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.

• • •

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

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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