Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Field of Expertology: Some Observations With Intermittent Ranting

I can see the oh-so-human need to feel a sense of accomplishment in one's studies. You have read a few books and a handful of articles on some subject, you have an overweening interest that bubbles over and suddenly you find yourself taking out loans for college to study much more intensively in your area. (Almost) everyone admires your pluck and determination. In two or three years of taking classes and writing papers, you get a degree. Congrats! <cue Sir Edward Elgar's warhorse>

But: do you now qualify as an "expert" in your field? With a Master's degree? With a further two or three years of working in the field? Maybe. Definitely yes, if you want to use the word "expert" to sell yourself to the public. And if you're an "expert," what do we call the person in your field who won the Nobel Prize, or the Field Medal, or the Booker Prize, or some similar whopping cash prize accompanied by prestige? A "god" or "goddess" in the field? You did two years of Neurobiology and got accepted for the PhD gauntlet, but bowed out after ten months due to worldly needs. You know a helluva lot about the brain, but if you're an "expert," what is Eric Kandel then? Has the term "expert" become watered-down? I think so, but it's tricky...

How many "experts" can there be in any given field? Is it really desirable to believe yourself an "expert"? I can see some downside to it. A complacency. A smugness. A slowly growing laxity in "keeping up" in the field. Hey wait a minute: is it even possible, given the supernovae of knowledge, data, information in any given field...to "keep up"? I very seriously doubt it. Gradually, you will be merely pretending to keep pace.

But yes, using the term "expert" as a self-marketing tool makes sense, especially if you are a freelancer. If you already have a full-time job doing what you specialized in, we can see that you must be some sort of "expert." (Or someone is being fooled!) The old saw from generalists about experts: that an "ex" is a has-been and a "spurt" is a "glorified drip" seems mean-spirited and unfair. And it's not even funny. Let us give more leeway to self-declared "experts" who have a degree in some discipline. These people definitely know something of value, which is much more than we can say for the (m)asses.

My personal take on the semantics of "expertise" is that it's mostly bogus, and eventually evident in pretentiousness. One ought not want to be an "expert," save for the aforementioned self-marketing tool. You need a job, you know stuff and have some specialized training: call yourself an "expert"! You'll probably get paid more, because if there's anything the public loves, it's someone who will tell them what's going on, what to think, how to have an opinion that at least sounds halfway intelligent. It seems to help if you pretend to know more than you do, and to answer every question immediately, without taking time for considered thought, which is seen as "weak." Also, make your shoulders look wide, and speak with a brassy, well-modulated voice. If you speak near the basso profundo range yet with not a thought in your head you will be given due consideration as Wise. In my country, Unistat, the Cult of the Expert reigns in a major way. People seem to think the actor who reads the news on TV has gravitas, and is a serious mind to contend with, about which the less said the better.

And you say to yourself, "Of course this chap who openly extolls his 'overweening generalist' thing would be anti-expert." And you'd be right. But why do I think this?

Mostly because I pay overweening attention to what "experts" have said in the past, and then notice what happened. But it's far more complex than that. Of course, sometimes they were accurate, but we wonder if a taxicab driver could've flown the same prognostications and ended up close to the mark, too. If so - and this is not as far-fetched as it might sound - what do we make of the remarkable powers of the taxi driver?

Okay: I say, as of this date, that it's a horridly under-appreciated fact that all knowledge is contingent. This makes even the best "experts" wrong, eventually. Indeed, it seems built into the "expert" territory.

Trofim Lysenko. Franz Joseph Gall. Franz Mesmer. All "experts" at one time.

Furthermore, as a generalist, I've noticed that non-experts who are nevertheless intelligent and obsessive readers, often have a better developed ability to convey the knowledge of the more widely-recognized "experts." Often, such people go by the name of "journalist," or "freelance writer" and they may have some academic background in the area of "expertise," but it is not their specialty. (Rather: not specializing is their forte and strength!) Additionally, the "expert" may have an axe to grind, which skews his presentation to a public hungry for a lucid narrative about some difficult process or concept or series of events. And Expert-Person may not be able to effectively imagine the lay audience, due to surfeit of arcane information. They fall prey to jargon, rely too much on former colleagues, or evince a misplaced punctiliousness. I don't think we truly have as many "experts" as we think we do, nor should we. We should have more people who know maybe "quite a lot" in a one field, and then be diligent generalists. 

But we don't have that, and I think it's the aura of the "expert" that fools many people into pursuing this social role. We all must find our niche and specialize; the time has come for this. Or so we are told. (By "experts"?) We have entered some sort of epoch in which you must do whatever you can to pass as "expert," and then...maybe you will pay the rent that way.

It's a sorry state. Because unless you're being paid very well to work in your role as an "expert" you might better serve yourself and society by eschewing the "expert" role and instead be more of a generalist. The pace of information doubling in any given field - probably subject to something close to Moore's Law - means you are fooling yourself that you're really an "expert" in the semantic sense I'm talking about here.

And society is getting crazier and crazier because the pace of change seems logarithmically accelerated, and anxiety is increasing, and the know-nothings want "experts" to tell them Who Is Causing This? And there is no end of PR "experts" and think-tank "experts"who are paid ridiculous sums to tell Joe and Josephine Q. Sixpack who is to blame. We need well-rounded, well-informed, generally epistemologically prudent people to keep the sanity! (I am such the romantic!, I know, I know...)

Hell, it's great knowing just "really really a lot" in some field; call yourself an "expert" if the gullible will pay you more to play that role, but you're not an "expert" and you probably shouldn't even want to be one, unless you have a real shot at it. And if you do know a lot about a subject, fer crissakes: learn how to convey it to the Public. It will not do, for example, to be an expert in late 20th century literature and write like this.

Another insidious aspect of the need to feel an "expert" is that, indeed, you have a far-from-layperson's grasp of some area of knowledge. But then you gradually, imperceptibly, fall into some corner implied by the hypertrophy of something like Zipf's Law . Some sort of law of least resistance ensues; we all want to lead with our strength. (I, for one, resist this inclination, for obvious reasons.) Zipf's or Someone Else's Law kicks in and then, after many years of having not much of a social or bathing life you know more and more about some micro-specialty - possibly theoretically suspect among the Old Ones in the field - but hey, you're rolling, maybe no one knows a few things you know, why not push it further and sub-sub-sub-microspecialize...and then, we hate to inform you, but you're a moron! Yep. Sorry! Suddenly, one day, you wake up and you have written 843 pages on some forgotten dispute (and why won't the Journal of Boo-Huzzle Studies publish my paper? Why won't that know-nothing editor even write me back?) about the finer points of whether the frammigoshes can be distimmed better using one modeling process, versus the absolutely, titanically full of crap Non-Xers who think frammigoshes are not even the main point; they should be distimmed in any number of ways and subject to experimental validation, but the main point is how to build a better model of a fleezix? You are sure they Got It All Wrong 70 years ago, and you will make the Boo-Huzzle world pay for its neglect of the lost knowledge that could've...something. (At this point, one equally whacked character in Belgium is fascinated by your work, but other than that, no one even knows what it was you were trying to do! Nor do they care. This is something to be avoided, to be plain. If you fall into this stuff, you're a pathetic ass, to be obvious.)

On second thought, anyone who falls prey to the world described above was probably headed there anyway, so let us make sure they don't wander into oncoming traffic and, fer gawdsakes, someone be a Good Sam and just take a machete to the weeds in the front yard? The neighborhood kids can get lost in there. Does that guy ever eat anything but Dominos? (Don't laff. I live in Berkeley, and these people are legendary. They tend to end up within a ten mile radius of our greatest universities, and their beards are, shall we say, unkempt. This goes for the women, too.)
One of the funniest books I have on my reference shelf at home is The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation, (1998), expanded and updated edition, edited by Cerf and Navasky. 

Since this topic is close to home, I'll give a few examples:

"640K ought to be enough for anybody." - Bill Gates, 1981

"We don't need you. You haven't got through college yet." - a Hewlett-Packard executive, responding to  Jobs and Wozniak's attempts to interest them in the personal computer, 1976.

"I think there is a world market for about five computers." - attributed to Thomas J. Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home." - Ken Olson, President of Digital Equipment Corporation, at the World Future Society convention, 1977

"What the hell is it good for?" - Robert Lloyd, engineer of the Advanced Computing Systems Division at IBM in 1968, after being told by his colleagues that the microprocessor was the wave of the future.

"Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may only have 1000 vacuum tubes and perhaps only weigh 1 1/2 tons." - Popular Mechanics, March, 1949

-see pp.230-231, op.cit

Expertology is the field of the study of experts, obviously. The above-named book is filled to the gills with such pronouncements from throughout history, in every human field of endeavor. It is also a minor field of..."expertise"(?), probably because we love our experts so much and never notice their errors or quickly forget them. I assert the (m)asses are in general, Authoritiarian, and love to be told what to do, think, what's desirable, what values to have, who to kowtow to, etc. Therefore, Expertology tends towards a certain bias against "experts." If only as a necessary corrective...(Methinks the field is still failing, alas.)

I would like to add that, in my present state of advanced confusion and wonderment, that the physical sciences and technology, despite the examples I chose above, seem less inclined, on the whole, to rampant buncombe or "expert" asses. When you're competing against Art "experts," literature "experts," music "experts," economics "experts," psychology "experts," it's not even a fair fight. But lo! all fields of "expertise" recoil in reflexive horror at the prospect of putting their best bullshitting "experts" up against the Men of God, throughout human history.

Well, that's my little spiel. I can see I haven't convinced anyone, so if you were amused at all, let us consider this a draw? And if I wasted your time, I apologize and wish you well in furthering your <cough> expertise. In the meantime, I'll be happily hanging with the generalists, that admittedly ignorant, minority lot.


ARW23 said...

Sorry, I can not help it but to quote Nassim Taleb in his "Black Swan":

- "The expert problem, or the tragedy of the empty suit."

- "Expert - the toxicity of knowledge."

- "The "expert" is the closest thing to a fraud; performing no better than a computer using a single metric."

- "The problem with experts is that they do not know what they do not know."

michael said...

Nassim seems a rich vein to mine for blowback on experts and as a new source for Expertology.

The field of Expertology seems underrated to me. I cannot believe the Loudmouths on TV "news" and about 90% of the Punditocracy: such rampant, moronic, FRAUD!

So I say Expertology is underrated because so few people make it their mission to chart the experts and then check their track records.

And I'm not even talking about the Experts who talk about "political issues" and most of it goes something like this: "Boehner scored some points with his constituency when he said X and Q today; Obama is going to have to appear more blah blah if he wants to keep the voters in those four states from migrating...blah blah blah..." Is it all just HANDICAPPING now? (Actually, it's been like "that" for about 15 years now..._ What about something substantive about "issues." Oh, I forgot: your network is owned by a Fortune 100 company: nevermind.

Everyone would be smarter about politics if they just shut off the goddamned TV...in my opinion.