciting ideas to our culture. We admire the business entrepreneur, the garage band, and the inventor working out of his basement. They are some of our most cherished icons and they speak to our desire to make it big on our own terms. This attitude finds its purest expression in the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethic, which encourages individuals to bypass specialists altogether and seek out knowledge and expertise on their own.

There are some problems with this relentless individualism, however. Taken to the extreme this skeptical attitude toward the professional “elite” can lead to the distrust — and perhaps even disdain — of true experts. People now diagnose their own medical conditions, create their own legal documents, homeschool their own children, and regularly deny the validity of scientifically accepted facts. In an article which discusses recent changes in the distribution of information, Larry Sanger talks about how the aggregation of public opinion on the Internet (what he calls the “politics of knowledge”) has eroded our very understanding and respect for reliable information:

“With the rejection of professionalism has come a widespread rejection of expertise — of the proper role in society of people who make it their life’s work to know stuff.”

Everybody’s an expert now, in the sense that we can all do our own research online and come to our own conclusions about any topic under the sun. It’s the perfect democratization of knowledge … except most of us aren’t really experts in the traditional sense. Experts typically possess a very deep understanding of a subject and are aware of its subtleties and nuances. The average person may only scratch the surface of a topic and can miss important details because they literally don’t know what they don’t know. Nobody’s seriously going to call in an amateur cardiac surgeon if they’ve got a heart problem, so why is it so easy to dismiss the work of professionals in other fields?

Before I’m accused of being elitist, let’s lay down a framework for discussing the differences between amateurs, experts, and professionals. In an article published by Wharton, Kendall Whitehouse draws the distinction between “knowledgeable enthusiasts” (amateurs) and professionals based on the editorial process (this is in a journalistic context):

“Carefully checked sources and consistent editorial guidelines are key differences between most professional and amateur content … The latter brings quickness and a personal viewpoint and the former provides analysis and consistent quality.”

While I certainly agree that results are important, there are plenty of situations where amateurs deliver results that are as good as those of professionals. In fact, the DIY community frequently uses the term amateur expert and notes that the word “amateur” stands in contrast to the commercial motivation (i.e. financial reward) of the professional, not their level of skill. Following this reasoning, a professional is not necessarily an expert, they are simply someone who happens to get paid for what they do. An amateur can still be an expert based on their skills and abilities, they just don’t get paid.

If the amateur/professional word pairing makes sense, we still need an antonym of “expert” to refer to deficiencies in skills. In this case, I would suggest the term “novice,” which is defined as someone who has very little training or experience. Essentially this means that a thorough discussion of experts and amateurs needs to account for both a financial dimension (amateur vs. professional) and a skill or experience dimension (novice vs. expert). I’ve created a quick quad chart to visualize these relationships:

If we return to our previous discussion, we can now see that the rejection of expertise does not necessarily represent support for the plucky amateur, it represents a shift toward glorification of the naive. Sure, there are times when novices can bring a fresh perspective to established practices (punk rockers and other creative outsiders come to mind). But in 2012, the growing regularity of this superficial approach led to a few very interesting — and very public — failures.

The first example is the unauthorized attempt by an elderly parishioner to restore a painting in a Spanish church over the summer. The tragi-comic results of Cecilia Gimenez’s fresco fiasco were all over the news in August and it was pretty clear to everyone that her work was a massive failure. Using our new definition, she is clearly a novice (unskilled) amateur (unpaid).

Ms. Gimenez later complained that, with all the attention that her botched restoration of Ecce Homo had gotten, she should have received some compensation for her work. This would have made her a quasi-professional, I guess, but I don’t suppose there are a lot of museums out there who’d be willing to hand over their cultural treasures to her care.

(To create your own Ecce Homo restoration, check out this site.)

The second example was the National Football League’s use of replacement referees during the early part of the 2012 season. With the regular officials locked out due to contracts negotiations, NFL management brought in referees from semi-professional football leagues, lower college divisions and even high schools in hopes that nobody would notice the difference. They noticed.

Throughout the preseason, a series of bad penalties, missed calls, and even blown coin tosses made it clear that the new guys were not ready for prime time. As the regular season progressed and the mistakes accumulated, demands for the return of the regular refs grew louder. Finally, two days after the outcome of a game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks was decided by a controversial call, an agreement between the NFL and NFL Referees Association was reached. (Photo below from the Washington Post.)

NFL management clearly misjudged the level of skill needed officiate a pro football game and how quickly the replacement refs would be exposed for what they were: novice professionals. This isn’t to say that some of these guys couldn’t have developed into perfectly good officials over time. But such a high-profile occupation doesn’t really lend itself to on-the-job training.

Not all skilled workers are lucky enough to have their expertise hit the bottom line so obviously. Writing in an article about the NFL lockout, Paul Weber noted that”

“Attitudes about expertise can … make it a risky hand to play in a negotiation, depending on who’s on the other side of the table. The idea that no one is irreplaceable and there’s always a guy next in line willing to do the job run deep in America. Professing expertise can also bring on suspicions of elitism and scratch an itch to knock someone down a peg.”

This inclination can be seen clearly in my third example of the year, which involves several high-profile political pundits who insisted that Mitt Romney would win the 2012 Presidential election. When statistician Nate Silver of the New York Times began predicting an Obama victory back in June, many conservative commentators questioned both his methodology and his masculinity (offending comments have since been removed).

Despite Silver’s clear statements regarding the laws of probability, conservatives just could not get past the fact that most of their favored polls (University of Colorado, Rasmussen) showed a neck-and-neck race. In the end, the elections validated the statistical approach that Silver used and forced many people to rethink their reliance on ‘unskewed’ polls or Karl Rove’s math skills.

Although the animosity toward Silver subsided after the election, I have my doubts that his success will lead to a sudden surge in respect for professional experts. There seems to be a natural tendency in our culture to distrust anyone who stakes a claim to the truth — especially if we don’t like what they’re saying.

The most vociferous of these battles are those fought between journalists and bloggers but there are plenty of other amateur/professional pairings that set off fireworks. In a recent book review on Slate, professional writer Doree Shafrir openly wonders why anyone would be satisfied with being an amateur. To her, the only path to gratification and validation is through professional success:

“The idea of being an office drone by day and by night being, say, an amateur astronomer is completely bizarre to me. Why wouldn’t you just be an astronomer?”

To which a wise reader responds:

“The sad fact is that many of us simply aren’t good enough at what we really love to do it for a living … Or we were good, but unlucky. Or unwilling to sacrifice our families. Or we’re still living down the consequences of a previous failure.”

Amateur interests are a way for someone to gain new skills, test drive a new career, or just participate in a community despite the fact that they aren’t collecting a paycheck. The amateur/professional spectrum doesn’t just exist at the endpoints, it runs the gamut from hobbyists and tinkerers to semi-professionals and professionals. Back in 2004, a report titled The Pro-Am Revolution by Charles Leadbeater (a frequent contributor to TED), suggested that improved tools and new methods of collaboration are helping to create a breed of amateurs that hold themselves to professional standards and can even produce significant discoveries.

In the field of astronomy, these “demi-experts” had an amazing year. Recent developments in computer technology and digital imaging have allowed amateur astronomers to explore regions of the universe never before seen by non-scientists. Plus, the sky is so vast (and observation time so restricted) that serious amateurs can help professional astronomers simply by observing unrecorded (or underrecorded) stellar objects. Significant amateur finds in 2012 included: new comets; new exoplanets; explosions on Jupiter; a planet with four suns; a detailed map of Ganymede; mysterious clouds on Mars; and even previously undiscovered photos from the Hubble telescope.

While these examples make it clear that amateurs can contribute meaningfully to many fields, it is less obvious how society can avoid the pitfalls associated with the well-intended novice. The key, I think, is for everyone — from novice to expert, amateur to professional — to recognize their own limitations. Businesses want expertise but they don’t always want to pay for it. People want to do what they love but they don’t always have the time or skills to make it their career. A novice who tries to recreate the work of an expert will almost certainly fail but an amateur with passion and drive can spur innovations beyond the abilities of entrenched professionals.

These labels are fluid. All experts were once beginners and all professionals were once unpaid. People progress from novice to expert in distinct stages but they can also move from expert to novice if they change careers. In today’s job market, it even seems possible that some of us could apply all of these labels to ourselves at once. To paraphrase author Richard Bach, a professional is simply an amateur who didn’t quit.

Further Reading:

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