Heinlein was wrong

In the early 1970s, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein issued a dictum, often quoted since, that “specialization is for insects.” Truly capable human beings, he wrote, should be able to do almost anything from changing a diaper to commanding a warship. It is a noble sentiment that celebrates human adaptability and resilience, but it’ wrong. While there was once a time when every homesteader lumbered his own trees and built his own house, this not only was inefficient, but produced only rudimentary housing.

There’s a reason we don’t do things that way anymore. When we build skyscrapers, we do not expect the metallurgist who knows what god into a girder, the architect who designs the building, and the glazier who installs the windows to be the same person. That’s why we can enjoy the view from a hundred floors above a city: each expert, although possessing some overlapping knowledge, respects the professional abilities of many others and concentrates on doing what he or she knows best. Their trust and cooperation lead to a final product greater than anything they could have produced alone.

The fact of the matter is that we cannot function without admitting the limits of our knowledge and trusting in the expertise of others.”

-Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 14-15.

9 thoughts on “Heinlein was wrong

  1. Heinlein is just arguing for the Renascence Man. But yeah clearly he was not familiar with comparative advantage which has led to our rapid gains in wealth since the industrial revolution.

  2. The only problem with this is that Heinlein wasn’t wrong.

    There is a clear difference between specialization and expertise. Nowhere in Heinlein’s full quote is expertise discouraged. Even the author concedes the need for overlapping knowledge.

    It’s a snappy title but he’s not wrong.

    • LOL. Alright, you’re going to have to highlight the “clear difference” between specialization and expertise, because I can’t find a meaningful difference between the two. Not that Google’s dictionary is authoritative, but it defines specialization as, “the process of concentrating on and becoming expert in a particular subject or skill.” Becoming an expert… Is that like expertise? Respectfully, I think you might be playing word games to rationalize your position. I’m all for using specific language (rectification of names) and even make sure not to confuse envy and jealousy, for example, but I can’t find a meaningful difference between specialization and expertise. It’s almost like they’re synonyms… http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/specialization

      • The answer is in the quote. First, the quote comes from an excerpt but even leaving that alone, look at insect specialization in the animal kingdom. Take bees. The queen bee cranks out baby bees. The drones only impregnate the queen. They are specialized. They are not experts, they are useful for only one thing.

        I don’t see the word games.

        What is my position?

      • You understand that is an example and not the definition, right? For someone chiding about the precise use of words, you’re overlooking a glaring and obvious example.

        Your position seems to be that you like the quote, so you’re unwilling to consider the possibility it could be wrong. This is not a good approach to critical thinking. We must always be willing to question the truth of our premises.

      • It looks like there is some multi-threading going on and I’m not sure where this response will show up. I’ve included you whole response so the train of discussion can be followed.

        “You understand that is an example and not the definition, right? For someone chiding about the precise use of words, you’re overlooking a glaring and obvious example.

        Your position seems to be that you like the quote, so you’re unwilling to consider the possibility it could be wrong. This is not a good approach to critical thinking. We must always be willing to question the truth of our premises.”

        What are we talking about here? Are we defining words or trying to understand intent?

        Mr. Nichols has a premise. In rough terms I gather the premise is being an expert on something is good. I welcome further clarification. Mr. Heinlein has a premise. I understand this premise to be that being proficient at only one thing is not good. If either came to me with his premise I would agree.

        Words are vibrations in air to which we give meaning. We represent these words in writing. We have written these words and their meanings in the dictionary. However, one cannot use the dictionary to tell me what I intend to communicate when I say something. Likewise, we cannot say that having looked up the definitions in a dictionary we *know* what person’s statement means. Playing with Google Translate illustrates this.

        You state you “can’t find a meaningful difference between specialization and expertise.” That is a fair point. When I look at the words on their own my “clear difference” is simply not there. So they should be interchangeable. Let’s try swapping the words in H’s quote.

        Expertise is for insects.

        Is that the same?

      • Yeah, for some reason WordPress keeps making me approve your comments and I don’t know why. Usually I only have to approve somebody’s first comment and then they’re free to go, but it keeps treating you like a suspicious person. Sorry about that.

        Actually, saying expertise is for insects helps highlight just how ridiculous Heinlein’s statement is. Nobody I’m aware of has ever argued that a person should one thing and one thing only (except conservatives when they get angry at entertainers for voicing political opinions). Further, examining insects’ specialization shows that it’s precisely the reason they thrive. From Phasmatodea (I had to look that up on Wikipedia, lol) to ant colonies, to human cities. Specialization creates value and allows the load to be shared across capable bodies. I’d rather have a team of five people who were experts in disparate fields than five people who are just okay at stuff in general. Because the notion that a chemical engineer couldn’t have a hobby/passion for music or cooking as well is just silly. I would answer Heinlein’s quote with another famous one: beware the man with just one gun, because he might know how to really use it.

      • I wrote an entire paragraph in answer to your question. Now you’re shifting goalposts to try and preserve St. Heinlein’s quip. So let me be explicitly clear: Heinlein’s statement is silly, childish, and reductive. I have answered you several times now, but you insist on ignoring nuance just like Heinlein’s asinine quote does. For the last time- nobody has ever said people should be limited to just one thing, but you show me someone who can do all the things in Heinlein’s quote and I’ll show you somebody who does a shitty job in at least half of them.

        If you really welcome further clarification of Mr. Nichol’s premise, read the book. I’m done with this.

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