Do you believe experts still matter?

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Do experts even matter anymore? Not in an era where people want simple solutions to complex problems, no. But if you’re a newcomer, they should matter lots. Nathan Hill shares his thoughts...

Has the new generation of fishkeeping decided to give up on experience? Furthermore, are we looking at an era of embracing disinformation? Sometimes, what we need to hear most is what we want to hear last. But it’s important that we do indeed listen.

The death of experience

Here’s a bold statement. To many modern aquarists, experience counts for nothing. Controversial? I think not.

I mean that there seems to be bafflingly little regard given to fishkeeping authorities. All too often, when a fishkeeper makes a hobby-related enquiry, they plump for whichever reply is the one they wanted to hear, and not necessarily the right one.

An expert aquarist offering advice based on a lifetime of experience will be disregarded in favour of a quick fix. It is odd for me to see aquarists I hold in the highest esteem for their achievements and knowledge being openly disregarded, even at times besmirched, on public fora.

Who’s an expert?

The problem is that ‘expert aquarist’ isn’t a protected term. To be called a doctor, there are formal qualifications required, a system of checks and balances, so that not anyone off of the street can rock up and claim to be one (though cases have been known). But you don’t even need to own an aquarium to call yourself an aquarist.

How do you sort the good ones from the bad ones? At a glance, you don’t.

To be an aquatic expert requires a mix of competence, skill, knowledge and experience. As a new hobbyist, it’s hard to vet who has that.

It can be tempting to go down the route of ‘truth by consensus’. If you find a source of information — say, a forum or YouTube channel — with thousands of folks singing its praises, it can be easy to think it’s reliable. Alas, many a charlatan ‘guru’ has made their fortunes by duping the masses — and the way they often do that is by giving people erroneous but simple solutions to complex life problems.

Popularity is not always a reliable indicator of competence. But offering hard to swallow advice might be.

My golden rule

In the 1300’s William of Ockham came up with a rule of logic that we hold to today: Occam’s razor. In essence it states ‘don’t look for a complex explanation where a simple one will do’.

However, fishkeeping explanations are often complex, because fishkeeping itself is complex. When presented with an aquatic problem, it’s all too often the case that the simplest explanation is the wrong one. When investigating Whitespot, it’s easy to say ‘the fish got ill, add some medicine’. But we also know that Whitespot will be perpetuated by poor water quality, water chemistry, bullying, temperature, chronic stress, and so on. When you get Whitespot, the explanation why is longwinded, and the solution equally so, involving testing and appraisal of tank mates, or husbandry.

I propose we start something called ‘Aquam’s razor’ for 2020 — look for a complex explanation if you’re being offered a choice between that and a simple one.

Look to the person who is offering hardship and suffering, not a few drops of some magic potion. Chances are, that person will be conveying a lifetime of their own experiences in that situation, covering every variable they themselves have encountered. That person might — just might — be an expert.