Blub, Education, and Expertise

Today, I read an interesting post by computer scientist Hal Fulton on a Ruby group I follow. It reminded me of the problem of paradigmatic blinders that I wrote about several years ago on the Free Liberal blog, “Blub in America: Can We See Better Options”

I think it is a general problem that people have, not knowing what the edge of their understanding looks like and what facts or concepts lay outside that boundary. What’s outside (or above/below) conceptually is not a part of what we might call amateur or folk theorizing. Paul Graham has a great piece on it regarding software.

FA Hayek says, “The overall problem is not merely to make use of given knowledge, buy to discover as much information as is worth searching for in prevailing conditions” (The Fatal Conceit).

Search is optimization, but there is also browsing, casual learning, and arm-chair conjectures with thoughtful friends. What should we pursue and for how long? When do we know that we know enough for a given problem set, and what have we given up to find this knowledge?

I hesitate to either condemn or endorse formal education, because while I think having an expert make the yardstick of what is a sufficient and complete base of understanding, the true intellectual is always digging deeper, checking priors against new data, and opening him or herself to opportunities for transcendence. Radical personal honesty is a part of developing this character type.

Somerset Maugham tells us of the Verger and what happened when he refused to learn to read. This is a lovely film adaptation, running about 20 minutes. Dan Klein weaves the verger story into his discussion of knowledge flat-talk.

The point is that what knowledge you pursue depends on your goals. Your goals may in turn relate back to your state of knowledge. Transcending our limitations may have more to do with our institutional environment than our own thoughts and purposes, even though we probably also need good mental strategies for navigating given institutional structures. In my view, this is the purpose of education as an ongoing project — to help ourselves see new horizons.

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KDR is a writer, editor, and economist.