DANIEL VAUGHAN: Specialists and experts can’t rule the world

June 17, 2019

There is an assumption, both on the left and the right, that if everyday citizens only listened to experts and followed their advice, we’d be better off in every area of our lives. And that’s certainly true in some situations, such as when you need to fly somewhere — you’d prefer to have a trained pilot than a random person off the street.

But how far can specialized experts take us in this world?

That’s one of the questions David Epstein tackles in his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Epstein starts by discussing the sports world, telling the life stories of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, two of the most elite athletes their respective sports have ever seen.

Tiger Woods’ story is well known by now. He showed an aptitude for golf at a very young age, and his father nurtured that love of golf by having him practice every day. All of that collective practice added up to a lifetime of experience for Woods by the time he started hitting the pros, allowing him to crush the field in ways golf had never seen.

The lesson many took from Woods and his father was that parents needed to get their children into a specialization early. These types of parents clung to “Tiger parenting.”

The second story Epstein tells is that of Roger Federer, who never specialized in tennis early on in his life. He did the exact opposite, in fact, and played a variety of sports.

His mother, a tennis coach herself, never pushed tennis on her son, and in fact did the exact opposite:

Rather than pushy, a Sports Illustrated writer would observe that his parents were “pully.” Nearing his teens, the boy began to gravitate more toward tennis, and “if they nudged him at all, it was to stop taking tennis so seriously.”

Epstein decided to jump into the scientific journals to see if he could glean anything from these two paths.

He reports back in his book:

I perused scientific journals for work on specialization and career-swerving outside the sports world. I was struck by what I found.

One study showed that early career specializers jumped out to an earnings lead after college, but that later specializers made up for the head start by finding work that better fit their skills and personalities.

I found a raft of studies that showed how technological inventors increased their creative impact by accumulating experience in different domains, compared to peers who drilled more deeply into one.

What Epstein found was that generalists could bring together different ideas, solutions, and processes to otherwise static fields to produce new and creative solutions.

The analogy goes that specialists can tell you all about the importance of a specific tree in a forest. You may learn a mountain of information on a single oak tree in that forest. But having all that knowledge doesn’t tell you anything about other trees, nor does it tell you how to navigate that forest.

Epstein’s revelation in his book is that specialists provide invaluable information on how one specific process works, but they cannot often combine outside knowledge to solve new problems.

We’ve seen this same principle play out across our political structure.

Progressives and the new Democratic Socialists of America believe in the power of experts to dictate the right direction for our economy, even as we’ve seen central planning fail over and over again. Ironically enough, central planning fails for the same reasons that specialists fail in Epstein’s book: they know a limited number of things and can’t anticipate everything needed to run a fully-developed economy.

The Soviet Union had countless experts — but they couldn’t figure out how to produce enough oil and grain for their people in a land rich in both resources. And for all the ways modern socialists decry the advanced capitalist world, their complaints are outweighed by the ways that capitalism has relentlessly improved the world in ways never thought of or predicted by Marx and his acolytes.

We’ve seen this same blindness in our foreign policy. Experts and specialists in one specific country miss broader trends and lack creative solutions when countries act regionally, or against global forces. Events like Brexit and the manifests of other anti-EU sentiments in Europe, the rise of China, and the collapse of the Soviet Union were all missed by our experts because while they understand parts of these situations, they don’t have the full picture.

Friedrich Hayek described economics as part of this solution, saying, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

It’s not that there’s no need for experts, but that we have to take experts with a grain of salt when they venture outside their professions — or say there’s no solution to a problem in their field because their specialty blinds them to broader solutions.

We get glimpses of this when someone like pop-culture physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson proposes new political systems like “rationalia.” He thinks he’s suggesting something novel, when in fact his very idea has been parodied by philosophers for hundreds of years and mimics Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516.

Tyson is a specialized expert in a highly specialized field. In an era where people worship scientism, he seems like a new priest of the scientism faith. But in reality, he’s just as limited as any other specialist outside their field.

Or as David Epstein puts it:

The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.

While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.