Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Experts and Elites

(New introduction after drawing this essay to a close.  As I have said before, the solution to everything is to read more CS Lewis.  He comes up again and again in all topics of importance.  So go do that.)

The discussion under my post on Elites and the immediately preceding post on William Shirer's quote intersect quite a bit. That post and its comments, Foster's post, and Lewis's essay are the background to this and I encourage the reading of them. This post is an assertion that will seem unsupported without knowledge of those previous. I think Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy (included in larger link that I thought valuable.)

The first generation of experts are often only recognised in retrospect as having started something new.  Because there was no expertise in a non-existent field until they got there, they look like mere renegades and refugees from other fields at first.  They include many cranks who contribute only odd bits to the field, and even the best of them seem to have some crank in them. I hoped I helped rehabilitate the reputation of the later Newton in my recent post, but he did get into some rather odd philosophy derived from alchemy and odd tributaries of Biblical prophecy.  Only when the dust has settled do we see that someone like Pournelle actually did synthesize new knowledge well, that Asimov anticipated some but not all of what was developing, and Carl Sagan was merely clever and shallow.  In real time that is hard to see.

In CS Lewis's analogy from Abolition of Man, these are the people who irrigate deserts. 

The next generation - and generations are short in art, in music, in science*, and  literature - is more about slashing down jungle growth from the recent irrigation.  They are weeding out the riotous growth on a massive scale and identifying the really promising plants and animals versus the weeds. They push the field forward enormously, though they are often true descendants of the cranks and have a lot of difficulties themselves.  Think Steve Jobs and developing a computer industry; Bill Belichick and turning statistics and data into teams, Renoir and Monet, Orson Welles, Crick and Watson. Giants.

The next generation is also spectacular, because it still takes real ability to get in, enough ability so that Oppenheimer can recognise Hey this Feynman character really knows his way around an atomic orbital. But sometime thereafter others start to creep in, people who understand plenty of the introductory material but begin to sense that they might not be able to get to the major leagues. They start to develop alternative strategies for moving ahead, things like identifying an unexploited niche - which is entirely valid - or spotting talent and encouraging it - also immensely useful, or less savory things like pulling up the ladders behind them, or harming the careers of rivals.

They sometimes go into writing about the field, or teaching, or coaching, and some among them also become giants.

This accelerates.  The entrance into the minor leagues of any field can increasingly be gamed with connections, knowledge of vulnerabilities, or mastering the vocabulary. Even this is at first not much of a problem. Some knowledge is still required, and a dim recognition of standards still present.  Yet for the narcissists, the pedants, and those with fatal flaws who do not see them, their inability to ascend to the Inner Ring is intolerable, and the alternative strategies for ascent now make up the bulk of people around them who are also trying to get in.  As I noted in a comment under the "Elites" post, this begins at places like William and Mary, or Bucknell, or Georgetown but spreads rapidly to UNH or Occidental or...North Park. In that environment, the alternative strategies are increasingly seen as the real strategies. That's how you get where you want to go. There are still very decent, very skilled, very smart, very diligent people among them, and I do not in the least mean to imply otherwise.  Yet the ability to discern who is actually brilliant and who is a ticket-puncher becomes more and more difficult.

The woke gatekeeping in the humanities and the social sciences, including graduate level studies is now drawn almost entirely from this pool, rather than the pool of real experts.  See Pournelle's Iron Law, above. 

These are the experts to fear, the experts who are third and fourth generation, who have real abilities but do not know what they do not know, and cannot distinguish between the expertise of those who are giants and those who came up gaming the system

In public psychiatry and clinical psychology, in social work, in addiction studies, and in trauma studies, let me assure from personal experience that this is true. The new experts cannot discern the difference. I have strong suspicions of the same in fields I know something about but not deep knowledge, such as anthropology, theology, literature, historical linguistics, criminology, and human genetics. While any paid expert in those fields could of course make me look like a fool in only few minutes because of the lacunae in my knowledge, I still think they are so beholden to their political and social beliefs that they cannot afford to see otherwise.

*But not math.  Math generations keep doubling back a few centuries to look at something that they were suddenly reminded of in a current problem.


james said...

Sometimes the bright person follows a blind lead--when a topic takes a few years to explore luck can play a role. But on the whole that's a good model for how injellititis develops.

Everybody wants to be the ground-breaker, not the follower. A research field badly needs lots of followers, to do the more ordinary work of turning the light in every direction, filling in the gaps, and finding how the breakthrough applies in all the odd corners. (if for no other reason, than because those odd corners are where you find where the theory breaks down--like Mercury's orbit). Some of those followers are pretty doggone good too, but they can't get the recognition the pioneers did. How does one stand out?

I don't remember if I read it in Parkinson's Law or just thought of it when reading it--but I suspect that when people in a field start writing histories of the field, it is plateauing.

Mike Guenther said...

Except that Math is white privilege personified and who are we to correct the person who thinks 2+2=5. And why do we need to learn the pythagorean theorem anyway. That's white supremacy BS.