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blog post
Middle Way Philosophy, Philosophy, Psychology, Science

Don’t always consult the specialist

One of my regular gripes is the over-specialisation of our society, and particularly of the academic world. All specialisation comes at a price: as we narrow our focus, we lose awareness of the wider context of what we believe. I have also written about the way in which specialisation impoverishes the range of what we find meaningful, because we become habituated to only engaging in certain restricted types of discourse and rejecting others. However, I have recently found some further interesting psychological evidence about the effects of specialisation in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Here he identifies the ways in which over-specialisation is also linked to over-confidence. The more we study something, the clearer and more coherent our understanding of it becomes: this clarity increases confidence that we have the correct mental representation of conditions, but the extent to which we really have a better understanding of them is marginal – a gain which is undermined by the over-confidence with which we apply our expert knowledge. Kahneman offers devastating evidence that, for example, the expertise of stock fund managers provide judgements that are no better than random, and that the medium-term predictions of political and economic experts are actually worse than random guesses.

This over-confident reliance on the coherence of our representations is that main reason why, in my theory of justification in Middle Way Philosophy, I suggest that there are two necessary conditions for justification: coherence (both of theory and of evidence) is one of them, but the other is what I call agnostic foundationalism – that is, a psychological state of awareness that we may be wrong. I think this is the only real way to guard against this tendency of over-confidence that arises as a side-effect of the very efficiency of our left brains. If one relies only on a weight of evidence, a coherence of theory, or even both together, there is no way to avoid the possibility that even the most conventionally acceptable theories are as crazy as the Reptilian conspiracies of David Icke. Believers in Reptilian conspiracies have both evidence and a coherent interpretation of that evidence: the problem is the certainty they ascribe to their conspiracy theory. The more specialised our investigations, the less likely we are to question the founding assumptions of those investigations, and the more we have invested in the need to ignore any counter-evidence.

But not all specialisation should be tarred with exactly the same brush. Obviously there are some helpful aspects of specialisation that have led our civilisation to adopt it so widely. If we think of specialisation, say, in particle physics, or in medicine, the experts there can gain an understanding of phenomena that are not widely understood at all in the rest of the population. The positive effects of that in modern medicine can easily be seen in massively increased effectiveness, when compared with earlier forms of medicine. That does not mean that medical experts may not be neglecting the wider context as the price of their specialisation, but the advantages of specialisation, on the whole, here appear to outweigh the disadvantages.

Specialisation seems most problematic when it is applied to topics that depend heavily on a wider set of interacting factors. If you’re an economist, a psychologist, a historian or a philosopher, you will clearly still have specialist knowledge and skills not possessed by the wider population. But whether those skills are applied in a way that helps anyone address conditions better is much more debatable. If specialised knowledge is applied in a scientific way, that involves making judgements based on theory applied to a certain situation, the theories are likely to be inadequate to that situation. They will be inadequate because, however precise they are in the area of specialisation, they neglect all the wider conditions beyond that area. For example, economic analyses tend to underestimate human irrationality; analyses of teaching effectiveness constantly underestimate the importance of luck in who your students are; and predictions of electoral outcomes underestimate the complexity of the voters’ psychological states. In these circumstances, the thoughtful non-specialist is often in a much better position to offer insights than the specialist, because they are more likely to think outside the box that the specialist has shut themselves into. Expertise in the social sciences becomes problematic when it is not a wide expertise in all the complex interacting factors that effect human life: psychological, social, historical, linguistic, aesthetic, philosophical etc.

But nowhere is specialisation more problematic than in the area of philosophy. This is because what philosophers generally do best is to question assumptions. Philosophy’s whole raison d’etre is to question things that everyone else takes for granted. Yet, in order to justify its place in today’s universities, philosophy has been obliged to become a specialism with sub-specialisms. As soon as you enter into a specialism, you have to stop questioning founding assumptions. You take these for granted, ignore the wider context, and just engage in detailed study of your specialised area. At that point you cease to be a genuine philosopher in the sense that you might have been when first studying the subject.

My experience of academic philosophy when doing a Ph.D. fits this picture completely – of a subject forced to operate in a way that fatally undermines its whole reason for existing. Most analytic philosophers are engaged in analysing the concepts of a particular area in tremendous detail, and the results of their labours are generally not of the slightest use to anybody. That is not because clarification of concepts isn’t a useful skill, but because it needs to be put in a bigger context to be useful. Philosophy needs to use systematic and critical reflection to provide us with insights into conditions: but it can only do that if it is willing to take insights from one area and apply them to another – to synthesise – and synthesis requires one to let go of specialism. For example, I argue that to understand ethics, one needs to apply insights from Buddhist practice, from psychology, and from the philosophy of science. Most ethicists ignore all three, and engage in arcane debates that merely elaborate their limited founding assumptions.

So, I do think that seeing a specialist is sometimes helpful. If I had cancer, I’m sure I would not be bringing my scepticism about specialists to the fore, but rather feeling gratitude for some types of specialism. If I had a plumbing problem I would also be glad to call on the specialised skills of my local plumber. However, specialism in the social sciences is often suspect, as it is in allied areas of life such as business, education, and the media. And specialism in philosophy is disastrous. As a philosopher, the specialised skills I can offer are those of critical thinking, analysis and synthesis: but I had rather exercise those skills in helping people be aware of what they do not know than supporting their over-confidence in what they think they do know. As soon as one becomes genuinely aware of what one does not know, it becomes easier to look beyond the frontiers of what is most familiar to seek new sources of insight.

Picture – Jan Steen: Doctor’s visit (public domain)

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About Robert M Ellis

I am an independent philosopher, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a distance tutor in Critical Thinking, Philosophy and Politics. I also have experience of Buddhist practice. I developed Middle Way Philosophy to apply what I see as the central insights of Buddhism in an entirely Western context.

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