Friday, October 30, 2009

Is specialization a bad or a good thing?

Recently I've been reading The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow -- an interesting book partly about probability theory and partly about how our psychological makeup fools us into seeing patterns and purpose in a world where a lot of stuff just happens by accident.

What made me think of this question about specialization was Mlodinow's account of the life of Gerolamo Cardano. Cardano, who lived in the 16th century, was a mathematician, a physician, an astrologer, a professional gambler, and an important probability theoretician. And it was Cardano's professional breadth that got me thinking about the issue of specialization. Would a knowledge-worker with such diverse capabilities be likely to emerge today?

I believe history shows that specialization is made possible through technological and economic development. During the 19th and 20th centuries, specialization increased as mechanization and automation made it possible for more people to do something other than farming.

Today's world seems hyper-specialized. This makes it possible for one person to obtain exceptional skill and knowledge in a particular area, and to contribute that knowledge in an organizational setting. So, for example, an anthropologist versed in ethnographic research can be used by a company to study its target customers, and the knowledge gained can be used to create products more suited to customers' needs and to better market those customers.

While such specialization is undoubtedly valuable in many contexts, I can't help but wonder what might be missing in a world with so many specialists and so few people with crossover capabilities.

AB -- 30 Oct. 2009

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Friday, July 24, 2009

The 10,000-Hour Rule and the Intransigence of Experts

In his recent book Outliers, sociologist Malcolm Gladwell posits a "10,000-Hour Rule," which sets 10,000 hours as the amount of practice required to master a discipline. As an example, he suggests that the Beatles were so successful because they spent about that amount of time practicing together. Then they got good and got noticed. This put them in the right place at the right time to sweep a market that was looking for a fresh musical sound.

10,000 hours is a tremendous investment, and explains some of the closed-mindedness and intransigence that infects so many areas of expertise. Once a person achieves expertise and starts to get rewarded for it, that person has invested so much time, energy, and emotion in the practice that it could be difficult to admit that one might be wrong on some fundamental points having to do with your field.

One example might be the unwillingness of so many academics to admit any serious discussion of intelligent design ideas.

Another example comes to mind in the field of linguistics. I recently read Merritt Ruhlen's The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue. In his book, Ruhlen describes the vehement opposition of mainstream historical linguists to the idea that elements of an original single human language might be extrapolated by examining cognates across many of today's languages.

Because humans now have such short lives, we only have so much time to devote to becoming good at something. So once we achieve a state of expertise, we tend to be so invested in it that we are unwilling to consider alternatives, however reasonable.

AB -- 24 July 2009

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A thought about expertise

One thing that holds me back from being an expert is that I don't want to know so much about one thing that I don't know anything about anything else.

AB -- 9/09/08

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Experts blinded by their biases

Just wanted to hold on to this excerpt from the Amazon blog of biologist Michael Behe -- I was drawn by his comment about expertise:

"Well, it seems to me that a country which places control of the military in civilian hands is a country which recognizes that experts, like other people, can be blinded by their biases. If control of the military is too important to be left to the experts, control of education is, too. Even to experts who are as sure of themselves as Kenneth Miller is."

Behe was commenting on a new book by biologist Kenneth Miller.

AB -- 6/18/08

Friday, March 16, 2007

Rhetorical Intimidation

I've noticed that many experts, and other people interested in asserting authority, will use what I call rhetorical intimidation to gain the upper hand in a dispute. One way they do this is through the use of certain expressions. Here are some examples I can think of:

"Pure and simple" -- As in, "This is theft, pure and simple." This is sometimes used to add artificial certainty to an assertion, to make things seem black-and white.

"Just plain wrong" -- Used in similar ways to "pure and simple" to impose an oversimplified certainty to your own side in an argument.

"There is no dispute that ...." -- Followed sometimes by a statistic, sometimes simply by the speaker's opinion. My immediate urge when I hear this is to respond with, "I hereby dispute you."

"Nonsense" -- Used to describe someone else's idea and to position your own as superior.

"Utter" -- This one occurred to me just now, as it is sometimes used with a word like "nonsense" or "hogwash" to make the other person's idea sound even more unreliable.

"Pseudo-science" -- Used to describe an area of inquiry that conflicts with your own deeply-held opinions. A celebrity not long ago used this term to disparage psychiatry. It is often used to describe any investigation into the paranormal, and is sometimes used by partisans on either side of the evolution-intelligent design debate to describe one another's models.

AB -- 16 March 2007

Friday, February 23, 2007

Spin and Gaffes

An essay by Michael Kinsley in Time, "Gaffes to the Rescue," offers some interesting insights into the public utterances of politicians. It's sad to think what it must be like to follow a profession in which you have to manipulate your words (spin) in furtherance of your quest for power and control, while at the same time you have to be ever vigilant not to say something that can get you in trouble or possibly even chased off the field (gaffes).

Kinsley gives some useful definitions of "spin" and "gaffe" in his essay:

"Spin is often thought to be synonymous with falsehood or lying, but more accurately it is indifference to the truth. A politician engaged in spin is saying what he or she wishes were true, and sometimes, by coincidence, it is. Meanwhile, a gaffe, it has been said, is when a politician tells the truth--or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down."

Kinsley uses recent examples of gaffes by Jacques Chirac, Joseph Biden, and Barbara Boxer, but some classic examples of gaffes that come to my mind are two that seriously derailed the political careers of the utterers:

+ Al Gore's statement that he was one of the people in the legislature who took the initiative providing the funding to build the Internet -- which somehow got twisted around to make it look like he was taking credit for inventing the Internet

+ Trent Lott's tribute to Strom Thurmond, in which he said things probably would have been better if Thurmond had been elected as President -- which always sounded to me like one of those things good ol' boys say to each other at banquets to make each other feel good. Seems pretty unlikely that Lott had in mind endorsing Thurmond's long-ago segregationist stance.

I think there's a lot more to say about spin, which I plan to write about in the future. But in brief I think my point will be that spin is employed much more often than we acknowledge, in all kinds of situations, and can be very hard to identify and expose. I think it is often used as a tool to gain power by rhetorical intimidation.

This takes place in all kinds of arenas -- including more public arenas such as politics, academia, science, and marketing -- but also in groups and interpersonally.

AB -- 23 February 2007

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Messy worker: Your piles are all right.

Recently a colleague pointed me to Malcolm Gladwell's 2002 article in The New Yorker, "The Social Life of Paper." I read this article yesterday in connection with a research project I'm doing on the future of print and paper. Gladwell confirms a thought I've had frequently in the past: Paper is a great interface.

Gladwell's article considers paper as a tool for knowledge workers, and he cites some interesting research about messy desks. The research suggests that actually a messy desk with piles of paper everywhere can be a sign of an effective worker and does not necessarily imply disorganization.

AB -- 1/10/07