Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

In Praise of Amateurs

In many ways, we live in an age of experts. Over the last century or two, the number of fields of knowledge, and their depth, has proliferated to such an extent that to truly be a "renaissance man" and have a solid grounding in everything is virtually impossible.

Doctors use computers which are essentially magic to them. Computer technicians drive to work in cars that are similarly mysterious. And car mechanics are generally not up on the current advances in medical science. There is simply so very much to know about so very many things, that most of us settle down to be an expert in one or two fields, be interested in one or two others, and ignore or regard as magic the rest of the world.

The dabbler has thus fallen into disrepute. "Oh, he's just an amateur," people say. Some even suggest that to do anything other than obey the commands of the expert before one is to deny reason.

Certainly, it's true that in most fields major discoveries are invariably made by experts these days -- while a hundred years or more ago they were at least as often made by fascinated amateurs, often from among the leisure class. And those discoveries that are still made by amateurs (the majority of new asteroids and comets are still discovered by amateur astronomers) are generally methodological ones rather than conceptual breakthroughs.

Yet even if one stands no chance of achieving the level of knowledge of experts in the field (and in conversation one should acknowledge as such) I am a great fan of amateurism, as is perhaps evident from the scribblings here. I work in marketing analytics, but I dabble in history, classics, literature, writing, economics, politics, guns, Go, carpentry, biology, anthropology (and science generally), brewing, liturgy, theology, philosophy and (that which sums all such things together) education.

I'm far from an expert in any of these, and I try not to oversell my knowledge. I doubt I shall be providing any unique contributions to any of these fields -- and yet certainly all of them make a unique contribution to me. We need amateurs. Fields of knowledge and work need amateurs for the love they bring to the subject. And society needs people to be interested in things other than their specialties, lest we all be highly trained techno-peasants.

While it is experts who make many of the discoveries and write the original works these days, it is amateurs, I suspect, who do much of the spreading of the love of that knowledge to others. What, after all, is knowledge unshared, or books unread?


Rick Lugari said...

"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."
- Gilbert Keith Chesterton

We should talk about anything and everything, because everything is connected - which is another GKC truism. A little while back there was a discussion where a blogger spoke about a subject that was out of his expertise and he took some heat because he was, well, quite wrong. But there was a line of argumentation that I was uncomfortable with, basically, "this isn't your field so you shouldn't say anything about it". Granted, that it is quite possible it was the tone and air of authority he wrote in that solicited such a harsh response, but I think it's good to talk about various things, question, and test ideas. Like in the above example, I, a pathetic moron and not of that discipline understood the above matter and am, well, right on it, and know that I am, yet it isn't my field. Yet again, I know there are people in that field who would disagree with me and many others who are in that field. So being an "expert" doesn't necessarily mean you're right because experts disagree all the time. A consensus of experts doesn't necessarily ensure the truthful outcome either. Truth is not owned by experts, nor is it dictated by democracy or consensus.

Unfortunately, the same blogger recently spoke about something else out of his expertise (not the problem) and stated that he was in no position to question "experts", therefore others shouldn't either and went on to condemn those who question the "experts". Wrong. We (and he) should be concerned with the truth of the matter and question things that don't stand to reason or seem to be motivated by something less than the truth, regardless of our state or theirs. If the truth lies with certain "experts" it should be quite easy for them to satisfactorily demonstrate that truth to the rest of us.

So as for me, I will continue to discuss whatever I take an interest in, but hopefully have the humility to know where I stand among the many varied things and never abandon the great gift of common sense.

Entropy said...

This is a great post!

Anonymous 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."
Robert Heinlein
I just recently shared this quote with my grandson. Of course, I will not be suggesting he actually read Heinlein.