Confessions of a Stalwart Generalist I don’t know much—but I do know that much

When my youngest child, who is still in high school, gets on his bike in the morning to ride to school, I always send him off with a hearty hug, a wave and a shout of “Learn cool stuff!”

Learning is awesome. Humans are curious by nature and the feeling of having a new idea, a new under­standing settle in your brain is deeply satis­fying. Yesterday I didn’t know that when the Great Pyramids at Giza were built, there were still woolly mammoths around; today I do. Cool.

Ask an Expert

When you learn some­thing new, it’s usually from someone who knows more about that subject than you do. A teacher or shall we say… an expert. You trust your dentist when they tell you to floss because, well, they’re a dentist, after all. A specialist.

As a gener­alist, I am in awe of special­ists. People who have dedi­cated them­selves to drilling down into the depths of knowl­edge for a very partic­ular field or activity. My liberal arts educa­tion has been broad rather than deep. I can tell a sauropod from a theropod, but I’m no pale­on­tol­o­gist. I know the differ­ence between dark matter and dark energy, but I’m no physi­cist. Not by a looong stretch.

A sauropod and two theropods (source)

But I love listening to special­ists talk about what they do. There is some­thing profoundly satis­fying about drinking a few stolen drops from the fount of knowl­edge that comes with such deep exper­tise. I respect their expe­ri­ence and skill set because I don’t know what they know, and I know that the differ­ence matters.

A Matter of Trust

These days, however, being an expert isn’t quite what it used to be. The internet age has made it all too clear that well-founded specialist know-how is not immune to assaults from doubters and dissenters of all plumage.

Across a diverse range of topics—from climate change to GMOs and from vaccines to evolution—an army of activists awaits you, ready to tell you how “they” don’t want you to know this-or-that and that those so-called experts are really just in Big Whatever’s pocket and cannot be trusted. Such people may have let their innate curiosity, that desire to learn new stuff without prej­u­dice, be over­ruled by the wish to protect some narra­tive or world view that they hold dear. The fact that they often do so with the best of inten­tions does not make their animosity towards actual experts any less trou­bling.

These are worri­some devel­op­ments, and the speed with which things are changing is discon­certing. In this world of alter­na­tive facts, echo cham­bers and fake news, the concepts of truth and reality have become fair game at best, irrel­e­vant at worst.

Who Mends the Shoes?

It may be instruc­tive to trace these devel­op­ments back to the origins of “exper­tise” itself. In a group of hunter-gath­erers, most people would share more or less the same skill set and the efforts of all indi­vid­uals were needed to feed all group members. But once agri­cul­ture started gener­ating a steady surplus of food and seden­tary civi­liza­tion took off, commu­ni­ties had the oppor­tu­nity to free up time for certain members to learn new skills.

Fast forward a few thou­sand years and you have cobblers, butchers, painters, metal­workers, priests, scribes, etc. In a sense, such “profes­sionals” were already the de facto experts in their respec­tive fields. A cobbler would ask the butcher to slaughter a goat, and the butcher would ask a cobbler to mend his shoes. And so would the priest. And so would the metal­worker.

The foun­da­tion for such a divi­sion of labor is a mutual respect for each other’s skills and, by exten­sion, for the accu­mu­la­tion of knowl­edge that is embedded in them. If all butchers stopped trusting cobblers and went back to mending their own shoes, and all cobblers went back to butchering their own goats, the soci­etal progress facil­i­tated by their respec­tive special­iza­tions would be lost. You can’t build the Great Pyramids if everyone is a farmer.

The Great Pyramids of Giza (source)

Beware the Butcher-Trolls

The internet has caused a massive democ­ra­ti­za­tion of access to infor­ma­tion. This has in turn led to a presumed democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the knowl­edge and skills that are built upon that information—and even of the authority that having such (presumed) knowl­edge gives us to pronounce judg­ment on any topic that we have an opinion about. But opin­ions are not facts.

In other words: everyone feels they have the right to be right, even if they’re wrong. And if there is a specialist who disagreed with your convic­tions… well, they’re “just an expert,” after all. Today’s butcher-trolls have no qualms about expressing fiercely held beliefs about shoe-mending while pronouncing cobblers to be idiots.

In yet other words: the super­abun­dance of infor­ma­tion is turning us all into neo-gener­al­ists, and the inter­min­gling of fact and opinion may tempt us to think we can take on the special­ists.

That’s why it is impor­tant for those of us on the side of science and reason to be vigi­lant and to stay skep­tical. One of the corner­stones of under­standing the world, and our place in it, is to be open to changing your mind when­ever new and compelling evidence presents itself. Collecting and assessing that evidence, and drawing conclu­sions from it, is not a hobby or some­thing you can intuit—it’s a job. An expert’s job.

And it bears remem­bering that even if you are an expert or highly expe­ri­enced in one area, you are still a layperson in every other field. Those who embrace this are happier for it: it just means that there is still a lot to learn.

Back to Basics

Meanwhile, I am still happy to be an old-school gener­alist. Someone who knows a little bit about a lot of things, who doesn’t have deep knowl­edge about anything, and who can appre­ciate the differ­ence. I’m perfectly happy to have the cobbler mend my shoes and the dentist instruct me to floss—and maybe they’ll be happy, in turn, to listen to a story or two from this chronicler’s quill.

Now please excuse me while I go learn some more cool stuff.

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Image credit: The new Tianjin Binhai Public Library (source)

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