What does it mean to be an expert?

The experts are likely exhausted. Having seen the amazing collection of expertise on iNat, it is easy to see how the expectations of people/the masses/non-experts become tiring and time consuming, even in a friendly environment like here. It is not that they are inadequate or unwilling, but that the demands on them are too numerous.
This is exacerbated by people that are unwilling to use logic and look for information for themselves - the internet has trained us to look for easy answers (and maybe also education has failed us). Another detracting factor for experts giving their input, is that on the internet and social media there are people that will deride and attack knowledge and expertise because they do not agree or because they find it condescending.
The iNaturalist community seems to avoid this issue, and I hypothesize it is because people are here to learn and to share, not to be right.

And I would argue there is really no requirement for an expert to be a decent human being, though we would like this to be true. Thankfully iNat tends to attract those that like to share their knowledge :)

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This exactly makes me so excited to see where science will be in a few decades. I also am interested to see how the internet and the availability of information will continue to foster and enable the development of non-academically trained expertise. My expertise is not in biology or taxonomy, but I am amazed at the resources I can find on esoteric taxonomy if I dig a little.

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Biodiversity Heritage Library has been absolutely transformational on esoteric taxonomy issues–even more so when you couple it to the widespread digitization of plant specimens, particularly types. Getting that information disseminated out of a comparatively small number of repositories means that even a comparatively ordinary person, with some capacity for attention to detail, can contribute productively to the compilation of definitive species lists and that sort of thing.

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I agree. I study fungi and ID what I can and sometimes it is a best guess based on checking my books and papers by those I consider to be experts. What frustrates me on iNat is an ID that is clearly wrong, usually from CV.
When I correct such an ID I take the time to explain why and add links with species information. My opinion is that just throwing out a name is not instructive. This is time consuming and I’m only dealing with fungi in Oregon and low hanging fruit at that!
Can understand why experts will pick and choose.

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I hadn’t known about the BHL - that is very cool. It would be great if the digitization of university libraries and collections would be uploaded to BHL or a similar platform. The work of BHL to seek permission to make copyrighted works available under CC licenses is invaluable.

Thank you!

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I totally agree. If I am disagreeing with an ID, I try to always give an explanation I keep draft iNat journal pages to store common responses and references for things I identify commonly. I really, really appreciate when someone answers my questions on IDs though :)

Fungi have got to be a difficult niche! I feel like the computer vision and people (myself included) generally aren’t very good with IDing fungi. I think I’d get tired real quick of providing explanations for corrections to computer vision (I would almost recommend against this for CV IDs, in consideration of your sanity…)

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The computer vision suggestions aren’t so bad. They at least serve the purpose of helping even someone with no knowledge come up with an initial guess. And it is at least accurate enough to get the trivial cases right most of the time and get within the right ballpark (maybe class, order, or family at best rather than genus and species) on slightly trickier ones. Often a little refinement from a user with some basic knowledge can sort out most of the egregiously wrong suggestions, and other identifiers can help from there. It’s not really meant to take the place of an expert identifier, just to help point the majority of the massive amounts of observations received on iNat in the right general direction.

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I agree with you.
Sometimes users rely on it even when they know the correct id! They write in the description it is X and then choose something from suggestions, totally wrong! Makes me wonder why. It adds to the field of how a true expert should behave, when he should believe other authorities on their word or should he do it at all?

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That’s a double-edged sword, though. When I read about the scientists of the past, who perhaps began publishing papers in their teen years, I pondered the question, where did I go wrong, that I did not achieve that, despite growing up in a (relatively) privileged position? But I concluded that it isn’t that I went wrong, but that more of the basic discoveries had yet to be made in their time. What could be discovered 150 years ago with the equivalent of a kid’s chemistry set of today has been, well, already discovered now. As the tools you mention become more widely available, it may indeed set off a new wave of youthful, cutting edge discoverers; but once they make the easiest discoveries that those tools enable, that wave will end and science will be back in the well-equipped, well-funded laboratories again.

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Just finished reading. Brought clarity to some of my lurking unformed thoughts on science and expertise. I quite enjoyed it.

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The computer vision is pretty fantastic for North American birds and a surprising number of moths and butterflies. It is fairly atrocious at fungi as far as I can tell -probably the reason it drives @henryy1355 crazy. But the more information we give CV the more it learns!

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Yes, I often feel like you say, it was so much easier in the 19th century. One of the difficult aspects of making a discovery is knowing when it really is a discovery. There is so much literature to check to be sure no one has already described it.

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I guess I don’t see this as a double-edged sword, so much as positive forward motion. Making analytical devices more portable and more accessible can only push science into more hands and into more remote locations. You can’t always take samples back with you from remote locations, and in many cases you wouldn’t want to. But it could help you understand an ecosystem if you could analyze/measure/document that organism, biome, or solution in its natural habitat.
For naturalists who may prefer to identify, but not dissect or remove a lifeform, more tools to enable this in the field would improve their understanding and identification.

In terms of youthful discoveries, I would frame this in the lens of history. It may feel like discovery was easier back then, but I am sure that in 150 years people will say the same thing about now. Currently you can still wander through remote areas (and not remote areas) and find new species. There are oceans of creatures we have yet to understand, document, or likely even imagine. And we are only just barely starting to suss the edges of bacterial diversity with genomic techniques that don’t require culturing.

Following on @jhbratton’s comment above, iNaturalist can really help bring together the amateurs with the observations and the experts with the literature knowledge, in order to identify new discoveries. Some examples from a few years ago: https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/08/06/488830352/the-app-that-aims-to-gamify-biology-has-amateurs-discovering-new-species

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Heh. Like some others, I think of expertise as a differential between individuals with greater and lesser knowledge. I conduct local “plant walks” as an amateur botanist, with graduate academic training though never employed for it. I’ve found that being an expert is a matter of picking my audience. Even when I’m fully confident of my topic, humility requires me to tell my plant walkers, “trust, but verify”. Thankfully, there’s often someone with greater skill on hand to keep me honest!

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Very much indeed, same as @henryy1355 above. While I am still thinking over it, perhaps the following short sentence on that Feynman’s talk on good science is particularly immediate and striking : "Utter honesty, I suspect, means not just telling the truth, but caring about the truth."

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The problem is when the CV tries to do things like insects or plants where there are large numbers of similar looking things, gets started IDing things in the wrong family, and then those are reinforced when no one corrects them (as is often the case because there are few experts and they can’t always be IDed with certainty from photos like these). As an example, I found a new invasive planthopper recently and went to see if there were any other records outside its known range. All but one was false, though that one was itself apparently a new record.

This is a big reason I wish it would be a little stricter with geographic constraints, at least saying something like “are you SURE this is it, because it’s not normally found in your area”.

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One definition I’ve read: An expert is anybody giving a talk while 500+ miles from home.

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Nah, too many charlatans for that to be true.

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For the record, I’ve often wondered what I could accomplish with a mass spectrometer in the basement, however.

And by extension,
“What! You promised him the $250?” I cried quite taken aback.
“Why not? It’s his business. If I had a toothache and there happened to be a dentist aboard, I
wouldn’t expect him to extract my tooth for nothing.”
[…]
“Or was it that we were dealing with an expert, who, for some undisclosed reason, craved anonymity?” [and no money in this… very unusual case] (S Zweig)

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