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.