do experts really exist?

I don't have a PhD in history. I wasn't even a history major in college. So what gives me the expertise to write a book about history? Perfectly legitimate question. And it's one I've been thinking about a lot lately.

Over the last couple weeks I've been knee-deep in the weeds of history scholarship. I've come to find that historians, by-and-large, can't agree about virtually anything that happened in the distant past.

Take one of the countless debates about Alexander the Great -  the nature of his relationship with Hephaestion. Some historians are convinced they had a romantic relationship, while others are virtually sure they were just good friends. And scholars on both sides have perfectly good evidence to back up their stance.

So what's the takeaway?

History is not a "hard" science. Unlike the study of chemistry or physics, it doesn't make predictions that can be verified in a lab. If anything, it presents possibilities. Possibilities about what the past may have been like. But that's about as definitive as it gets - especially when you're dealing with the ancient world.

Have you ever had the experience of disagreeing with your friends about how a recent event took place? You say it happened this way, and they say it happened that way. Even though all of you witnessed something happen first-hand, you can't get your story straight.

The human memory is far from a stable window into the past. Our memories are always changing. 

If a group of eye-witnesses can't agree on which person they saw rob a bank a week earlier, how are we supposed to figure out what Alexander the Great may have said or done, when the best accounts we have were written hundreds of years after his death? We can't. We can only try to assign relative probabilities. It was more likely he said this than that, etc.

True experts absolutely exist. They are masters of their trade and can demonstrate their skill on command. An amateur has virtually no chance of out-performing them. This kind of mastery is most evident in competitions like sports, chess, etc. But some fields aren't well-suited to this kind of mastery. There is too much ambiguity. Too much interpretation. Not enough objective measurement. 

Ok fine, so what's the point?

The point is there's no reason to disqualify yourself because you don't have the "right" credentials. I would argue that one of the reasons PhDs exist in the first place is to convince those who don't have them to stay on the sidelines. It helps the "experts" maintain a monopoly on their subject. 

Let's say a PhD takes 5 years to get. Is someone who just earned their PhD more of an expert than another person who spends 5 years studying the same material independently? Some would say yes. They would say that the PhD student has been mentored and critiqued by other experts, whereas the independent researcher may not have been.  

But the independent researcher has advantages too. He hasn't been indoctrinated by those same experts into familiar ways of thinking. He also clearly isn't studying the material for the purpose of getting a degree or a job. It takes a genuine, deep-rooted interest to keep a person studying for 5 without the external incentives, structures, and guidance that PhD students get. 

There's no right or wrong answer here. It's all about the individual. Some PhD's are true masters of their fields, others aren't. The same goes for amateurs.

Experts clearly exist. They are all around us. But most of the gatekeepers we see exist only in our minds.