Can the Experts Be Wrong? Or, The Limits of Expertise

In the last Horseblog I talked about how to tell if a writer or filmmaker had not done his horse homework. There are plenty of examples of this, and commenters provided their own lists of favorites. Much fun was had by all.

Now here’s a new question.

When you do your research, and talk to experts, is it possible for them to be wrong?

Here’s an example. One of the sidelines by which I keep the hay bill paid is to serve as a consultant for authors who want someone to check the horse-related segments of their work. That makes me an Expert, too. So the caveats I’ll present here apply as much to me as to anyone else who hangs out the shingle.

At any rate, one author has also been running her horse scenes past a friend who is a rider, owns a horse, shows that horse–and thinks some of those scenes are heavily “romanticized” and implausible. Whereas I disagree. I think they are plausible, and there’s no need to claim it’s magic or wave the fantasy wand in order to make them true.

Who’s right?

Well, I say I am, of course. And so does the other consultant. We’re both basing our responses on our own experience, along with our research and our background–our education as horse people. One has not experienced these things. The other has. The one who hasn’t experienced them maintains that they don’t exist, can’t exist. “Horses aren’t like that. You’re anthropomorphizing.” The other says, well, yes, they are, and no, you’re not.

What does this mean for the writer who is trying to get it right?

It means the same thing that applies to any other research the writer will do, in whatever field she needs for the book. She has to consider the source, weigh the options, and decide what works best for the book–then be prepared to get letters that say “You got it wrong!!!” right next to letters that say, “Wow, did you get that right!”

It’s all about making educated choices. Which means talking with educated sources, checking out different sides of a question, and learning as much as you can about the subject.

When it comes to horses, there are all sorts of variations on training methods. It’s not just the range from harsh to gentle, from beating the crap out of the horse to bringing it along softly and slowly and avoiding conflict. It’s the attitude the trainer brings to the method, too: how he approaches the horse, and how he perceives it as he does so.

Even the gentlest trainer might disagree with another gentle trainer about how the horse thinks and how it interacts with humans. Many horse people believe that a horse is a fairly unintelligent animal, very Pavlovian in how he reacts to the world (see spooky thing, run from spooky thing), without emotions as humans understand them. He doesn’t think in any measurable sense, he just reacts according to his instincts. He certainly doesn’t bond with humans the way dogs do. He’s a lovely creature, beautiful to watch, and the horse person may love him, but he’s limited in how much (if at all) he can reciprocate. If he does seem to show affection, he’s doing it for the cookies in your pocket–i.e. he’s food-motivated rather than emotionally motivated.

Then there’s the other kind of horse person. This one sees the horse as quite intelligent and perfectly capable of forming emotional bonds. They won’t be exactly the same as those a dog forms–a dog lives in the house with the human, and as a pack animal and a predator is closer to the human in terms of psychology and motivation. The horse is a herd animal and a prey animal (as I’ve said often before) and for the most part it’s not practicable for it to live in a human habitation; its interactions with the human will therefore be, in the vast majority of cases, on the horse’s turf.

This puts the human at somewhat of a disadvantage right at the start–and one way the human may cope with this is by denying the horse’s intelligence or its ability to bond with a human. The human controls the animal by downplaying the animal’s intelligence (since  intelligence is the one advantage the human has over this large, powerful creature).

But to the human who disagrees with this approach, the horse comes across quite differently. He accommodates the human’s physical weakness, accepts her intellectual strength, and perceives her as a part of his herd, usually as a dominant member of it–which is important because subordinate horses get thumped early and often, and humans can get killed by a bite or kick that would barely leave a mark on a horse. The horse is capable not only of forming a bond with the human, but of forming a very strong one–the kind that inspired horsewomen Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey to create their sf-fantasy versions of human/animal bonding.  Dragons and Companions are both based on real-world horses and their connections with their riders.

Romanticized? Well, yes. Dragons, after all, and complete two-way telepathy, not to mention teleportation, are getting well into the realm of the imagination. Likewise snow-white not-really-horses with silver hooves that chime wherever they go. But the emotional part has a definite real-world basis. For a particular kind of horse person, not only do humans relate strongly to the horse, the horse reciprocates.

This will come across as fantasy to the horse person who has not experienced this or who has his reasons for not believing it exists. He will maintain firmly that it’s impossible. But for every one of him, there’s another who will tell you, “Yes, that’s how it is. It’s real; it exists.”

As a writer, especially if you’re writing fantasy, you can take your pick of approaches. You can even put the two in the same book. One of the most popular plots is that of the hero/ine who does what everybody else believes is impossible. In a world that regards horses strictly as transportation, a person who sees the horse as a person will be a definite outlier–and if the horse turns out to be something magical and wonderful that saves the world, so much the better. Or you can go the other way and have everyone overinflating the horse’s capabilities, and the person who sees them as they really are will save the day.

There’s a secret of writing alien or historical or not-Us cultures, right there. Seeing all sides of the question, and writing one or more sides from the perspective of that side. Putting your own biases and assumptions aside and perceiving your written world as the people in it perceive it. Or, choosing to write according to your own beliefs and assumptions, but with awareness that gives you perspective.

Short form: It makes you a better writer. And for readers, it means your work is more believable, even when they have to suspend their own disbelief as they read.

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Can the Experts Be Wrong? Or, The Limits of Expertise — 6 Comments

  1. And if all the experts agree on something, you aren’t safe. You will get the person who absolutely knows that — say — peasants and trains did not exist at the safe time.

  2. Sherwood: You’re welcome.

    Mary: Oh yes indeed. That’s when you realize that they’re all taking their information from the same source. If your experience or observation pings your warning system, you’ll need to do some serious cross-checking, and tracking-back, to see where the information came from originally.

  3. I have this same exact argument with people over my pet rats. Most people are shocked and doubtful when I tell them my rats are intelligent beings capable of bonding emotionally and expressing themselves emotionally. It’s not just anthropomorphizing, it’s real. Just because they are small prey animals doesn’t mean they aren’t psychologically complex. So, when Robin McKinley tells a story with animals talking to a lost princess and no one else can understand them, I get it. I really do. 🙂

  4. Another factor to consider is the difference in equestrian disciplines. Because my background is very heavily Western of a certain regional type (Northwestern/Buckaroo/Northern Plains), I’ve been critiqued very negatively at times from someone coming from a Baroque/dressage/European background because what is correct for my discipline is not correct for hers.

    While the basic building blocks are very much the same, there’s some variation in training sequences and in techniques used. Both disciplines have logical reasons for differing techniques based on ultimate goals, equipment and breeds used.

    We won’t get into the regional differences between Western (dally/hard and fast, romal vs split reins, saddle styles, bit styles, and the like….) but those are also a factor. What is used in the Southwest is not always used in the Northwest, and for good, logical reasons based on climate, terrain and brush types (differences in chap and rein styles–a romal would not be a good idea in certain areas).

  5. Joyce, you get those differences whenever three equestrians come together. Judy and I mostly speak the same language – both heavily SRS influenced – plus we both consider ‘do something nothing’ a meaningful instruction. But there are so many ways to interpret cryptic statements like ‘ride every stride’ (in my tradition it means ‘be aware, make small corrections early’ whereas others take it to mean ‘aid every stride’ which is an antithesis to what I want to achieve) etc etc.

    Also, horses are individuals. Some horses defy ‘common knowledge’ and people who have experience with one type of horse (the horse that you need to ride forward to settle, for instance, or the one that needs the rider to be present and give him confidence) can a) assume that all horses are like that and b) come a spectacular cropper when they meet a horse that needs to stand or walk in order to defuse or one that needs an invisible rider or he’ll feel under too much pressure.

    Thinking you know ‘horses’ can lead to interesting times.