Heinlein was right

by Jon Sullivan - 2020-08-14

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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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Mike McKay
2020-08-14 08:06:31 : Oh my, so much to unpack, so little time before time-out :)

Let's start with Heinein.... I think we all knew about his dichotomy and often antagonistic views of the world. How else could you have someone who promoted gender equality in all his works but somehow could come of misogynistic at the same time? The flaws and inperfections in the man and author is what gave us pause to explore his ideas and develop our own. At the heart of the matter is that his protagonists were problems solvers... people who were never to take a situation at face value. They always had a broad experience and education along with the ability to use it correctly. Knowledge is, and always has been a tool and not a product. We package it and sell it as a product today, but that is not what it is. Without the ability to use it correctly, it is the proverbial man with a hammer believing everything is a nail. This accounts for the people out there that skim the plethora of knowledge we now have at hand to piece together bizzare conspiracy theories and to try and convince people the earth is flat and that vaccines are bad. People who have the mental accuity and training to use knowledge correctly rarely indulge in such claptrap. Even though we are living in a golden age of information, it does not mean that people have any better ability to use it than in the past. We tend to educate by local consensus and that means hiding or altering unpleasant information and creating a less upsetting world for those who love the white, god fearing, male dominanted world at hand.

As far as specialization goes, I think that it is not only good, but necessary in any social grouping. The larger the grouping, the more specializations will be required. This is essential for innovation and growth. However, I think that being a jack-of-all trades is a trait that allows freedom and growth for individuals as well as the ability to use new tools and grow from experiences. It may be that we will not need them as much today as in the past, but without them we are probably screwed as a species.

This turned into quite a rant and to sum up, the issue is not the information or the ability to specialize or generalize... the issue is the ability to educate our people from a young age to apply scientific reasoning and logic to the world, to question everything and verify sources, and to use information as a tool of growth rather than a divisive point to 'win'.

Jon Sullivan
2020-08-14 11:04:13 : Mike - Hard to disagree with any of that. So i'm going to ignore most of it, change my original argument, and attack a misrepresentation of your conclusion -

"the issue is the ability to educate our people from a young age to apply scientific reasoning and logic to the world, to question everything and verify sources, and to use information as a tool of growth rather than a divisive point to win."

I think we are doing that. And it's leading people to bad information, ludicrous conclusions, and goofy conspiracy theories. All of the debates about flat earth, anti-vax, MSG is bad, Diet Coke causes cancer, etc involve people proving those conclusions based on science. Are the people on the steps of the Capital promoting hydroxychloroquine all doctors who have studies to support their case? Yep. Is the author claiming masks are bad basing everything he says on scientific studies? Yep. Are the flat earthers running and validating real experiments? Yep.

So much for getting people to use science, reasoning and logic.

We taught people to question everything. We've made all the sources available. We have people in love with reasoning and logic. And we still have people quoting studies that show masks don't work. Trump is still going to be your next president. Because for all the science they site, people are stupid.

We've weaponized anti-intellectualism. We've made demonizing experts both easier and heroic. We've inflated the dubious idea that "everyone is entitled to their own opinion" into the conclusion that your opinion matters in any debate.

We've put all scientific studies on equal ground. And then we've invited everyone to question whether the CDC and WHO are lying to us.

Look..... When I say "just ask experts" I mean "know when to stop questioning everything". I mean that trusting the authoritative source is better than cherry picking science. I'm saying that if your science based opinion is that hydroxychloroquine prevents or cures Covid-19, then your opinion doesn't matter. If your evidence and logic based opinion is that the earth is flat, then your opinion doesn't matter. You are wrong.

For the next few years I'm going to wander around in public wearing my gaiter mask, and people are going to come up to me and say they saw a study proving gaiter masks are worse than no mask at all. And I can ask them if they actually read the study itself rather than just read the media headlines. And they can truthfully say they did, and they saw in chart 3a, right there, raw data showing a gaiter mask allowing more transmission than no mask at all. But they are wrong.

What I am arguing is that we're giving people the skills you mention, but they are still stuck in a libertarian, jack-of-all-trades, Heinlein mindset. They are using reasoning and logic to fuel their confirmation bias. When what they should be doing is understanding that the world is sometimes too complicated for them to logic their way through it. It's a global pandemic. If there are a million doctors in the US, and 10 of them say hydroxychloroquine prevents Covid-19, why are you listening to them? If some grad students at Duke say the one gaiter mask they bought at Walmart's bargain bin is worse than no mask at all, why care?

What I am arguing is that we do teach people to "apply scientific reasoning and logic to the world, to question everything and verify sources, and to use information as a tool of growth" and that isn't working. We did it. It made things worse. We've taught people that with enough general knowledge and skills, we are all akin to Heinlein's heroes. Well....... Heinlein's heroes were anti-vaxers.

What I'm arguing is that we need to stop weaponizing anti-intellectualism via scientific literacy. We need to try and fix stupid. Just that. Fix stupid.

Mike McKay
2020-08-14 18:05:37 : As usual, I think we are on the same page but have different ideas of how we got here...

I disagree with your premise that we teach rational and logical thinking in school. When we were growing up do you recall any mandatory classes that you took that specifically taught logic? Do they do that now?? I am seriously asking since I have no way of knowing if they do. I suspect that they do not. The closest thing that we took in HS that dealt with reasoning and the ability to convey it was speech and debate... and that was an elective.

My argument is that we cannot be teaching logic correctly in schools and still have people using irrational reasoning. For that to happen it would imply that people have malfunctioning brains. Actual damage either congenital or environmental. While this has a certain appeal to me, I know it is not correct :)

Our foray into logical thinking was through our interests in the sciences. Through scientific methodology, we learned that objective observation, replication, and validation were keys to success in understanding our world. Not everyone had an interest in the sciences and unfortunately, there were no stand-alone logic classes to take. I will also posit that logic and reasoning are a life long affair and that a single class is not enough. You have to use it and keep using it your entire life to become good at it.

So, to your point that teaching people to use scientific reasoning and logic is not working... I agree, but for the reasons above. We are not doing it right. And part of the reason we are not doing it right is that we do not value it in our society. Our values are based upon wealth and gain and social status. We obviously do not have high regard for teachers and scientists. They fill a necessary evil sort of role. Instead, we want to be entertained, admired by the peasants, and feared for our cutthroat business acumen.

Sigh... I get depressed by writing this. But I know that nothing has really changed. The world has always been this way and I believe the ratio of those who think vs those who shout has probably always been the same. Maybe we can't teach logic, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't try harder.


Jon Sullivan
2020-08-14 19:28:45 : So...... I was thinking back to our classes in Stevensville, ready to describe how we learned logic and critical thinking. And then just started laughing. You are right of course. I do remember Parker having to spend a good half hour explaining why it was appropriate to teach evolution in biology class. And skipping whole sections in history books. And the being told to not read several chapters of Gulliver's Travels. And of course my mom being accused of teaching witchcraft. Yeah...... Maybe we did learn critical thinking somewhere else. And maybe it's more wishful thinking on my part that things have improved.

Next time we get together for Solstice (or whatever) at Shron's, I propose we grill Morgon on what logic skills they are teaching. And how one might evaluate contradictory science based theories.

You said, "My argument is that we cannot be teaching logic correctly in schools and still have people using irrational reasoning."

I think my point is more that people are using proper logic and rational reasoning to cherry pick science to fit their conclusions. Many many doctors are saying they've had 100% success treating hundreds of patients with hydroxychloroquine. And all the studies showing otherwise are by schools and labs connected to Big Pharma. So, rationally, I'm going to trust the actual doctors rather than the scientists paid by drug companies. It's not in itself irrational. There is an internal logic to it.

I think my point is that they are using logic and reason. Of a sort. And thus they think it's not goofy to believe thousands of scientists are all lying, and Trump and the witch doctor are the ones to believe.

But you are right. Maybe I'm giving Americans too much credit in terms of critical thinking.

And like you, I find even writing all this is very depressing. It's bad enough we have to live through it. Why torture ourselves by analyzing it. (aside - I just misspelled that as analizing. perhaps that's a good way of describing it though)

I recently had someone who supported the idea that masks and distancing were not needed at all ask me to read an article with a lot of science supporting that claim. "Just read it", he said, "You may find the science compelling." They asked nicely, so I did it.

It took me days to go through all the citations, read the studies, and cross reference with the associated arguments being made. If you just read the article it actually made logical and rational sense. He'd made a very well reasoned case, with citations, for why masks and distancing hadn't helped at all. And if you just opened up the studies and confirmed they said what he said they did, you'd kind of have to agree he had a point.

Of course that's not how science works. Confirming that an author cherry picked accurately doesn't confirm their conclusions. And if you read the studies in depth you saw his citations didn't support his conclusion at all. Science is hard, but Americans are lazy. So he wins.

But you are right. I'm giving our educational system way too much credit.

Marilee Harrison
2020-08-16 09:32:35 : Science doesn't need to be hard, it just requires effort. Somehow we have been lulled into quick answers for everything and follow mainstream media like sheep and don't research. I have been caught in that trap at times, too but I have enough independently thinking friends that call me out when I do and I don't get my feathers ruffled when I get called out. I wish this was more the norm. I am not a conspiracy theorist normally but sometimes I do feel as if there is a dumbing down of America. So what is the answer. We can't just bitch about it and provide no solutions.

Marilee Harrison
2020-08-16 09:34:15 : I am so glad you are blogging again!! I miss having discourse like the one above between you and Mike.

Mike McKay
2020-08-16 11:42:39 : I agree Marilee, reasoning requires effort to stay on course... Something few people seem to have. Not sure if things are different now than in previous day's, just believe it is a long course of education that needs to start young. I would like to believe their is hope for adults who can't apply logic to their decisions but my observations have not been to encouraging.

Mike McKay
2020-08-16 11:45:09 : There not their ... Hate it when that happens

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