Monday, December 22, 2008

The Physicist and Economist: a parable for the Information Profession?

Another PhD student I know (this one does economics) told me an interesting joke (parable?) about her profession recently on expertise. I may not be relating the story perfectly, but I think I have the main points right. In sum, I wonder why people think they are information experts when they have only a weak understanding of how to use a handful of tools.

A physicist who recently won the Nobel Prize decides to set up a table in Central Park to answer questions and help people learn about physics. Many line up to ask and many walk away amazed and enlightened to know more about the field. After a day of answering such questions, he returns to his university and describes his activities to some other professors.

An economist hears the story and decides to go and answer questions as well. The economist has a long line of people come to discuss economic answers. Almsot everybody walked away disgruntled, muttering about how the economist didn't know what s/he is talking about. Everybody has a view on economic matters and so they don't respect the expertise of experts.


Everybody thinks they know how to find information they need through free search engines like Yahoo! or Google. How many people understand how these services work? How listings are managed and arguably manipulated? Is there an understanding of how do different research efforts (e.g. research a candidate's voting record vs. find a shop that sells a given product etc)? How do we build that respect?

There are a few ways of doing this. The classic and possibly best way is to demonstrate our skills and make sure that our results are recognized (i.e. marketing = "Doing good and being recognized for doing it"). I've also heard that librarians have to pass exams to practice in some countries (e.g. the Philippines) - that might be a possibility too.

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