When specialists fail – spectacularly

I have always been intrigued by the way we elevate specialists. Anybody prominent in one of half a dozen fields that western society exalts is, we are told, somebody to be looked up to, and who are never wrong.

That’s particularly true of medical specialists particularly, where – certainly here in New Zealand – their accountability is so well protected that when one of them stuffs up, it’s treated as the patient’s fault. The best the patient can expect is that, after a long, expensive and and emotionally draining battle, the Medical Association might possibly think about, perhaps, wafting a slightly dampened bus ticket in the direction of the misbehaving specialist. Maybe. But really it’s the patient’s fault.

A beautiful picture from the other week of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.
NASA, public domain.

Such a culture, inevitably, means incompetence is never picked up. But there is a much wider lesson than this. To me, the fact that specialists do stuff up – and that intellectualised systems are set up to hide the fact – underscores one of the main problems with the way western society, particularly, is generally conditioned to think. We associate possession of knowledge – and particularly expert knowledge – with intelligence and with quality of thinking.

That’s something driven home from primary school where – certainly when I was there – chanting back the ‘times table’ was what got you brownie points, whether you actually knew how to multiply anything or not. It’s what TV ‘quiz games’ pivot on: if you happen, often by chance, to know some factoid or other that answers a specific question, you’re ‘smart’.

Really? My computer can store and churn back factoids far more accurately than I can, and in vastly greater quantity than I could ever rote-memorise. And yet a flatworm is way smarter than my computer. That underscores the issue. Knowledge of itself – the ‘facts’ that we are are told define our ‘intelligence’ – is meaningless until it’s synthesised. Knowledge means nothing until the meaning of the isolated facts is understood and the underlying patterns revealed.And then the onus is on to make sure that this analysis has some sort of robust quality to it. That’s another skill of itself.

The main weakness of specialists is the fact that they are just that. Specialists. They focus on one tiny part of the pattern and, on my experience, often miss the true big picture. Sometimes, they don’t even know they’ve missed it, because it’s so far out of their understanding – the fact that somebody has a PhD or medical degree doesn’t mean that they’re immune to the Dunning Kruger effect. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter. Sometimes all that counts is that tiny issue. But other times, the big picture is what’s important. And when a specialist fails to recognise that wider context – that’s when they get things wrong; and the worst of it is when their ego won’t let them admit that, maybe, ‘specialism’ and ‘wisdom’ are two different things.

The issue highlights the debate between ‘generalists’ and ‘specialists’. We are conditioned to look down on generalism: ‘jacks of all trades, masters of none’. It’s a perjorative – subtly, but still a put-down. And yet generalism, really, should itself be classed as a specialty. It means somebody has knowledge of a LOT of things.

There’s another ingredient, of course, before a generalist can see the wider patterns that follow. Thinking. Western education systems usually don’t teach people how to think – by which I mean, how to structure analysis. Too often, the fact of having knowledge is mistaken for analysis, leading to ‘cookie-cutter’ conclusions that may well work most of the time.

But when deeper analysis is needed – crossing subjects, encompassing wider thought than a specific issue – that ‘cookie cutter’ approach often fails. Spectacularly.

So from this perspective, specialising in generalism (if you get what I mean) – coupled with knowing how to think (how to analyse) creates huge advantages. It makes it possible to direct learning in specific directions – towards the the points of intersection between ‘specialties’, thus enabling the interconnections to be visible. It means that the ‘big picture’ then also becomes visible – and the patterns it points to can be identified, properly.

Once that ‘big picture’ is available – including the ‘operating principle’ around which whatever’s being looked at is structured – then it becomes possible to then focus in on the specific details and understand them properly. It’s something that specialists, who don’t consider big-picture stuff, often miss.

I’ve deliberately kept this vague – kind of general – because I think the principle applies in all forms of human endeavour, particularly when it comes to understanding the human condition. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

20 thoughts on “When specialists fail – spectacularly

  1. I certainly agree that specialists have, through their pursuit of excellence in a specific area, sent themselves down an intellectual cul-de-sac, which limits their ability to draw on other experiences when making decisions or diagnoses. The generalist tends to have a ‘broad-brush’ understanding of the world, their interactions with it and the people that they interact with.

    But isn’t intelligence defined by more than just our ability to analyse and interpret data? Many animals can communicate. The dolphin for example is said to possess language and can communicate over vast distances. Honey bees for example, can count up to four, read complex signs, learn from observation and talk to each other in a secret code (the famous ‘waggle dance’).

    Perhaps the answer instead lies in a “sense of self”, a creature’s ability to recognise itself as an individual. This navel gazing would be a rudimentary form of consciousness. Of all the different qualities that might make us unique, self-awareness is the toughest to measure with any certainty – but one common test involved daubing a spot of paint on the animal, and putting it in front of a mirror. If the animal notices the mark and tries to rub it off, we can assume that the animal recognises its reflection, suggesting it has formed some kind of concept about itself.

    Human beings are intellectually proficient, and if I may be so bold, superior to other animals in their unique ability to communicate. Unlike the dolphin and the honey bee, human language is open-ended. With infinite combinations of words to choose from, we can articulate our deepest feelings or lay down the rules of physics – and if we can’t quite find the right term, we can just invent a new one.

    What’s even more remarkable though, is the fact that most of our conversation is not rooted in the present, but revolves around the past and the future, which brings us to one of the other traits that may define us. We’ve already explored how we may be able to recall more facts than most animals. This is ‘semantic’ memory. But as Thomas Suddendorf at the University of Queensland will point out at the World-Changing Ideas Summit, we also have ‘episodic’ recall – the ability to mentally relive past events, picturing them in multi-sensory detail. It’s the difference between knowing that Paris is the capital of France, and being able to bring back the sights and sounds of your first trip to the Louvre.

    So perhaps the specialist isn’t quite so one-dimensional after all. He or she has merely chosen to dedicate themselves to their particular field, which limits their ability to draw on other experiences. But they still possess the ability to have episodic recall, whereas the honey bee, and to a certain extent the dolphin, is limited by their inability to truly understand the importance of self-awareness and apply it intellectually through thought processes that incorporate the capacity of past recall and the application of this ability to future conscious thought.

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    1. Yes, I agree – in the biological sense there is a very wide definition of intelligence; just the other week crows were found (again) to be good at things we’d previously reserved for our own species. What concerns me is the western social definition of what constitutes being ‘smart’ – the ability to churn back facts – which specialists use to validate their own self-worth and bully patients; and which is both popularly defined, and relatively narrow as a specific ‘answer’ to a specific ‘question’, as if a single fact defines wisdom. I still remember a quiz show – a home-grown NZ one – where the question was ‘What is TNT?’ The contestant replied ‘Trinitrotoluene’. ‘No,’ the quizmaster said ‘TNT is an explosive…’ The contestant then explained that he worked for the Ministry of Works and used quite a lot of it in his ordinary job (blasting roads out of rock).

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      1. It is an insidious aspect of our society Matthew. So called ‘Fact Checking has become the new measure of intelligence. One needs no longer to assimilate and analyse information. With the internet at our fingertips through the smart phone, humans can look up ‘facts’ and regurgitate them verbatim, with little care for the source or the accuracy of the information. It is worrying.

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        1. A lot of the problem today is that people use ‘facts’ that suit them to validate their world views; that makes them a matter of emotion, which I suspect is how the ‘fake news’ gets such traction. All of it comes at the expense of an abstract critical faculty. I’m often accused of being cynical – but this is the critical faculty at work. I learned it the hard way when I was doing post-grad study, which on the face of it seemed too abstract for any practical use (among other things I did an analysis of Oswald Spengler’s ‘plant’ metaphor as an organising principle for civilisations; and of Tacitus’ political purpose relative to his own Emperor). Actually it revealed quite a bit about how to differentiate ‘fact’ from the ‘spin’ wrappings around it. And the ‘fake news’, often, is merely a ‘spin’ wrapping, cut loose and set adrift for people to consume.

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          1. Fascinating. Thank you for such an insightful explanation. I understand the problem of cynicism only too well. I often get accused of being derisive when confronted with political views. I consider myself to be a pragmatist and a realist, too often people hear a report on the TV, or read a headline in a newspaper and take it as an undeniable truth. I may be skeptical, but I prefer to challenge my brain, my thoughts and my emotions by questioning what I see. Politicians are a good example of people that often present a positive, polished image while behind the smiles belies a very different agenda.

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  2. Excellent post Matthew. One that could be related to so, so much, outwith the medical profession. The terms ‘close ranks’ and ‘passing the buck’ springs to mind.

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      1. In some respects yes, but are they truly, naturally ‘skilled in their ‘speciality” or made to (brainwashed for want of another word) think this way?

        What defines them as being ‘a specialist’? Who defines them as being a ‘specialist’ and why do they require to be defined as a ‘specialist’? Who benefits from these ‘specialist’ categories?

        Tongue in cheek a wee bit here, can they not just be a ‘plain’? Far less complicated, more straightforward, more understandable. 🙂

        On a slight side note, a thought that came to my mind recently was, abolish titles, primarily in the employment world, instead give a person a list of duties (their goals), a salary, that is their role for a certain period. They become proficient at these, amend, progress, change their duties and salary of course but don’t do it under titles, don’t do it under the word ‘promotion’, could this not reduce ‘vying’, ‘specialism’, ‘any ‘friction’ etc.

        Probably too straightforward, too simplistic though, not ‘specialst’, ‘complicated’ enough for some though (there may be a wee bit of cynicism in that last sentence 🙂 ) Have a great day Matthew Wright!


        1. I was a bit ambiguous – I meant skilled at buck-passing and closing ranks! I also think the Dunning-Kruger principle applies – and specialists are particularly prone to it. I’ve encountered people who are (supposedly) intelligent and capable in their field, but who when I get talking to them have little knowledge outside that specialty and no ability to synthesise an understanding invoking wider experience. It’s a common issue, on my experience, with career academics. Years ago I was at university with someone who’s since become a very major historian, here in New Zealand and ended up teaching in the UK. He has no life experience that I’m aware of outside the universities – and to me it shows in his writing. My own professional work in the same field has shown that, where this guy is original, he’s wrong – even down to factual error – and where he’s right, he’s not original.

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          1. Aren’t they just. As mentioned in one of my comments, I don’t consider myself a ‘specialist’, more a ‘generalist’, didn’t go the university route upon leaving school, wasn’t really an option for me anyhow, therefore will openly admit I had to go look to see what the ‘Dunning-Kruger principle’ was, hey I learned something new, in my own way. In my lifetime, I have come across many as you mention above and who have not necessarily gone through university, further education etc. People in general, making on, they know about specific topics, when in fact they didn’t. I will add, in the UK I think there was either a court case(s) or verdict(s) overturned, as the ‘specialist’, ‘expert’ turned out to be not so ‘specialist’, ‘expert’ as they thought or had been made out to be.

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      2. You have got ‘The Thinker’ kick started again! They had been in a wee bit of a lull, the last day or so and for that I thank you, as well as your follower that mentioned “cul-de-sac”. ‘Specialism’, ‘specialists’, ‘cul-de-sac’, this made me think, with a little bit of empathy, they are going to become so, so ‘stigmatised’, ‘categorised’, depending upon which language you use, there may also be other terms, ‘stigmatisations’ that could be used, like most things. Who has the right, or believe they have the right to be referred to as ‘specialists’, who would want to be referred to as a ‘specialist’, ‘specialism’, who has the right to ‘stigmatise’, ‘categorise’ a person, an item and more importantly why,? Cause it suits them? Why would it suit them? As I learnt through another blog, people rarely like who and why questions? The one’s I like asking! 🙂


        1. A wee after thought to your blog (possibly an example), came to mind during a break from ‘the screen’, as well as some inspiration from another blog I follow, comment on. Your blog post which contained the word ‘specialism’, reference to a specific profession and the other blog contained the words ‘scientist’, ‘professionals’ and ‘quackery’, reminded me of an instance when ‘scientists’, ‘specialists’. ‘Dr’s’, depending upon which term you may use, didn’t know or hadn’t even heard of a diagnosis that was EVENTUALLY given to someone I knew (‘specialism’ vs ‘generalism’ scenario?), too late I hasten and sadly add.

          What and who gives these ‘scientists’, ‘specialists’, again dependent upon which term you use, to be classed as such and very importantly, permission to categorise OTHER people into specific ‘groups’, under specific ‘terms’?

          Are they as ‘scientific’, ‘specialist’. ‘elevated’ as it is made out they are!?!

          Commenting from a ‘generalists’ perspective.

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      3. In the UK, what I have noticed, over the past few years, if you have a ‘routine medical test’, when you receive the results, the phrase or one along the lines of “you are clear but the test may have missed something,”. Okay, you went for the test, to give you a comfort factor you are healthy, their response on one hand tells you, you are, on the other you may not be. This relates to the ‘medical’ world although, does make you wonder what other professions, word things similarly. You responded earlier using the word “ambiguous”, makes you wonder again, how much ‘ambiguity’ is there going on? Who created all this ambiguity, possible ambiguities? Just as importantly – why!?!..


      4. After this, I will be quiet but if anyone is curious as to the who & why, maybe the answer can be found by drilling down to (1) who do the majority truly work for (2) the structure of that organisation (3) who pays their wages, which organisation….? (4) who are they truly protecting. I know what I think, although I won’t state it. I am not an’ influencer’, nor ‘a player’, fully believe everyone is entitled to use their own mind to form their own opinion. Now it “shut up” time for me. Have a great day, weekend Matthew Wright!


  3. That’s the beauty of ecology; it seeks an understanding of the overall picture. But the in-depth study of any specialised field often does render its devotees humble. It’s perhaps the specialists who seek the spotlight that give the rest a bad name.

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    1. I think the issue comes when that in-depth knowledge fails to render its possessor humble: they become, instead, arrogant – believing that if they can know this, then they must have power over others. Sigh…


  4. Something very similar to this issue came up in a discussion with a friend of mine the other day. We were discussing how one might determine if disparate bits of information/data were linked in some way; the word “intuition” was bandied about. So part of the discussion was about the role of intuition in seeing patterns, or at least the possibility thereof. Partly this is because both of us are writers, and what is a story but a collection of disparate bits of information organized into a recognizable pattern?

    If you look at various works such as James Burke’s Connections series, the idea of synthesizing data into information is a neglected, a very wrongly neglected, field of study. It does rely, overmuch, on intuition. Well and good, but intuition is hit-or-miss at best. What if there were some way to systematize it? That would be a truly powerful scientific tool.

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    1. Burke’s ‘Connections’ were fantastic – a very different organising principle, and one that showed up the limits of the usual causalities we impose across things. I have his original BBC tie-in book on the subject somewhere in my collection (which needs indexing and sorting…). I think he’s still pursuing that line of thinking, and it’s amazing the insights that come from it.


  5. Coming from a certain era (cough), still having people from previous era’s around me, watching the ‘specialist’ era evolve, this post did bring back to mind, my own thoughts in relation to your blog (1) are these ‘specialists’ creating more problems than there were originally? (2) companies, don’t like high headcounts, are these specialists putting headcounts & costs up? (3) where do ‘specialists’ gain a great deal of their knowledge from, a ‘generalist’, unbeknown guinea pigs ? (4) if you were to investigate further down, who truly benefits from ‘specialists’? (5) who created this ‘specialist’ idealism? (6) people, organisations trying to retrospectively apply these ‘specialists’, really!?! ‘retrospective’ is not a good thing, in my ‘generalist’ eyes anyhow. (7) what I am seeing (for this post I will categorise myself (yeuch) as ‘a generalist’, is a few more of these types of words being inserted into statements, added to another word, either before or after, giving the word a different meaning, again being applied restrospectively – and you wonder why society is such a mess overall? from ‘a generalists’ point of view anyhow.

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