Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Complexity and Specialization

One of the defining features of modern life is its extreme degree of complexity. I don't think I need to defend this claim, it is obvious.

Our society deals with complexity by adopting a high degree of specialization. Most people don't understand the technology underlying mobile phones, but that's tolerable because we really only need a few thousand people (or whatever) to focus on the issue. They design the hardware, promulgate technical standards, etc., and the rest of us can go about our business.

Now consider a few implications of this. First, by definition you can't specialize in everything, and so most knowledge is inscrutable to most people most of the time. Most people probably couldn't understand technical issues no matter how much attention they devoted to them. But it's more than that. In the law (my career specialization), there are often surprisingly simple answers. It's not that the average person couldn't understand, it's that the average person has no need to allocate scarce resources to accumulating the relevant knowledge. (And, to be clear, there are lots of hard questions in the law, and lots of traps waiting for the unwary. I don't mean to imply that anyone should try to navigate the law without professional guidance. More on this below.)

And so the second implication, which follows from the first, is that knowledge tends to be highly modular. What I mean by this is that to be useful, a body of knowledge must make its fruits accessible to non-specialists. But since non-specialists can't deal with more than the basics, in practice there must be some "interface" by which non-specialists interact with it. You can think of a "function" or whatever in computer programming. You pass it a few parameters, and it passes you back a few results, and you don't necessarily know or care what is going on inside the "black box."

To give a simple example, meteorology is insanely complicated, and the people who do it professionally are highly educated and highly specialized. But all of this work would be pretty much worthless if it didn't generate simplified insights in the form of weather forecasts. And this is how it is for most people—they don't really understand what is going on behind the forecast, but they are perfectly capable of understanding the forecast itself, and they know what it means when a hurricane alert is issued. That's good enough for most purposes. It glosses over the debates within the field, or the disagreements between different models and different forecasters. But in practice the public doesn't need to worry about those nuances, or maybe a better way to put it is, the public is not equipped to assess the relative merits of different models, and so its role is restricted to demanding some kind of overall accountability and quality control (for instance, U.S. weather forecasting is now generally inferior to British and European forecasting, and various reforms have been proposed).

So anyway a lot of the process of disseminating knowledge involves simplifying it into digestible bits of information that non-specialists can understand, while sacrificing as little value/precision as possible. Weather forecasting seems like a particularly successful example to me. In other areas, like the law, the process is much different. Appreciating how complicated and misleading the law can be, we have set up a system where you typically need to hire a professional to guide you through it. Moreover, we've imposed educational and ethical standards that make it expensive to hire a lawyer. I won't engage in the debate about this right now, but I'll note that paying an expert for guidance is often difficult precisely because the non-specialist lacks the tools to assess the quality of the advice. In the abstract, some kind of safeguards are justifiable, though you may quibble about the precise ones we have adopted.

This brings me to my final point (for now). You can think of knowledge and intelligence as coming in two different forms. The first is the one that we all recognize, the ability to navigate a body of knowledge. There are good lawyers and bad lawyers, there are varying degrees of scientific accomplishment, and so on.

The second is a kind of meta-knowledge. It consists of an ability to make good judgments about the simplified knowledge generally provided to non-specialists. It is what you might loosely call "reasonableness," and it is probably what we should have in mind when we say things like "college teaches you to think." By definition, a non-specialist generally doesn't have the tools to assess debates within a specialty. Or maybe I should say, she doesn't have the tools to assess those debates directly. She is forced back on relatively crude methods. To be good at this kind of judgment, you have to know how to modulate your skepticism appropriately, how to identify red flags, how to identify the appropriate scope for a given conclusion.

It's not easy! And it's made harder by the fact that in many areas there are people who are actively trying to mislead other people, either for profit or to advance ideological goals.

Wrapping this up, I should mention that it's not clear to me that the contrast I've drawn between "direct" ability and higher-level "navigational" skills is really a very sharp one. This is because of the fractal nature of specialized knowledge. What I mean by this is that if you zoom in on a particular area of knowledge, you generally find that there are sub-specialties that also function like modules. And if you zoom in again, you'll find sub-specialties within the sub-specialties. Certainly this is true in law. The gap between lawyers and non-lawyers is huge. But a big aspect of practicing law is being able to spot issues outside your area of expertise and knowing to consult the right kind of specialist. Only when you've drilled down several levels do you start to get into questions of directly understanding and navigating/manipulating the legal terrain. And even then, a lot of lawyers rely on secondary materials for knowledge.

Anyway it's an important aspect of modern society, one that I believe is tremendously important for almost all aspects of our lives, and one plagued by all kinds of pathologies that weaken the functioning of our political system and our overall public discourse.


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