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Wednesday 8 March 2023

The Generalist verse the Expert


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Perhaps never before in history has the expert been despised and disparaged as much as in recent years. For good reason as well, they were used as a front for some of the most foolish policies in the history of mankind. But the limitations of the expert have been well-known for some, especially for those with a generalist knowledge. Frank Herbert explains this in Children of Dune:

Above all else, the mentat must be a generalist, not a specialist. It is wise to have decisions of great moment monitored by generalists. Experts and specialists lead you quickly into chaos. They are a source of useless nitpicking, the ferocious quibble over a comma. The mentat-generalist, on the other hand, should bring to decision-making a healthy common sense. He must not cut himself off from the broad sweep of what is happening in his universe. He must  remain capable of saying: "There 's no real mystery about this at the moment. This is what we want now. It may prove wrong later, but we'll correct that  when we come to it. " The mentat-generalist must understand that anything which we can identify as our universe is merely part of larger phenomena. But the expert looks backward; he looks for living principles, knowing full well that such principles change, that they develop. It is to the characteristics of change itself that the mentat-generalist must look. There can be no permanent catalogue of such change, no handbook or manual. You must look at it with as few preconceptions as possible, asking yourself: what is this thing doing?

—The Mentat Handbook

The mentat in Dune is a person who has been trained to think as a kind of human computer. Someone who has been filled with knowledge to be able to advise leaders on different policies and actions. Note that Herbert says they must be a generalist not an expert. Experts get fixated on infinitesimal data, theories, institutional ways of viewing things and more which can interfere with their ability to see the bigger picture. The generalist sees the bigger picture and can therefore process information for a wider application.

This is why the expert should never be called upon to lead society, especially with regards to their one area of specialty. They are an expert in a tiny area, a useful area to be sure, generally, but a tiny area, and they must avoid a lot of information to be able to focus in on that specialist area. This causes them to be biased, myopic and singularly focused. We are seeing the result of this now with the vast excess deaths, economic disasters and more that have resulted from relying on the experts in one particular field to dictate to wider society how to live. Someone might be an exemplary epidemiologist and have very little understanding of what locking people down for long periods of time will do to their mental and physical health for example. Because they are trained in a very specific field. This “ferocious debate over a comma” has led to the society wide issues of inflation, supply chain issues, larger health issues and more.

The expert has their place, they are needed to fulfill certain roles. But so does the generalist, and we had great need of such people over the last few years, and people were ridiculed for pointing out what many wise thinkers of the past just considered well known: some people cannot see the forest for the trees, and this is especially true of those who are trained to study those trees at the molecular level. Sometimes, often really, you need people with a generalist understanding to be standing next to you when you need to make tough calls for a society wide issue. 


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