Raheel Lakhani

Educational Technologist,

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Has specialization or focus on expertise been an advantage to us or a disadvantage?

In past, whether it was Greeks or the Muslim Empire, there was a lot of focus on eclectic knowledge. The main quest was for learning as a whole and not in different disciplines. Though a lot of categorization has come from that place, still they never concentrated on one categorization. They were well-versed in diverse things.

Is the fragmentation a sin of modern academia? or does specializations really help? how much is it needed and where/when we should avoid? Is jack of all a bad thing?

what are its implications of our education systems? what are its implications in decision-making in varied contexts?

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    Feb 22 2011: There is much to be said for the polymath. Competent in large number of diverse fields, the polymath can turn their hand to just about anything they feel like. There is much that also may be said of the specialist. After years of patient study and experience this person can do things that few others can. In our large and complex world we need both.

    We need people who are immersed in a specific topic, say the expressions of a specific gene, or in the language of binary load lifters. These people can help us when no one else can. They can do things that no one else can. If my computer starts acting funny, and it turns out that there's something wrong with something weird and arcane at the heart of my system, I don't want someone who just dabbles in digital heart surgery to fix the problem. I want a specialist to do the job.

    But there must also be those who can see the big picture, the large scale structure of things. They dabble, and they check things out, and they wander around. They learn enough to understand what it is that's being done and how it's done, but that's not their primary concern. Their job is to orchestrate the various endeavors, the various specialties. The bring them together towards a specific goal. Say, understanding how a rare birth defect involving a specific gene functions, and what may be done to fix it, and what will our return be for this research? Understanding the specific functions of a specific gene when it has a specific defect requires specialization. But taking that knowledge and turning it into a viable cure for a genetic illness requires a different sort of person.

    We need both, the specialist and the polymath, in order to make progress, in order to function.
  • Mar 8 2011: Specialization is a consequence of the expansion of information as it stretches individuals' capacity to develop knowledge, and society's capacity to organize and access knowledge. For expertise to be valuable, it must be governed by the scientific principles of skeptical inquiry and testability. For it to be useful, it has first to gain a foothold in the morass of political and emotional currents that result in social decisions. A credulous populace can be as easily led by false prophets as by experts with something important to contribute, so for expertise to be properly applied to 'real-world' applications, its clientele - potentially all of us, need to have some skill in finding valuable expertise and in discerning whether what a particular expert is offering has applicability to our situation, or is perhaps missing something or misinterpreting our needs. As specialization increases, so we are likely to need more expert-specialists and people whose expertise is in defining needs, identifying expertise likely to be of use, and drawing together knowledge from different fields. To follow from Bernd Fesel, as we envisage not only an increasing spread of specialties, there may grow an ever-higher pyramid of interpreters to link expert with client, and we may well face a problem of decreasing return on investment in knowledge. But there are surely experts out there with a better grasp on this than I, a mere inquisitive end-user and armchair commentator.
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      Mar 12 2011: Spot On! Carl Sagan even said something similar with his 'Baloney Detection Kit'.
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    Feb 27 2011: I think most would say there are both advantages and disadvantages. Thomas Kuhn established the dangers of paradigm blindness and those exploring cognitive heuristics clearly establish the falliibilities of expert judgment. That said, I am concerned that there is a kind of anti-intellectualism operating in the US that leads people to believe that their understanding of the world is valid just because it popped out of their own head. Climate change is an example. I run into many people who believe climate change is fallicious because, well, they just don't believe it. When asked for their evidence they forward clearly fallicious ideas. Some truths are more valid than others. People who have studied a given area of science for example are usually more informed than those who simply operate on "instincts". Do experts fall into self confirmation bias - absolutely. Public policy, however, should be based on the best available evidence which often is best understood by "experts". Frankly, I believe a lot of Dr. Hertz's comments are valuable but will be misconstrued and missapplied by those who fundamentally do not believe that the scientific method is useful process of understanding the world. Especially in the areas of public policy relating to science, I would rather my elected representatives seek out the advice of "experts" (albeit a diversity of this population) than to rely on their own instincts often severely colored by scientific illiteracy and religious prejudice. (E.g. climate change cannot be true because God would never let this happen to the earth - a comment I recently heard in an MBA classroom).
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      Mar 4 2011: But then climate change would not be solved alone with experts and scientists? We would need people who inspire like artists or theologians and then we would also need scientific knowledge about how to tackle the problem and then sociologists to see where the humans need to change their gears.
  • Feb 24 2011: As a physician, an "expert", I understand exactly what Noreena Hertz is talking about. All beleifs are formed in a specific set of conditions, at a place and time with certain role expectations. Thus , my views are always limited by those conditions. So when a patient comes to me with a tumor, my expectation would be to consider treatment. The patient exists in a different frame of refference. One brilliant patient , upon learning about his tumor, announced that he would not take any treatment thar required him to get on a gurney( that wheeled portable bed we use to transport people arround hospitals) . So I agreed to provide only hospice care , where no gurneys are needed.

    My world view allows for patients to get on gurneys and be tranported in and out of therapy rooms, his didn't. In this case his world view is the right one, mine wrong! Yet I am in general right about using gurney based care to help people. But not in his case.

    I beleive that we experts must be open and discuss with our clients, the limited set of conditions that our expetise is applicable for. Unfortunately, most individual lives do no fit exactly into those conditions. So we must share with our clients the inevitable uncertaintly that our opinions have when applied to their conditions. Thus, their thinking brains will be turned on and contribute to the decisions they need to make.
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    Mar 17 2011: Specialization leads to efficiency, and great experts, but a general knowledge base is necessary for a really successful life. I would argue that the greatest thinkers and visionaries of our time are sort of multi-specialists, people who can combine expert knowledge of various disciplines to produce something new and interesting. They are a sort of modern renaissance men and women.

    So, specialization, while important, is dangerous at its extremes just like anything else. Consider the cases of autistic-savants, who can memorize whole books in minutes, or tell you whether today's date in ten thousand years is a Sunday, but can't tie their shoes. If we specialize too much, we may find that we endanger our ability to interact outside the tiny area of our knowledge.
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    Mar 17 2011: If we keep learning more and more about less and less will we end up knowing everything about nothing?
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      Mar 7 2011: Thank you for pointing out multi-disciplinary and community wisdom approaches. We also need to get involved in more participatory action researches.

      This really helped to settle my confusion :)
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    Feb 27 2011: The idea of expertise is directly related to sophistry and rhetoric. The implications are the antithesis of democracy.
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    Feb 21 2011: as the knowledge of mankind exploded, and the production became unimaginably complex, it is inevitable that one person can not possibly understand more than a tiny atom of this grand scheme. our narrow vision is the result and the engine at the same time.

    i recommend:
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    Mar 17 2011: Division of labor is undoubtedly a good thing. Imagine trying to run an advanced society where nobody is an expert in a certain field because nobody has the time necessary to be an expert in a certain field. It's not possible.
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    Mar 17 2011: I tend to lean toward specialization being a good thing. For me it is like extreme sports or the Olympics. Those events show humanity what is possible. They reset the bullseye goal more accurately each time so that we mere mortals can see what is possible in extremis or when at our very best. Specialization allows mankind to push the boundaries of our ignorance back and then we can all move forward. I see the normal curve like a great giant turtle - where the head Our gifted researchers, athletes and thinkers) leads the way and the tail of people who are far less able keep us compassionate. Both ends of the curve are able to tuck themselves under the shell when needed.This addresses your point on fragmentation as well when we see that the whole turtle is just one animal (as I think humanity should be considered one family) and within one body the communication is spontaneous and complete. In order to make our system work better we need to ensure that communication and computerization is helping to desegregate the silos. A further specialization in the future might be the bridging person.
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    Mar 13 2011: Specialization is vital in today's global economy--in time when unemployment runs rampant--it is imperative that human resource representatives hire the person(s) whom are truly best qualified for a position. In turn, this will increase the need for the improvement of our (American) education system--at the elementary level, all the way up through higher education institutions.
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    Mar 6 2011: Historically reviewed, knowledge specialization was the basis for the division of labor - and thus one basis for the western wealth today. But obviously there are limits of specializations - as an economist would say: the cost-ratio of specialistion is increasing. And: This is a natural process.

    Wikipedia, Crowd-sourcing and Facebook are answers to keep down the cost of specialization within our given societal system. Of course specialization of knowledge and professions are the mirrow of individuation - of our perception of the value of the person.

    Therefore we have to options:
    1. find new ways to balance the disadvantages of individualism and specialisation: Innovation in collaboration.
    2. find a new social system with other values in addition to individuation. But is this really an option? Can a society change such values on purpose? At least we have not seen this in the last 2.000 years. Migration was first to inner social change. Does anyone knows an other example? Please..!!

    So I guess we are bound to option 1. This is the reason why the TALK of Rachel Botsman about collaboration is so moving and central to me.
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    Feb 24 2011: @Daniel Beringer: Masterpiece of a comment. Thank you for that!
  • Feb 24 2011: Specialization versus generalization can largely be understood in light of what we have learned about the specific distinctions of gender- based human brain functioning. Women are more synthetic and inclusive, men are more exclusivist and specialized. This may be entirely due to the differences in the development of the brain structure known as the Corpus Collosum. This structure sits between the two hemispheres of the brain and is thought to regulate communications between the left and the right hemispheres. In developing male humans this communicative regulation is notably lagging relative to females. Furthermore,this arrangement most likely provided a survival advantage for early human groups. It is always better to have two distinct approaches to organization and problem solving. A division of labor,as it were.