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.
I really should start writing more again, but it’s a beautiful Sunday morning in January. Enjoy a warm drink and listen to this. It’s better than anything I could write at the moment.
A fun video follow up to my last post about maps. Enjoy!
I’ll be going on vacation soon and likely won’t write much for the rest of the month, so my plan is write a lot today and schedule it for release over the next few weeks. Before I do, though, I want to post something today and this essay is better than anything I can knock out for a morning release.
It’s not just a curmudgeonly rant against an overly cutesy, obnoxious puppet. There’s definitely criticism of that aspect, but he also gives a solid look at the dumbing down of the educational content of the show. If you have small kids or grandkids and think about their development, it’s an essay worth reading.
Personally, my son watches Curious George.
One of the taking points repeatedly heard this election cycle is foreign trade and both populists, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, are wrong on the issue. Free trade is good. International trade is beneficial. Focusing on “they’re outsourcing our jobs” is not only short-sighted but factually wrong. Let’s outline why.
- Stuff is cheaper. Cars, food, clothes, gas, phones. Free trade opens markets for competition, both for complete products and raw materials. It lowers the cost of goods.
- The contested argument that it raises income. This one is sticky, and has a lot of good arguments on both sides so I’m not going to get into the wage part of the argument. But the “stealing our jobs” canard? Total hogwash for two reasons.
- The jobs that get exported are low-tech, menial labor and the U.S. has been moving toward a knowledge based economy since the 1970s.
- We don’t want those jobs, and the proof is in the high unemployment of 2009. Americans weren’t taking menial labor jobs; we left those to migrants.
- It stops wars. Lt. Gen. Barton Yount said, “Countries that trade seldom have wars.” The threads that tie our economies together also keep us from killing each other. Look at how vastly we disagree with China on a variety of topics, but trade that benefits both nations keeps us diplomatic and we work out our issues like civilized adults. For crying out loud, who even knew that communism and capitalism could coexist? Free trade forces us to wait and reserve judgment until we understand the situation better, like the fact that systems of government and economic models are not intrinsically linked. Conversely, it’s why Russia is dangerous; we’re not trading.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are polar opposites in many ways, but one this one topic they both appeal to populists. The problem is that most populists don’t actually know what they’re talking about concerning macro economics or finance. It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect all over again.
Here’s what they look like when viewed from the International Space Station. There is so much more to reality than the 50 mile radius around us. There is so much out there for us to learn. Never be satisfied with what you already think you know. Stay curious. Maintain a sense of wonder. There are still amazing things to discover.