Experts And Gurus: What's the Difference?

What’s the difference between a guru and an expert? The dictionary assigns the two words the same basic meaning: someone with a high level of knowledge in a particular field. But the term guru definitely has an unwholesome connotation in certain contexts. People respect experts, but worship gurus, imagining they have totally unrealistic levels of knowledge and power. In the context of science, that's a problem.

Does that mean whether someone is a guru or expert is in the eye of the beholder? It doesn’t seem fair to blame someone for their popularity. Are Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein “gurus" just because they get respect? Only a hater would say that! Maybe we should only call people gurus if they are to blame for their inflated reputations - maybe by inventing false credentials, or preying on the naivety of the public.    

Here’s another way to look at the distinction, based on a cool graph (courtesy of Simon Wardly) that you may have seen before. This shows the relationship between how much you know, versus how much you think you know, and how much you realize you don’t know

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Note the middle stage: in the “hazard zone” you vastly overestimate your level of knowledge, and underestimate the volume of stuff you don’t know. Does this ring true? I think most of us have been there at one time or another. 

Based on this graph, I think we can define gurus as popular teachers selling opinions derived from the hazard zone. Gurus know enough to impress beginners, but not true experts. They often have a charismatic personality, good marketing skills, a real desire to help others, and a lack of curiosity about learning information that conflicts with their assumptions.

Unfortunately, a great many popular teachers in the fields of health, including chronic pain, are gurus not experts. How can you tell the difference if you are not an expert yourself, or just a “beginner?” The graph holds the answer - gurus have no awareness of the limits of their knowledge, and will therefore never mention it! True experts will often refer to gaps in their understanding, the complexity of the subject matter, the existence of competing theories, or conflicting evidence.

For example, people like Lorimer Moseley, Paul Hodges and Greg Lehman have spent years studying and researching pain and movement, but will frequently remind their audience of how much they don’t know. When asked about how to apply their knowledge to solve a specific problem, they will very often say something like “it depends”, or “I would need to know more” or even “no one really knows!” 

This humility reflects accurate knowledge about the current state of pain science. We are only starting to make progress into understanding the complexity of pain. Perhaps there are some fields of study like physics and chemistry where the experts have pretty much got it all figured out, but chronic pain isn’t one of them! Neither is motor control or biomechanics. If someone sounds like they think they know it all on any of these subjects, they are almost certainly a guru not an expert.  

For example, gurus of movement or manual therapy often talk about chronic pain as a problem that can be easily solved by following a particular recipe or blueprint, or applying a quick series of tricks, secrets or hacks.  

Back pain? A corrective exercise guru can let you know in just minutes if the true cause is poor core strength, or anterior pelvic tilt, or maybe tight hip flexors or weak glutes. And then they can provide some simple exercise to eliminate the pain, or abolish it forever, or maybe even make you bulletproof in the process. 

A guru massage therapist will give you a different set of prescriptions, but with just as much confidence, telling you which muscle knots or facial adhesions are causing the problem. A guru chiro will identify which vertebra are “out”, and a posture guru will explain that most back pain is caused by failure to activate certain muscles when you sit or stand. And they can all make similarly confident prescriptions for shoulder pain, foot pain, knee pain etc. 

Quick simple solutions like this should be viewed with extreme suspicion, especially when ten other “experts" in the same field would provide ten completely different solutions to the same problem. If any one of these experts really had it all figured out, and could cure pain so effortlessly, it would be relatively easy for them to prove this with convincing evidence. If they did so, they would immediately be awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for solving one of the biggest and most challenging health problems in the world. 

I’m a curious person and read about many different subjects online - nutrition, economics, politics, sports training, sociology, psychology, movement, pain, etc. I’m not a true expert in any of these fields, and a rank beginner in several of them. So I don’t know enough to realize when something I’m reading has obvious substantive flaws. So who do I trust? I trust the people who acknowledge the complexity and uncertainty of the subject matter, confess the limits of their knowledge, change their mind in the face of conflicting evidence, and respectfully consider alternate opinions. And I steer clear of people who do the opposite.

It's actually pretty easy to get a sense of the difference in these two styles, and I think learning to recognize that is one of the best ways to sort out the gurus from the experts.