Specialization is for insects

Eric Shelton (AKA The Shelton) recently shared a post, Heinlein was wrong. The post appears to be an excerpt from Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. The excerpt refers to the following from Robert Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I don’t want to re-quote Eric’s post here but the excerpt makes the following points:

  • Heinlein is telling us that truly capable human beings, should be able to do almost anything
  • The quote is a noble sentiment, it celebrates human adaptability and resilience, but it’s wrong.
  • A homesteader making his own house and the materials to assemble it was inefficient and produced only “rudimentary housing.”
  • No one expects metallurgy, architecture, and glazing in a skyscraper to be executed by the same person.
  • The workers in a skyscraper possess some overlapping knowledge but respect the professional abilities of many others and concentrate on doing what he or she knows best.
  • We cannot function without admitting the limits of our knowledge and trusting in the expertise of others

The Life Judo slogan is taken from this quote so it is not surprising I think the above is well meant nonsense. Heinlein wrote a “human being” should be able to do his list, not a remarkable person. It is not a noble sentiment but a specific point. Rudimentary housing is far better than freezing your ass off, and if you can’t make rudimentary shelter you are relying on our modern support system to function flawlessly and relying on yourself to have flawless judgement and knowledge of the future. The last three points made by Mr. Nichols can be addressed completely by Heinlein’s requirement to take orders, give orders, cooperate, and act alone.

Making the claim that specialization is for insects is not a call for isolation and rugged individualism. It is a call to be useful and of value to the people around you. Are people in need? Can you be of assistance? What if you are separated from the group? Do they need to mobilize resources and take on new risks to save you or can they count on you to find your way back more or less on your own?

Heinlein is placing a list of skills in your mind and letting you have a response. Are you energized at the prospect of becoming better rounded or do you shrink away from exposing yourself to the inevitable failure of learning?

We don’t need to achieve unparalleled levels of excellence in all facets of our life. It has been well said that perfect is the enemy of good enough. Rather than be excellent, can you do these and other things at all? My observation in the world and my own experience indicates the expanding of one’s skill set expands one’s freedom. It’s also a lot of fun.

But Mr. Nichols was applying his point more to society than to the individual! My point still stands. Have you ever noticed that biology involves chemistry and that chemistry involves physics and that physics involves math and that communicating mathematical concepts in relation to real world issues involves good writing skills? Do you recall that the information about the 9/11 attacks was known to the government but the compartmentalization of the information prevented the whole picture emerging?

When we specialize we are putting our understanding in silos. Are you in the foreign policy silo or steel worker silo or the management silo? This does not serve our society, our industry, nor our science. Nowhere in Heinlein’s quote are we admonished against achieving excellence. In fact his reference to giving and receiving orders and acting cooperatively implies strongly that there are to be people expert enough to clearly be in charge.

If I need brain surgery or an engine block blueprinted I want the operator to be an expert and truly fantastic at the task. However, it does not follow that I want or need the surgeon or machinist to be ignorant of how to cook a meal, write a sonnet, or build a wall.

Mr Nichols may well have a valid point to make but he has chosen the wrong context to make it. I cannot think of a better thing for any society of humans than that they should all strive to live the terms Heinlein lays out for us.

3 Replies to “Specialization is for insects”

  1. Ben, respectfully, your characterization of specializing is so hyperbolic it approaches silliness. At the end of your post you even concede you’d want an expert for certain tasks. But whoever said specializing in one discipline prevented one from passing familiarity with another? You bring up biology, chemistry and physics as if Mr. Nichol’s excerpt didn’t include the passage, “each expert, although possessing some overlapping knowledge, respects the professional abilities of many others and concentrates on doing what he or she knows best.” That is to say, yes, a rudimentary house is better than freezing to death, but a house that’s weather tight and has indoor plumbing is better still.

    It’s when you write “if you can’t make rudimentary shelter you are relying on our modern support system to function flawlessly” that I have to wave a giant B.S. flag. Things go wrong all the time. The Exxon Valdez has a spill. A neighborhood suffers a power outage. Drought affects a regions crops. And yet, somehow, apparently miraculously, our “modern support system” manages to absorb the lack of flawlessness and move on. The illusion that society or infrastructure is this delicate thing under it’s every day veneer is a persistently wrong notion in “prepper” thought. On the contrary, it works precisely because it takes screw ups into account. Experts consider things like that. 😉

  2. Just a quick, additional comment: what the book is really about is people’s disregard for expert opinion and thinking they know better. The mall ninja, for example. I really don’t care about Heinlein at all. My post ends where it does because it’s the crux of the book’s argument, “The fact of the matter is that we cannot function without admitting the limits of our knowledge and trusting in the expertise of others.” Too many people think they know things they don’t actually know, and that’s a precarious situation for a society.

  3. Eric!

    I’ve re-read my post and don’t see hyperbole.

    Criticizing expertise was never my point.

    Full disclosure, I am a huge proponent of the Rectification of Names ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rectification_of_names ) and by extension the idea that we must use the correct word that corresponds to the idea intended to have meaningful communication and discussion. Sure, if we just kind of relax, we can see the point the author is getting at but I presumed the author had a level of expertise in writing with precision.

    I think I only have one point I’m driving at and it is made in the end of the post.

    “Mr Nichols may well have a valid point to make but he has chosen the wrong context to make it. I cannot think of a better thing for any society of humans than that they should all strive to live the terms Heinlein lays out for us.”

    There are several ideas in this debate and the question is which one we are discussing.

    Let’s look at the excerpt of the quote under attack, “Specialization is for insects.”

    The criticism regards specialization. What did Heinlein mean by “specialization?” Setting aside the whole quote for a moment we can look to insects for further light. A great example of specialization found in insects are drone bees. They serve one purpose. One is selected to fertilize the queen bee and the rest are killed off. The drone is good for nothing but that one purpose. It is specialized. It has no expertise but only one function.

    Heinlein thinks that is a bad idea and I agree with him.

    This is not a criticism of expertise. If Heinlein’s quote is taken in whole then it becomes clear that he is not hostile to expertise at all. So, opposing specialization, in the context Heinlein wrote it (and not that the man was some sort of prophet but that his is the quote under discussion) is not an assault on expertise.

    We can consider your other points.

    I wrote, “if you can’t make rudimentary shelter you are relying on our modern support system to function flawlessly” and I see why you might respond as you did. The function I was referring to is the delivery of services. Not that there are never errors but that our supply chain is definitely interruptible, that our planes and cars fail us and strand us places. I also wish I had used the word “shelter” exclusively throughout my post for the sake of clarity.

    The bottom line is Mr. Nichols made a good point on the wrong terrain. The Dunning-Kruger effect is real ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect ). As I wrote in my post, there are times we want an expert. The H’s full quote alludes to this. And you are right, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” But you titled your post “Heinlein was wrong” and he isn’t.

    It’s funny that your intent can be found at the end of your post and I took issue with the title.

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