Once a pun a time

On a side note, making good puns is a remark-able ability. I remember a day when I came a pun so many – I haven’t had so much pun ever since. For a moment I even considered becoming a pundit, but my more talented friends beat me to the punch. I got demorealized and couldn’t come up with them anymore. I asked my puncle for advice, but he didn’t punderstand. I pundered it over and over; why did I lose the knack for it? I tried to let it go, but the thought kept knacking in my brain.

And then it hit me; I was doing it all the time, punintentionally. I had more puns in the oven than a hedgehog has spikes; and all I needled to two was let them come out, in order to plunder this endless treasure. I’ve dumb to real ice bacon bee reel stooped two. All that you need to do is be sin seer.

And if you can’t bare to listen, try to act as if it’s just ridden, without hearing. It makes it easier to pun away from all the chokes.

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No, humankind doesn’t deserve climate change

Or anything else, for that matter.

It struck me when I was reading a piece of news on Polish coal miners, who claimed that there isn’t going to be much of a reduction in coal consumption or mining. “The coal is the future” was a comment that made the headlines. In the comment section there were the usual climate skeptics thanking the General Radio for finally writing something sensible. There were also people saying things like “This makes me really understand that humankind really deserves climate change”, or “This is so hopeless; these people are so greedy, they truly deserve climate change”, or “We deserve what is coming; this is our own fault.”

For a long time it has awoken a strange feeling in me whenever someone says things like that. When I read those comments, it finally crystallized in my mind.

The problem is in that people are assuming guilt to where there is none. Guilt is a tool for us to uphold social norms and values and enforce conventions and agreements. If someone betrays our trust, we assume they are guilty of betrayal – unless they have a plausible explanation for that deviation of what was agreed on. The concept of guilt is useful when we have clear agreements, and even then it mostly helps when deciding on sanctions for bad behavior.

Moreover, they assume merit and a distinct form of individual responsibility to humankind. Merit only makes sense when we think of how to reward behavior worthy of our praise, by means of social status, power and property. That’s all merit really is; a cognitive shortcut for deciding if it’s ok for someone to have or not to have certain benefits we regard as useful.

The third thing, individual responsibility, is a mix of the first two. It is true that humankind as a whole is responsible for the state of our collective environment, but we aren’t nearly capable of acting as a coordinated whole. As far as consciousness has been discussed, we generally assume that an individual is – which is why they are called individuals.

Now, guilt and merit, which work as tools for us to decide how to perceive and treat individuals, aren’t merely troublesome when discussing humankind – they’re downright useless, if not harmful. It doesn’t make any sense for us to think that humankind as a whole should be punished, unless we believe in some very nasty God who would do such a thing. That God would be quite spiteful indeed, as (s)he would surely know how bloody hard it is for huge amounts of humans to cooperate on issues that baffle the most talented of us, let alone the normal people and the bottom decile of the cognitive distribution. It just doesn’t make any sense to think that humankind should be punished – a person thinking that way would consciously vote for the worst candidate in elections, bully others as much as possible, soil the environment as irreversibly as possible and try to escalate a nuclear war, and do all that with the idea that bad things will happen and that’s a good thing, because everybody’s bad is justice.

Merit makes no sense either. How should we reward humankind for its behavior? Which humans? For what exactly?

That is, people thinking that we deserve climate change or that we deserve war or that we deserve illness are making the mistake of antropomorphising an abstraction, the collective whole of human behavior. That is nobody. It’s not a person we can punish or reward. Whoever thinks that the humankind should be punished probably doesn’t mean themselves, or at least someone they love very dearly. So who do they really mean? The bad guys, of course.

In this case, the bad guys probably are the people working in the coal mines. And this is where I get a little bit annoyed. Most likely the person saying ‘because coal miners believe in a future of coal, we deserve a horrible future’ is a person whose family doesn’t make a living by mining coal. They are probably from an at least somewhat educated family, they’ve been nurtured well enough to help them care for others and they have been sheltered from the fact that because we have coal miners, they can have anything that has been produced with energy. They see coal miners hoping for their livinghood to continue – people from a poorer nation who most likely aren’t the least bit as educated as they are – and fall into despair, thinking: “we have no hope because of these people”. And they say this online, using computers and electricity provided by fossil fuels. They want to have their cake and eat it, and they have no respect for the fact that not everybody is born and raised into the upper echelons of the socioeconomic and intellectual ladder.

So please, don’t say things like that. I know that things may look grim and that there are many reasons to be pessimistic, but there is no reason to be absurd and unreasonable. Believing that notions of guilt and merit have anything to do with humankind as a whole is being absurd, and expecting coal miners to self-defeatingly hope for the annihilation of their livinghood and security is being unreasonable. And hypocritical, as long as we’re expecting to enjoy any of the benefits we currently get from fossil fuels – which are enormous, in spite of every bad thing that comes with them.

How to explain and solve all our current problems in a bestselling book

The world is really complicated, and understanding it in order to reach a goal as limited yet intricate as human welfare is an exceedingly difficult task. In today’s post I’ll attempt to demonstrate that in spite of that, we can explain what’s going on relatively easily and even offer simple, straightforward solutions, and sell a ton of copies of your book while doing it.

First you need a conclusion. You have to first have an idea of what the world is supposed to look like according to your ideals. When you’ve got one, you’re going to want to work backwards from that in order to create guidelines for the present moment. This is not unlike what chess masters do when they lack an immediate, obvious plan to execute. Since the world is based on laws of logic and reason much like chess is, this analogy makes sense. Some suggestions for a dream world:

  • A world where we connect more spiritually with one another
  • A world without computers
  • A world without leftism or Neo-Nazism
  • A world without capitalism
  • A world without technology
  • A world without individual greed
  • A world without Facebook
  • A world without fast food

Second, you’re going to need to point at contemporary problems and figure out why they exist. This is where a lot of people miss the point and lose themselves. They think that they need to take into account all the variables, consider different hypotheses and take a multidisciplinary attitude towards the investigation. That’s a load of bull and they know it – nobody will ever become a bestselling author like that!

First of all, there’s way too many things to consider. Nobody could possibly possess enough knowledge to process all that information. Second, these people are fooling themselves; even if they did manage to find some clues towards explanations, they would be unimaginably intricate and convoluted, and would require years of careful studying by many people besides them. That means there’s no way they could write a simple, straightforward book on the subject that an average Joe could digest in a week or two. It also means they would have to share the glory with other people, which you obviously do not want to do.

What you’re going to do instead is that you take your ideal world and figure out how the lack of that ideal world explains all our problems. You’re going to want to spend a lot of time on this – but not too much. Maybe two to three months. You need to accept the risk that people aren’t going to be interested in your solution, so you don’t want to waste too much time.

The best way to do this is to take some concrete issues that are complex enough not to have been solved yet, but which are also easy enough to simplify so that they seem a lot simpler than they are. These include

  • The Trump phenomenon. Every self-respecting author who claims to be able to show the way must absolutely explain the Trump phenomenon. People were and still are absolutely flabbergasted by how such a man has ended up leading the most powerful empire that has ever existed; not completely unlike Jar Jar Binks leading the Sith Empire. Examples of how to use the Trump phenomenon in your book:
    • Trump won because we have lost our unity and need to connect more deeply on a spiritual level
    • Trump won because people have grown tired of all the progressivism
    • Trump won because people have once again been pulled in by the dark forces of Neo-Nazism
    • Trump won because digitalization brings out the worst in humanity
    • Trump won because the West has lost sight of its traditional Christian values
    • Trump won because Kali Yuga is about to begin
    • Trump won because of a complicated conspiracy, which is simple enough for you to dissect in your book
    • Trump won because of global capitalism
  • The lack of an universal culture and moral codex in the West. An easy enough target, right? People always feel like there’s no sense at all in how other people think about and judge things that happen. Why does everybody seem to disagree about everything? Possibly
    • because digitalization messes our sensitive brains and turns them on overdrive
    • because the West has lost sight of its traditional Christian values
    • because a complicated conspiracy is trying to make that happen
    • because people no longer connect with each other on a spiritual level
    • because people have grown tired of all the progressivism
    • because Kali Yuga is about to begin
    • because capitalism destroys everything
  • The climate change. You absolutely must tackle the climate change. Everybody talks about it, everybody is scared of it (especially those who say it’s a conspiracy), so you need to address it somehow. Examples include climate change
    • being a complicated conspiracy
    • being the result of human greed, which rises because the West has lost sight of its traditional Christian values
    • being the result of Kali Yuga
    • being the result of digitalization turning capitalism into overdrive, which causes us to no longer be spiritually connected to one another
  • The unemployment. So many people are facing unemployment these days that it’s crucial to give them a hand too. An example:
    • Unemployment follows from global capitalism causing the digitalization to turn the lack of human spiritual connection into overdrive, which brings forth the Kali Yuga and destroys our Christian values, replacing them with progressive Neo-Nazism which turns the fast food we eat into greed, which all manifests as a subtle global conspiracy that leaves people unemployed.

As I have shown above, the obvious next step is to show how your dream world solves all our contemporary problems. That leaves us with a five-stage framework on how to build our book.

  1. Point out that something is awfully wrong with our contemporary world.
  2. Use examples which everyone can relate to (like I did above).
  3. Show how the issues are the result of whatever you’re trying to prove.
  4. Give the readers the solution, your dream world.
  5. Finish with an emotional touch with a hint of threat, but suggesting that there is hope.

Some general stumbling blocks:

  • Not cherry picking the evidence. You absolutely must cherry pick the evidence. Do not accept a single thing into your book which would undermine your case. Otherwise people won’t believe you.
  • Being too complex. A lot of people think you need to write difficult text in order to seem smart. In fact people like it simple and clear, and will appreciate your intelligence more if you don’t put too difficult words into it. Keep your thesis simple!
  • Being modest. You must not be modest. After all, you’re pointing the way to a better world! If you’re going to be modest, then who on Earth has the right to be confident and full of themselves?

Please contact me if you have any further questions on the subject. Also keep in mind that the examples I’ve used are merely the tip of the iceberg; other contemporary problems, for example, might be the ongoing opioid crisis, the Russian military action, the risk of an unfriendly AI, the increase in anxiety disorders, and so on. You can without doubt invent more, if you need – all you have to remember is to only pick the ones that help you build your case.

Frustration

It’s usually around midday or early afternoon when I notice it’s one of those days again.

I can’t sit still for long. I feel restless and my body is aching to move, but exercising seems too much of a hassle. Imagine how long it’ll take to get to the gym; there’s bound to be too much people there around now; the pool is more expensive during the weekends; you don’t want to overwork your joints by running every day; you haven’t even eaten properly; if you eat now you’ll have to wait for a moment before working out; it’ll feel bad anyway, and you won’t get a kick out of it, not on a day like this.

Reading a piece of news might prove to be too taxing for my scattered attention. I forget what I read just half a minute ago; or I notice I’ve opened up four to five more tabs, whose contents I read with a focus just as fragmented as with the first one. It takes me a few minutes to notice that all I’m doing is jumping back and forth with no real interest towards whatever text my eyes are moving on. Video material works even worse; I’ll watch a video on anatomy, go, science or exercising for maybe thirty seconds or so, pause it and move on to something different. Books? I wish.

I can mask the issue by playing a fast-paced video game that doesn’t take too much thinking. Civilization or Cities is absolutely out of the question. Skyrim or Bioshock should do the trick, but even with them I’m bound to notice in half an hour that all I’m doing is mindlessly clicking about, desperately holding on to instant stimulation to avoid the frustration I’m feeling.

Playing the guitar is useless. Nothing sounds good. My timing is completely off. The tone is all messed up; the pick squeals against the strings in a way that hurts my teeth, the distortion is muffled and ugly and every single thing I come up with is unimaginative, devoid of content and boring. I turn the distortion off, but the clean tone is even worse; the cheap tone of my Squier is all the more present – no, maybe it’s the pick I’m using – no, maybe it’s just that I can’t play – no, maybe it’s my amp. And I go back and forth trying to figure out what the heck is going on until I give up and put the instrument away.

Studying is something I would like to get to, especially since I have exams and evaluations coming up, but they’re too far away in the future to awaken any sense of urgency. The adrenaline usually starts pumping only a few days before the big day, too. I know I should get at it; I’ll be thankful when I do, and feel a lot better. But I don’t. I watch the thoughts come and pass. Thinking of studying feels good. Yeah, I can do it, right? It’ll be good. I’ll feel happy about it. I won’t have to do much; half an hour will do, if not more. It’s ok to do a little less every now and then. I’ve got the small presentation tomorrow, too, so I’ll be happy in the evening when I’ve already done the work earlier. So I better get to it.

And I watch the thoughts pass, wondering what the frick is wrong with me.

Maybe a walk will help. I pace aimlessly around the neighborhood for twenty to forty minutes, enjoying the weather. My thoughts, however, are unorganized and incoherent. I can’t feel any interest towards anything. Usually walking helps me get myself together, but not on a day like this. I end up coming home only more frustrated than I was when I left.

Maybe a game of go online might do the trick? I place the stones where I will; and eventually I notice that however good a position I have built – most likely not – it just comes apart at some point. I don’t even notice where I went wrong; suddenly everything just collapses. I keep playing even though I know I should resign. It’s the same thing if I played chess. Nothing good comes out of playing when this mood takes over. I feel angry over losing even though I promised myself I wouldn’t.

I eat, but the food doesn’t taste like anything at all. I feel the sensations in my mouth, but the qualia seem gray and withered, somehow. “Ah, the taste of butter and bread.” There’s no yum at all. “Ah, the taste of coffee. Ah, the taste of chocolate.” And nothing, absolutely nothing tells me I’m enjoying it.

When I hit the bed in the evening I feel angry at myself for not enjoying my day off. I did a lousy job preparing for tomorrow, I didn’t exercise at all, I couldn’t relax and I feel like I’ve wasted a day, again. What is wrong with me? Why does it come to this when I most feel like I want to take advantage of being free? I’m going to be miserable at school and work tomorrow, because I haven’t enjoyed of my free time at all. I can do anything in the world, so why is it that I can’t? And why do I feel like doing all those things while I’m at work, and focusing on my job is too much of a pain to genuinely enjoy – but something I do nonetheless?

When I wake up the following morning, I don’t think about it anymore. I’m tired because I went to sleep too late, desperately trying to find something to enjoy, but it doesn’t bother me too much. I wash my teeth, eat my breakfast and get ready for the day. I hope for the day at school and at work to pass quickly, but it doesn’t, and I don’t feel too bad about it. The day is mediocre, my productivity is too, and I’m kind of bored at times. And for some reason, none of it bothers me at all. When I get home, I read some news and play the guitar, having loads of fun. Chess is fun. Music is fun. Games are fun. Eating is great. I take off an hour to go running, and feel pumped when I get back. I feel creative and relaxed, and can’t wait for my day off to have a whole day for all these nice activities.

Culture wars are mostly about adaptation

Lately I’ve come to think that the ongoing Western culture wars, following but not necessarily caused by the demise of the Christian hegemony in our societies, are largely explained by adaptative behavior and warfare in the broadest sense.

I used to think that it was the people themselves waging war against one another, but as the cultural wars aren’t necessarily bound to evolutionary mechanisms causing war – kin selection, nepotism, altruism towards those closer to us in the gene pool – traditional war is a poorer analogy than one might think. A war of ideas or memes, however, fits the picture nicely.

Let’s look at adaptive behavior first. As intelligent organisms we are wont to direct our behavior in a way that we expect to maximise our rate of survival – to simplify. That means that our social behavior is also largely determined by such mechanisms, as I have discussed. Culture has several aspects, but rudimentarily it can be thought of as a collection of ideas and conventions aiming to direct our populations’ behaviors in a coordinated manner towards a more or less defined goal. Putting these two together, we learn two things:

  1. We direct our cultural behavior and influence culture mainly in an adaptive manner, which we expect to help us and those we care for thrive.
  2. We pick our sides in any ongoing conflicts based on two considerations:
    1. Which side of the conflict promises a future we perceive as better, and
    2. Which side of the conflict seems more likely to win.

I have a couple of weak arguments to support this. First, people take tremendous interest in culture wars and react to cultural transformations as life-or-death situations. For instance, the talk of immigrants’ influence on the Western societies’ culture reduces, on both sides, to talk of the future of life. Defenders of free immigration policies talk of the immigrants’ human rights and right to live, whereas its opponents talk of the end of life in our societies as we know them.

Another spectacularly arousing issue is that of sex and gender in society. It awakens very powerful emotions and reactions in people whose lives aren’t concerned in the least by such questions. Again, the discussion revolves around the right to live and be free, and the future of our societies as we know them. Gay rights were another such case. Now, obviously gay rights are highly important for gay people, but that shouldn’t have been the case for most of the people opposing gay rights.

This supports the idea that people instinctively regard cultural issues as issues of adaptation. Even seemingly small issues evoke a life-or-death response in our cognitive faculties, quickly hijacking our decision making capabilities to take the conflict to a conclusion. Having picked a side in a conflict we fight savagely in order to gain control and thereby maximise our survival, in a nutshell. Others try to take an outsider view to the issues to see first who’ll win, and then open their mouth.

Another weak argument for my case is the fact that people mostly care about social issues relevant and present to their time and place, no matter which issues they are, and not much else. All sides of our contemporary social conflicts pretty much disregard the significance of giving money to charities, for example, even though it is a highly powerful tool to objectively change the world for the better. Social issues in other countries or an other time don’t make most people feel much; even if they were true life-or-death issues.

The second thing relevant to culture wars, that of warfare in the broad sense, is an easy thing to model from a memetic point of view (using Dawkins’ definition of a meme – the thought analogue of a gene). The most succesful memes are those which are capable of replicating and sustaining themselves in human societies. Thereby it should be that memes evoking a survival response from people are strongly represented in our lives.

The memes need not include the idea of survival within themselves, however; it suffices that if the idea or the success it promises should be threatened, a survival response follows. That is, some highly successful memes are attached to the cognitive faculties responsible for our primitive needs. That would also shed light on why we like romantic stories, stories of high success, stories of power and stories of surviving against all odds.

As memes are subject to the same statistical laws which govern all warfare, memes at odds with one another wage war. They have to; if they don’t, they won’t survive for long. That explains why most ideas wither out and die, disappearing from our societies, conventions and even written histories. The birth of ideas is a random enough process to ensure that most ideas aren’t useful for survival or capable of efficient replication.

That leads me to the conclusion that cultural issues are best understood by adaptation – both that of people and that of memes (although memes don’t have a stable mechanism for inheritence or replication) – and war, in the sense of statistical laws that ensure the survival of the fittest. However, in this case it is mostly the people who adapt, and the memes which wage war, even if our intuition said otherwise.

Police and private health information

The Finnish Ministry of the Interior is steaming forward to get another law accepted with an exceptionally fast schedule. The proposition is to be discussed by the Parliament in a month.

The proposition in question would – will – grant the police an easy access to private patient information, something that has thus far been respected as a bond of trust between a medical professional and the patient. The Ministry argues that people need this change to improve their safety. People need the police to read their most private and delicate information in order to be safe.

I actually had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming or in a satire.

The police are in no way better people than the rest of us. They’re humans. Humans are corrupted by power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is asking for the police to become even more corrupted than it already is. And, indeed, the Finnish Medical Association has not reacted positively to this idea; I’m glad they understand their responsibilities.

These changes are happening in a quicker fashion than I anticipated, and I find this highly unsettling. Some questions follow.

How do we make sure that those rights will not be abused? How are cops, who have no kind of a medical training, supposed to ethically handle and make sense of medical information? How can we assume that mass surveillance of the most delicate details of people’s lives is ethically sustainable? What happens if not every single police officer is as reliable as we’d like them to be (like the former head of Finnish anti-drugs police, Jari Aarnio, who was sentenced to jail for drug crimes and other offences)? What do you suppose is going to happen if people try to change this law after it has been passed? Are the police going to give up their completely unjustified and sickeningly empowering rights just because people don’t like it?

If the Ministry of the Interior is absolutely serious about this, I suggest that they, their loved ones and their acquaintances voluntarily release all medical details of themselves to the public for discussion. If they feel uncomfortable about this, they should probably understand why we do.

Generalizing vs. specializing: a dialogue

Generalist = G

Specialist = S

 

G: I won’t deny it: the obvious depth of your understanding and the clarity with which you discuss the medical sciences is enviable. But I’m not sure I would trade our positions. There is plenty to be learned in acquiring a decent understanding in several topics, and that is something that I would have to sacrifice, were I to narrowly specialize in any profession.

S: I understand completely. The world is fascinating and even more are the sciences making sense of it, and the humanities and arts imbuing it with meaning. To give up hope of understanding many things somewhat instead of knowing one thing thoroughly is a difficult decision; all the more so for the most curious of us. Yet I cannot help but think that it is a necessary decision to make; and the only right choice to pick is specializing.

G: How come?

S: There is a myriad of reasons for that. I’d start with what I consider the most important one, which is the fact that gaining knowledge and understanding of any complicated subject is an exceedingly difficult task for a human being. There is a reason why it takes most people several years to gain a university degree. The vastness of possible knowledge is of course immense, but the really difficult thing isn’t merely learning where all the dots are. It’s connecting the dots that matters. To understand a subject, one cannot merely list facts about it, but has to have a sense of how the facts relate to each other and be able to formulate arguments, apply that knowledge and produce new information based on that understanding. I don’t believe such a feat is possible with merely a rudimentary understanding of a subject.

G: Alright, I’ll give you that. I admit it would be extremely difficult for someone to produce cutting edge knowledge on dozens of distinct topics in a lifetime – heck, even five. But not everyone aims or even should aim to become a scientist or a leading historian. It’s not black and white; there is a wide range of different levels of understanding between a high schooler and a university professor, and all of those levels are useful in themselves to both the individuals and the society.

S: True enough. I can imagine, for example, that computer scientists or IT experts – I don’t really understand the difference between the two – would benefit from, say, a good understanding on the fundamentals of logic or statistics.

G: It goes further than that; logic and statistics are an important part of such curriculums and they’re closely related. I’m also saying that it’s useful to have computer scientists with an understanding on political economy, computer scientists who can relate that understanding to pharmaceutical research and computer scientists who can discuss the ethics of social developments.

S: I’m sure you realize that those are all still relatively specialized niches. None of the people you described are still actual jacks of all trades. The key thing to understand here is exactly that: I think there exists some kind of a limit which one has to cross in order to use their knowledge of a subject to benefit themselves or the society. All the people listed had specialized niches; they weren’t specialized in one thing but two. They might even specialize in three or four things. However, the further they widen their scope of attention, the fuzzier their visual acuity becomes. After a certain point, all they see is a tangled mess. The limit is not concrete, of course, but I might define it as being able to effectively and consistently use knowledge of a subject at one’s work.

G: So you do admit that narrow specialization is not the only way to go! If we admit that we need people with an understanding of two subjects instead of one, there’s really no reason not to admit that we might need people who understand three or four subjects. It’s not a matter of whether or not to generalize, but how much. I can easily imagine that between the expert and the commoner there is use for a wide range of people relaying that information at different levels. On the high end of understanding we have experts who see deeply into a narrow path; the lower we get, the fuzzier that knowledge becomes but also more integrated with everything else we understand. And that’s the niche for generalists; low enough on the hierarchy of specialization we do need people who understand a little about everything and integrate that information in a useful manner.

S: I think that is the main argument for generalizing. However, I’m very skeptical of its premises. First, it’s not at all obvious that there is a need for people of all levels of understanding. It may well be – and I think it is – that a certain minimum of understanding is required of a person to be useful at all to anybody, themselves included. Second, I argue that such a level cannot be reached trivially. If that were the case, we’d have matemathicians all over the place, so to say. That means that there should be definite limits to how far one can generalize themselves and honestly claim that it is of any use.

G: I don’t think there’s any doubt of that, yes. However, we seem to disagree about the extent to which such a generalizing can be done and the bare minimum required to be able to use information efficiently. It looks to me like you’re still stuck on the idea of an advanced university level education, which definitely should take a lot of time from anybody. But real life doesn’t really work like that. There are a hundred little quirks to all kinds of tasks, and being exposed to different types of thinking helps one to adapt to changing environments. That’s true nowadays more than ever.

S: That might be, yes, but I think you’re overestimating – no, actually misunderstanding the learning capacities and mechanisms of humans. I’ll give you an example. A student of history first learns the broad lines of what we know; the timeline is split into epochs, epochs into eras, eras into millenia or centuries and so on. They hear of civilizations and their most important characteristics. After that, they begin to go into further detail; how exactly did a certain civilization come into existence, and what were the reasons for its decline? How did those people organize their communities? Did they have something in common with us? And so on. Then they repeat this process for different aspects of history; different peoples, different times; they look at the history from the point of view of money, from technology’s point of view, from a religious point of view. And that’s how they gain understanding on the subject.

G: Ok. But this is still only the case of expert-level knowledge.

S: It is, just bear with me. What I was getting at is that all those steps both require and reinforce one another. Learning how life in Rome was won’t do you much good unless you know what Rome was. Learning about the history of religion in Rome might tell you a lot – it was pretty colorful – but you’d still be lacking in understanding the other aspects of the society or religion anywhere else. If that was all you knew about either Rome or religions, you’d be in trouble. This gives us two insights.

First, you need to be systematic about learning. We only learn and learn to understand things when we can link them to another and pre-existing ideas; so we need a framework. That’s what the broad lines and eras and such are for. Ideas just don’t stick if you can’t link them to other things in your head. That’s the reason it’s useless to just clickety-whick through Wikipedia articles, skimming this and that, falling to the impulse to open yet another article and forgetting what you were looking for in the first place. It doesn’t stick, because you don’t have a framework; that requires education and some level of expertise.

Second, in order to understand, you still need to actually connect the dots. The first insight tells us how to get the dots in your head in the first place. The second one tells us that in order to make use of the knowledge you have, you need to have depth, layers and dimensions in you knowledge; like in our history example. Having even a lot of information about some small detail won’t help you to explain how the world we see came to be; most likely it’d just twist your worldview to be biased towards that particular aspect. Again, if we go with the Wikipedia surfer, they’d probably get a lot of details of this or that, but lacking data points and a systematic framework to connect those points they won’t really develop understanding.

G: All those things are definitely true, but you’re falling victim to a strawman argument here. I’ll go through what you said in the same order. First, there’s no reason a generalist shouldn’t or wouldn’t be systematic in their learning; in fact, they probably need it more than specialists do. Whereas specialists can afford to waste time using ineffective learning strategies, generalists can’t. They don’t have the benefit of always returning to the same framework, the same facts and the same ideas, so they definitely need to plan it out. I think the most important misunderstanding here is that a generalist is someone who never focuses on anything and goes through information like a squirrell with ADD. That’s just plain wrong; I’m sure all of us have committed the sin of Wikipedia skimming at some point, but that doesn’t really tell us anything about generalizing.

There’s nothing magical about a university level education. It’s just more exposure to ideas related to one another. There’s no reason to assume that a generalist wouldn’t be able to acquire the dots; it’ll just take them longer. They won’t get as far, of course, but that is another point. The logic is similar concerning connecting the dots. The generalist would first be at a loss on how to organize the information; but beginning with the broad lines and the main ideas, using enough time at a time to really absorb a subject before moving on to another and reciting what they have learned often enough should provide them with exactly what you claimed they wouldn’t have; broad elementary understanding.

That brings me to my last point, which is that isn’t it exactly the narrow-niche specialists who often are blamed, and rightfully so, of not understanding different worldviews but acting as if they did? Think about Sam Harris on philosophy or Michio Kaku on psychology. I don’t really know anything about what they do or do not understand, but the reception their attitude has gotten among the experts in those particular fields isn’t exactly flattering. The same thing would go, of course, for a psychologist criticizing physics.

S: That should be the case; assuming what you’re claiming is possible. However, it does seem to me that being able to be so systematic about learning, learning all the subjects in the correct order and remembering to remain humble enough to not think one knows more than one does borders on inhuman. I also want to point out that I wasn’t referring to people disrespecting other worldviews or ways of thinking with my comment of the risks of bias, but instead I tried to show that without proper understanding and guidance it is very easy to overestimate the importance of some insignificant details on a subject and underestimate the whole. A good example would be a doctor claiming that since vaccines sometimes have bad side effects, we shouldn’t vaccine the population as a whole. He understands the individual effects of a vaccine well but disregards the significance of epidemiological concerns.

G: Fair enough. All the same, you haven’t really demonstrated that generalism is impossible but merely claimed that it might be.

S: Yes. However, there still is the first point I made on the premises of generalizing, which was that society simply might not need people with an elementary understanding of many things. A few things, definitely, but not necessarily many; and there is a good reason to believe that is the case. However complex or interdependent our society has become, all the individual tasks required to perform at a job are in fact highly specialized. They don’t need a person to understand a lot of different subjects, but instead a person with some baseline understanding. From that point onwards they make people specialize in some particular task. Industrial jobs are often like that, as are jobs in accounting or medicine, in fact. General practicioners exist, but they are already experts compared to a layperson. Then they further narrow down that expertise in order to be useful.

G: I’m sure that for highly demanding jobs expertise indeed is needed. Such jobs might be those of a phycisian, a mathematician, a nuclear phycisist or a civil engineer, and so on. But do you see that you actually made an argument for generalizing? There are many jobs where indeed a baseline understanding of a subject is required to learn more; and the broader scope of different baselines you have, the more you have to choose from.

S: I see. But such an elementary understanding would definitely need to be planned out beforehand. Knowing maths, for instance, gives one an access to some jobs, whereas familiarity with languages takes a person to another direction. Still, once that direction has been chosen, people do specialize!

G: I think that might be the case. Still, people switch careers in their 30s or 40s and succeed later on in their new jobs. Having a narrow understanding absolutely helps one to switch to an adjacent niche, but a broader scope gives more area to choose from. But it is definitely the case that not all knowledge is created equal; there should be some top-level areas of understanding which give more ways to future than others.

S: For example, a solid background in mathematics gives more room for maneuvering than a background in a very limited area of mathematical physics. Well, I’m not sure the two can be compared, but you get the idea. This is also true in medicine: we first learn our anatomy, histology, physiology, pathology and farmacology before diving into vascular surgery.

G: Yes. Likewise, a basic foundation in logic and programming gives a wider scope than some specific programming language.

S: The person with a strong foundation for a specific task would definitely be better off, though, were an opportunity to use exactly that knowledge to arise. And seeing how many people there are, you can always trust to find such a person.

G: I don’t think that’s the case. I mean, it’s a matter of probablilities, but you hear it every so often; this or that city is lacking in these people for those jobs. So it’s not really that coordinated. However, I think what we’re getting at is that generalizing and specializing carry different types of advantages and risks with them. The generalist has the advantage of being able to switch directions completely, but they risk getting left high and dry when someone more competent turns up.

S: Whereas the specialist is that very person to replace them. It also gives them a narrow room to maneuver in more conveniently than the specialist could; for example, switching from programming to leading an organization of programmers. However, they risk losing everything if what they’re specialized in becomes obsolete. That has also happened, although for relatively simple tasks.

G: However, I’ve yet to see a convincing argument to refute generalizing completely.

S: I’m not sure such an argument exists. However, it does look like generalizing is the riskier choice to make. Expertise is often soft and transitioning to adjacent squares on the game board is usually possible, as changes rarely happen that fast. Still, people face unemployment, so it’s not a sure bet, either. But I’m willing to admit that some level of general understanding is useful, if it’s narrowed down efficiently.

G: What would that look like?

S: Well, I think that a smart person would almost always benefit from a solid understanding of mathematics. There really is not much that it doesn’t touch. I don’t think a lot is necessary – solid high school level should be enough. Also a basic understanding on human psychology and philosophy to be able to think clearly and avoid typical pitfalls should help almost anyone. But that’s just off the top of my head – I’d probably go with just the maths. What do you think?

G: Well, I try to study everything, so…

S: … alright. Thanks for the discussion.

G: Thank you.