Beware of Subject Matter Experts

The “subject matter experts” come out to play after any disaster or terrorist event.  Many are well known figures and true experts and others are not.  It is important to approach what they say with a lot of caution and some skepticism.  As I tell my students, just because someone wrote it in a book and said it on the news doesn’t make it true.

In the days following 9/11 I was asked to work in the Secretary’s Command Center and later asked to be the director.  It was probably six months after 9/11 before the daily routine began to normalize.  We were still working around the clock and consultants who touted themselves as “subject matter experts” (SMEs) were coming out of the woodwork.  Not all of them were qualified and some were what my husband refers to as “lookie lous”.  They are the people that chase disasters, cause the traffic backups at car accidents, and like to see tragedy because it gives them some perverse pleasure.  One  such person managed to get himself hired by a government contractor that was associated with the Command Center.  He called the Command Center every night, and believe it or not at that time the phones were all transferred to me at night.  That meant every night he woke me up with what I can only describe as drunken craziness.  Fortunately, the Acting Assistant Secretary stepped in when he found out who the “SME” was because he recognized the name.  The calls ended.  The contractor was embarrassed and very apologetic, but it forever made me approach SMEs with some degree of caution.

In 2007 I voiced my concern about supposed SMEs in an article titled, Said Another Way: Subject Matter Experts: Facts or Fiction?  I do believe that SMEs can be valuable resources, but there remain no clear standards for what constitutes an SME or for the selection criteria.  Having worn a uniform or looking sharp in one is not one of the criteria.  Many people market themselves as SMEs and lack any actual experience.  In the article I and my coauthors guide the reader through finding, selecting, and validating an SME.  The media have an obligation to ensure their SMEs are actual experts and not just a pretty face that once wore a uniform or a former political appointee that was never an actual expert.

As a consumer of the news each of us needs to all be cautious about the information that is provided as factual.  In the era of blogs, like this one, and other forms of social media remember that all opinions are not well founded or factual.  Do a little research.  Be a little skeptical.  If something sounds unbelievable it probably is. It is a good idea to do a little fact checking of your own.

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