Heinlein was right

by Jon Sullivan - 2020-08-14 - Jonism

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"An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field." - Robert A. Heinlein

My last post was about the idea that broad general knowledge was a trap. In that knowing a little bit about a lot of things might be good in trivia games, but it would fail when it came time to find the truth. I argued that a single subject expert was superior to a master at general knowledge. That post was in part motivated to troll people about my photo of a fake glass of whiskey. But mostly it was just me being angry about how Americans have so aggressively used facts to prove lies. Specifically the gaiter mask thing, but also flat earth, and QAnon, and Covid is like the flu, the idea that science = fake news, anti-vax. On and on. Americans, on both the left and right, have demonized being an expert. And I call bullshit. Experts are experts. General knowledge is trivia.

One of my oldest friends took me to task over that, reminding me that my youth was spent passionately arguing the opposite. And that my favorite author from that time famously said, "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."

Mike Mike Mike........ I know when you are baiting me. And of course you know I'll find the bait irresistible.

So yes, Heinlein was one of the people who had a major impact on the person I grew up to be. And his heroes were usually great heroic men of broad and clever knowledge. He would drop them on an unfamiliar planet and they would thrive. They would build whatever needed to be built, kill whatever needed to be killed, and prevail by virtue of knowing every skill. And always with enlightening discussions of morality, politics, and sociology. They never specialized. They never needed to seek experts. The stories inspired me.

But as I've grown much older I've soured on many of his ideas, especially the libertarian and patriarchal ones. I've also come to lose a lot of faith in that sort of jack-of-all-trades general knowledge as a valuable goal in itself. In 2020 we literally carry all the world's knowledge in our pockets. And here we are...... more stupid than ever. It seems like the prepper, libertarian, master-of-all-trades mentality espoused in your quote also leads one to vote for Mad King Donald, need an AR-15 to shoo people off your sidewalk, and refuse to wear a mask in a pandemic.

Two things........ 1) Obviously I'm never going to suggest people avoid knowing as much knowledge, and having as many skills, as they want to absorb. 2) If your goal is to live a self sufficient life off the grid where your success depends on all those skills in the quote, then having all those skills is a very good idea. I'm not anti knowledge. I'm pro knowledge. As I said in my previous post, truth depends on context. And having a broad knowledge of many things will help you understand the context. Or........ you know....... you could just ask an expert. Seriously. The same tool in your pocket that gives you access to all the world's knowledge also gives you access to all the experts. My point is that a powerful collection of trivia will lead you to conclude the earth is flat, and that an evil cult is ruling the planet. Which is useless. Just ask an expert. Pay a professional. Read the directions.

As I've grown much older I've come to accept, with great joy by the way, that I don't need to know how to butcher a hog. One of the reasons I live in the city is that we have places here that will sell you, and I'm not making this up, conveniently trimmed and wrapped pork in individual portions. It's actually common here. I can get it delivered.

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