5 Tips To Differentiate Credible Experts From False Ones
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In The Age of False Prophets, Your Trust is Vulnerable: How To Differentiate Credible Experts From False Ones

The term “thought-leader” recently came up chatting with a few respected colleagues. Without hesitation everyone reeled at those two words and quickly disassociated themselves from it. Even though many would describe these particular individuals as thought-leaders for them the term elicits disgust.

One reason is the ubiquitous use of the term. People tend to apply the term to anyone they believe have strong opinions about something. For better or worse, in the internet-era anyone can blog, vlog, Tweet, Facebook Live, Periscope, or YouTube and claim to be an expert when most are not. At best, all they  have are unsubstantiated opinions.

This got us thinking about how would an average person differentiate between someone that is an actual ‘thought-leader’, or substantive expert, from those whom are great pretenders (or as young’uns refer to as posers). Those are the dangerous ones.

L&D’s dirty little secret is that there are more than a few so-called 'thought-leaders' that are clearly false prophets. But whether it's Learning and Development or any other profession, false prophets will always exist. And the reason they exist is usually driven by ego. What is concerning, however, is that Learning and Development experts get permission to play with people's minds.

Regretfully, it’s “buyer beware” when you engage with any expert for knowledge and insight. Some groups, like TED, thoroughly vet their experts. But whether it's TED talks or any other platform, it's your responsibility to be judicious and critical. False prophets feed off the confidence of susceptible audiences in the same way a con-man gains the confidence of victims.

The good news is that it's relatively easy to identify false prophets when you know what to look for. Here’s how to identify and differentiate credible experts from false ones.

1. Watch For The False Prophet's Telling Elements

Alternative facts is a manufactured lie. The top 3 telling elements of a false prophet include:

  1. False prophets are masters of illusion.
    What ever their oratory they build what appears to be a credible case by manipulating facts to their advantage. But scratch the surface and you discover a straw house. Their claims hold little substance.
  2. Often subtle, a false prophet fails to anchor their thoughts to a credible source.
    Some hints include not referencing a credible body of knowledge or failing to validate the concept through verifiable evidence. Alternatively, a credible expert follows characteristics similar to scientific principles and will proudly demonstrate their process and present evidence.
  3. Often proving a concept is straightforward, but not all of the time.
    In these unclear instances the prophet capitalizes on the audience’s ignorance. Similar to a magician, a prophet consciously exploits this weakness and vulnerability. This is why you, as the 'buyer', must have some foundational awareness of the topic.

Take, for example, training return on investment. The concept appears valid primarily because it uses the term ROI. Dig deeper and you discover it explicitly violates fundamental accounting guidelines and financial principles. Violating these core business rules easily discredits training ROI. Again, it’s essential to be critical, judicious, and business-literate.

2. Watch For Fake News

Just because someone publishes an article doesn’t necessarily mean they actually know the topic well or is even a reliable source. Most L&D publications are credible, but they are also under tremendous pressure to produce content. Even though they are diligent in selecting credible authors they are also fallible.

Also, some publications are highly nepotistic. They tend to cherry-pick authors that align with the publications expertise and reject others that challenge their position. Even so, their authors are usually credible but the publication, unfortunately, demonstrates a credibility weakness showing bias. Essentially, you read what they want you to read.

More worrisome are blogs and other web-mediums that come across as a valid resource. This is fertile playground for the false prophet. The strong opinions of these individuals come across as credible. But be weary. These prophets find their way to mainstream L&D publications fooling even the most experienced editors.

Publishing and writing for credible publications is a privilege. Credible authors validate and source their work. Even for us. After writing hundreds of articles, we never claim we’re the source or originators of thought. We do, however, push readers to apply and critically assess concepts through the sources we present.

3. Check The “Best Before Date”

Unlike true experts, false prophets hate to reinvent. They regurgitate the same concepts with minor modifications to present a fresh but false perspective. We refer to this as passing the ‘best before date’.

There is, however, a hidden danger. Some concepts must evolve over time while others remain relatively constant. Revisiting the ROI example, financial principles tend to remain constant. Attempting to reinvent ROI for training, however, violates established financial guidelines. While Training ROI may be a false concept, the rules behind financial ROI remains valid and constant.

False prophets change their concepts “best before date” in the same way a grocery store relabels food dates to unsuspecting buyers. Once you recognize what’s happening it is hard to not notice, especially when you participate in a variety of conferences. Check the best before date of those you follow just as you would for your dairy products.

4. Avoid Blind Faith

Good parents teach their kids to question things. This is essential advice within our knowledge-driven world and reality. False prophets, however, leverage human trust. Once trust is gained they know it’s difficult for a person to admit they are wrong.

Blind faith people are everywhere and unsuspectingly appear when someone challenges a prophet’s concept they believe is valid. It’s not their fault. Admitting deception, even when proof exists to the contrary, goes against trustful human nature. This occurs regularly because no one wants to look foolish.

Avoid blind faith by not taking any concept at face value. Question. Challenge. Be critical. Doing so will make you a better learner and mitigate the deception risk.

5. Watch For ‘Coat-Tailing’

False prophets feed off the work of others without crediting their source of inspiration. This is pervasive, offensive to recognized experts, and insults the intelligence of readers and audiences alike.

A recent instance took us by surprise. What some consider a credible expert repackaged an established business concept falsely relabeling it as their own. It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, however, this prophet would gain more credibility if they credited their source. This, fundamentally, is hidden plagiarism. It’s unacceptable and unfair to the originator who is the actual expert.

There isn’t much you can do to stem the tide of false prophets except to be aware of their existence and recognize when you come across one. More importantly never forget that it's Learning and Development’s responsibility to instill accurate knowledge in others. Be vigilant when acquiring and disseminating knowledge.

While false prophets seem to abound there are many more credible L&D experts around. Seek out experts who encourage critical-thought and will challenge their own work. Just please; don’t call them “thought-leaders”. Rather, call them thought-provokers since they want to make you think. So question. Challenge. Be critical. They’ll appreciate it.

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