Who is an Expert, Anyway?

Just got done reading The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential, in Business and in Life by Leo Babauta.

Babauta writes well. And thousands of people visit his Zen Habits blog. He’s talented and smart.

But after turning the last page of his book, I’m wondering:

Who is this author? And why is he qualified to give me advice?

In his book, Babauta states that he transformed his life. By strategically changing habits—one at a time—he lost weight, stopped smoking, earned more money, and created many other new outcomes.

Well, OK. But he’s asking me to take this on faith. I have no objective evidence that it actually happened.

You might argue that I’m too doubtful or pessimistic. Again, OK. So let’s assume that Babauta did actually change his habits and transform his life.

There’s still another problem—the underlying assumption that “it worked for me and therefore it will work for you.”

Babauta’s book is full of strategies for behavior change. But have these been tested? If so, by whom? And under what conditions? In the end, how do I know that Babauta’s strategies work for anyone other than him?

Please don’t get me wrong. Many of Babauta’s ideas sound interesting and useful. I’m intrigued by his suggestions to focus on achieving one major goal at a time, and to begin habit change with simple new behaviors.

However, the only evidence to support those suggestions comes from an uncontrolled experiment conducted with a nonrandom sample of one person—the author himself.

Actually, no experiment was conducted. What we get from the book is a series of personal anecdotes—that is to say, no evidence at all.

Any competent scientist will tell you that anecdotes are interesting and important. And for many reasons, they don’t count as evidence. (That’s a subject for a separate post.)

Ultimately I’m arguing for a delicate balance of creative and critical thinking. The trick is to remain open-minded and skeptical at the same time: Stay open to new ideas. Then ask for evidence.

No matter what they write about, authors of nonfiction books are selling their expertise. They offer ideas, facts, instructions, and examples.

And as readers, we have the right to ask: How do you know it works?

Image by HikingArtist, Flickr Creative Commons and hikingartist.com