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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

On expertise and nonsense

I enjoy following the discussion threads of “really smart people” who are experts in their fields when they argue over the complex and/or the minute aspects of their disciplines. Whether the topic is in art, law, theology, language, math, physical sciences or the social sciences, I like to try to follow along in the reading without moving my lips too often. I am, by temperament and circumstance, a generalist. Most of my personal and historical heroes have been generalists. I can’t say that I never use bits of specialized geek speak, but I, generally, try to avoid it. I have been known to take advantage of this tendency toward the glorification of unintelligible gibberish (On having to write a senior paper), but I am certainly not qualified to participate in the orgies of entwined syllables and symbols enjoyed by the uber-specialists.

Where have all the generalists gone?

Medical experts like to pepper their writing with short Latin descriptors and study citations. Legal experts prefer entire Latin phrases and abbreviations interspersed with italicized “name vs. name” citations of innumerable precedents. Engineers, mathematician, and physical scientists enjoy a liberal sprinkling of equations artfully bedecked with letters from the Greek alphabet. Heated discussions among social and language scientists seem to degenerate into a playground (locker room?) style of confrontation centering on who has the biggest statistical variance. Into the midst of this specialist enshrined briar patch of entangled verbosity the rabbit of “reality” is tossed.

I have heard that the reason that experts seem to like talking in their own arcane languages is that it gives them a “precision of meaning” that cannot be found in the language of everyday life. Ok, I can buy that. It does seem, however, that the overuse of specialized language and jargon makes it difficult to extract precise concepts that communicate and can be compared across disciplines. Like in those pictures of everyday objects viewed under powerful microscopes, real things become unrecognizable abstractions. Abstraction caused by microscopically precise language obscure meaningful comparisons. Something is lost.

Arthur C. Clarke had a famous quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I would like to propose a corollary to Mr. Clarke’s astute observation.

“Any discussion by sufficiently advanced experts is indistinguishable from utter nonsense.”

1 Comments:

Blogger Ayekah said...

touche`! I don't have a forward accent mark otherwise I would have written that correctly....not that I'm an expert or anything.....

18/1/06 11:53 AM  

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