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Beware the Casual Polymath (applieddivinitystudies.com)
224 points by elsewhen 6 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 104 comments



This seems much less about being casual or being a polymath and more about those who overestimate the value of their own input

I’m leaving this comment only because I most often do not overestimate the value of my input and therefor don’t leave comments, but this seems the perfect place to deviate


Which may mean you underestimate the value of your input and, in some sense, leech off the contributions of others...leaving a vacuum that gets filled by shills and hacks. Why would you do that? A little preparation and basic work-study and critical thinking skills is all a post needs, along with something you really want to say and is actually worth saying, of course. Maybe once a day, maybe once a week or once a month. Internet posting practices and moderation have matured enough to make posting on sites like HN useful without an inevitable devolution into rantfests or infomercials. (Although it can still happen.)

Silence, digital or otherwise, is a fine spiritual practice. It’s not necessary for some...probably sorely needed by others...


> A little preparation and basic work-study and critical thinking skills is all a post needs, along with something you really want to say and is actually worth saying, of course.

Unless you have high confidence in your ability to grasp the subject, this can be considerably daunting to someone who isn’t blessed with high confidence generally. And one can at least infer that gaining that confidence may involve significant time and effort. Especially in a forum where existing contributions are:

- high volume - scored by peers - fast moving - particularly accepting of critical feedback along some lines but biased against other kinds of critical feedback

This can be very discouraging. I know from my own experience that even as someone who has a tendency to challenge, I find myself constrained by my lack of experience on many subjects, my estimation of the time involved to become conversant, and my general feeling of limited time and energy. And... yeah, then I find myself more inclined to read others’ opinions, more confident than my own, and defer to trusting them unless I have a strong instinct otherwise.

That seems like a pretty normal reaction for someone with limited attention and study resources? Am I missing something?


When low in confidence, you could just use phrases like "my understanding is that [...]", or "from what I gather [...], is that not the case?" If you stand corrected you stand corrected and you're wiser, likely together with some other readers, everyone wins!

People rarely bash others that express themselves modestly and sincerely.


On the other hand, I’ve been criticized for being too eager to hedge anything I say with something like “in my understanding, ... I could be wrong.”


So if someone is informed on a topic they have a kind of societal obligation to post? By not posting, it allows those who may be less experienced or outright trolls to steer the discussion towards irrelevance.

I like the idea, but not sure how folks know which group they fall into.


Commenting is not zero sum. Lack of response from one does not create a vacuum for another to fill. Quality and quantity are orthogonal measurements.


You're both right.


The warning should really be “beware listening to advice without doing your own research”.


I don't actually think that's quite right. Doing your own research into subjects where you're not an expert, at least for most people I think, is just as likely to lead you astray as listening to non-experts. (Most conspiracy theorists do a great deal of research.) I think the real key skill is differentiating between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources of information (on any given subject), and learning to logically estimate probabilities when multiple trustworthy sources differ.

It's just not feasible to follow the proofs of everything back to first principles for yourself, so at some point you need to trust an authority, at least to form a prior. The key is doing that in a logical manner.


I think the author is more saying "don't listen to experts when they are not talking about their field of expertise".


I work in an academic field and took a strong and useful interest in another field. I really don't think I overestimate my abilities, I say things like I a jack of all trades and 'x think I'm great at y and y think I'm great at x'. But still people think especially talented. I even see quiet disagreement from experts in x or y who are maybe not so keen to criticise me publicly. I feel the issue is that others over estimate my abilities. Maybe a case of conflating value (which is real) with ability?


It helps to think of your abilities on multiple axes -- sort of like a spider chart. Your expertise is actually the "area under the curve." You may very well be the foremost expert (comparatively) in certain regions of the spider chart. Ironically, building expertise in multiple domains actually helps you specialize relative to others.


>> I feel the issue is that others over estimate my abilities. Maybe a case of conflating value (which is real) with ability?

As much as people like to throw around the phrase "critical thinking", you're describing people being lazy and depending on their impression of you rather than evaluating the validity of what you have to say. It's a shortcut we all take because we dont have time (or ability) to be experts in everything so we listen to people we perceive to know what they're talking about.


Re-read the article until you hit the header: "Self-Reinforcing Churn"

Think about what you have recently read and dump it!


[flagged]


We've banned this account for repeatedly breaking the site guidelines and ignoring our requests to stop. Personal attacks are particularly not ok here.

If you don't want to be banned, you're welcome to email hn@ycombinator.com and give us reason to believe that you'll follow the rules in the future.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Unfortunately this article seems to be written in the same casual polymath style it claims to warn of, with people making broad generalizations without any deep knowledge of what they are talking about.

I stopped reading at the point where JFK’s 1947 election was claimed to be purely due to wealth. Although JFK is today remembered much more for other historical events--

He was already a nationally known war hero before 1947. See, for example, this 1944 article in the New Yorker:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1944/06/17/survival


But why was this article in the New Yorker in 1944? There were thousands of war stories as thrilling or more as the story of the PT 109. The second sentence gives a clue: "Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, the ex-Ambassador’s son and lately a PT skipper in the Solomons...". His story was told because he was the son of Joseph Kennedy, who had been the US ambassador to the UK. And then as now, ambassadorships (at least to pleasant developed countries) were generally gifts to wealthy people like Joseph Kennedy who had helped the current president (FDR in his case) to get elected.


IMO Joe Kennedy was using his sons to rehabilitate his reputation for being a NAZI sympathiser, and I suspect it was Joseph Kennedy not John that was being groomed for a political career.


Do you have a reputable source for that claim?


Joes (Kennedy) Wikipedia entry, and the Kennedy family have been players in democratic politics for decades and decades


It's well known that Joe Kennedy was at least a defeatist (when it came to the British), and arguably a Nazi German sympathizer. Please don't ask for citations on basic, easily verifiable facts, it comes off as lazy, flippant, and ignorant.


And wealthy because he invested heavily in distilleries when it became clear that Prohibition was going to be abolished. As the FA indicates, this is the defining moment of brilliance which should be the stick by which he is measured. Everything else about the Kennedy family came about because of that investment, and the insane returns from it.


Nor do I think anyone was celebrating John F. Kennedy as some polymath. Degree in government. Navy. Career in government. Pretty narrow focus.

Can we even call this an article? It makes no sense. What is Applied Divinity Studies anyway?


I think the author/post neglects the most important reason for valuing generalists and learning from them. (Hyper)specialists have a hard time understanding context outside their narrow domains, and filtering the relevance of their own specialization to a situation. Having access to a highly sophisticated hammer, everything looks like a nail through their lens. Consequently, there have a hard time communicating with those not well-versed in their field. Eg, while being taught in grad school by a world renowned expert, I realized that he’d been teaching the subject longer than any of the students had been alive!

Generalists are typically far better at motivating the relevance of a problem/situation and filtering out the important details from the unimportant. That clarity serves as a great platform on which to then incorporate the inputs of specialists from different fields relevant to the situation.

Of course, none of this is meant to defend or elevate people participation in random internet discussions, or generating “content marketing”, to “generalists”.


> Generalists are typically far better at motivating the relevance of a problem/situation and filtering out the important details from the unimportant.

Couldn't agree more.

John von Neumann is a perfect example. His colleagues would often lament his unwillingness to adopt a narrow specialty, but I think it was his wide range that allowed him to maintain the passion that made him so effective. [1]

[1] http://paulgraham.com/genius.html


Well yeah, given the choice between specializing in one area and acquiring specialist-level expertise in a bunch of areas before you're 40 (which is what von Neumann did -- look at all of the sections in his Wikipedia page [1]!), it's better to do the second one.

But most people are choosing between specializing in one or maybe two areas and having very-sub-specialist-level expertise in more. von Neumann's not an example of that kind of generalist.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_von_Neumann


I think this illuminates the difference that makes the difference here.

A polymath is actually good at many things, not just has an opinion about them. This takes an unusual level of ability.

In other words a generalist is not a polymath, because the polymath is better at the generalised abilities.

That's what felt wrong about the article, it was conflating unusually talented polymaths with the ubiquitous averagely talented internet pundits :p


The specialists that I've met have never been any less capable of understanding context outside their domains, or motivating problems, filtering out details than similarly intelligent people who don't have any specialist domain knowledge. I think we're talking about several separate characteristics: 1. General intelligence and articulateness 2. Deep knowledge of and skill in a specific domain 3. Willingness to bullshit

A "specialist" is somebody who has 2, a "generalist" is somebody who has 3


What about generalists who aren't willing to bullshit? ;)


I would suggest that 'bullshitting' in this case would be a willingness to openly converse and express spontaneous opinions with a third party in order to learn more about a subject.

Caveat: The more eager you are, the likely more you'll be taken as a bullshitter.


> openly converse and express spontaneous opinions with a third party in order to learn more about a subject

No, it means confidently express spontaneous opinions and made up facts with a third party with in order to look more knowledgeable then you are and push for whatever you want to push for.

Bullshiting typically involves people who are not willing to learn about a subject.


> Bullshiting typically involves people who are not willing to learn about a subject.

... or have decided on recommending a result (eg to decision makers) without any understanding or due diligence having taken place (yet).


I think Erdős said of his own mathematical ability (no doubt with some humility) that it was very much a 'bag of tricks' he would apply to the problems his multitudinous collaborators were working on. I think a lot of philosophers use this approach too.

I think the value of polymaths is more 'synthetic', not necessarily 'analytic'. Many useful discoveries or insights are the result of an almost magical use of what C.S. Peirce called abduction: the process of generating hypotheses.

Knowledge in many domains, connected to the right problem, can lead to profoundly effective abduction. Sometimes this transfer can take the form of a persistent metaphor, or maybe an experience that makes itself known to you while you're thinking about something else, or simply your attention is guided to look at something in a particular light.

I feel like the post does a great job critiquing those high-status polymaths who emit an irresponsible amount of certainty. But there are plenty who use their wide learnings in a less concrete way, looking to add to their bag of tricks, and to put things together in interesting ways.


There is a lot of well-aimed critique in this comment section and the piece could benefit from rigorous editing and scrapping of the examples which are very unfortunately chosen. I think the steel man for this piece is: 1.) Qualified generalists and charlatan generalists look the same if you aren't an expert in the fields in which they opine. 2.) Experts in one field using their native lens to make conclusions about another field is not a polymath practice but something closer to a hammer that sees only nails.

I think we, as software people, are susceptible to 2—software is successful in some cases because of this kind of cross contamination where it replaces the tools and methods of a separate field with its own, sometimes with great success (art, finance).


Yes, yes - I would add - many 'software' people have to become successful in their own disciplines - and then also develop insights into the domains relevant to the problems they solve. For example, I'll bet HFT finance devs. know quite a lot about that kind of trading, probably more than most people with financial backgrounds who are not involved in trading at all.


The article under discussion could probably benefit a great deal from a concrete definition of what a polymath is. Or at least, what the author believes a true polymath to be.

Software development does indeed beget an odd practice, in which practitioners can accumulate a large body of domain specific knowledge, almost by osmosis.

While I don't know if it can be seen as evidence of polymathematical competency, it does make me wonder if this 'skill', misconstrued, is what the article is attacking.

But the only way to make that clear, is to illustrate the difference between:

- People who happen to accumulate deep knowledge of different fields, in the pursuit of others goals (like software engineers).

- People who obtain competency in apparently diverse skills, that are obviously related (like the author's basketball player, a musician who can play many instruments, or a polylinguist).

- People who truly do have, or have developed, competency in two or more fields.

The last of which the article suggests is rare, but also muddies the definition by denigrating the most famous exemplar (Da Vinci).

Again, what would have helped, was a clearer, or alternative, definition of what we expect a polymath to be. Certainly, if the author is intent on ignoring Da Vinci (?), then you could possibly take Filippo Brunelleschi, or Descartes, and work backwards from there.

But this is just an idea...


This article seems to define a polymath as someone who is an expert in one domain and has opinions in other domains - those opinions being given greater value because of their other expertise. However - I'd argue that a polymath is someone with expertise in multiple domains. And the real value of the generalist is the ability to join the dots between specialties. We can argue if polymaths exist - or who might be one - but I think the definition stands. My background is medicine and I've seen first and the different contributions that generalists make vs specialists.


I think casual polymath seems like the wrong descriptor to use - as they're not experts in other fields.

They're experts in one field, and (most probably) dilettantes in other fields.

The trick however, is that they use their expert status from one field, to reach their audience. And then their followers will take that as domain authority, because they're perceived as authority in some other field.

I'm not going to name names, but this certainly fits the pattern of a lot of people in the VC-industry. Not that they brand themselves as experts (sometimes they'll explicitly state that they're not experts) - but their followers will assume that it's expert knowledge.


I come from a science background and have similar experience. It really reminds me of the adage "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail".

One thing I have found is that while not all generalist suggestions are good, they can at least provoke the specialists to think about the problem differently.


The article is interesting, and probably right -- albeit maybe slightly unfair to da Vinci -- but I don't really buy this premise:

> We live in times of great disaggregation, and yet, seem to learn increasingly from generalists.

Most teaching is done by non-generalists -- be it in schools, on TV, in documentaries, in courtrooms, or basically anywhere of any import. There's quite a bit of irony in the author quoting Wikipedia though. On first reading, I thought that was some sort of punch-line.

> Having a variety of interests is no more a sign of generalized intelligence than being able to walk and chew gum.

This is a reductive oversimplification, and I really wish the author were more fair. There's something pretty incredible about someone contributing to multiple fields of study. It's rare, but it happens. The fact that some Twitter personality has surface knowledge about X and Y doesn't imply that there aren't people out there with actual deep knowledge about both X and Y.


The point about Leonardo da Vinci makes sense, but is definitely unfair. Of course, an art historian might assume Leonardo's mathematics was as great as his artistic ability.

In practice, no one has the time or the ability to be equally great in all fields of knowledge.

This paper : https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s00004-007-005... talks about what mathematics he did

> . The equation a^n + b^n = c^n does not have a solution in integers for n > 2 . But this theorem had yet to be demonstrated. It was not before 1753 that Leonhard Euler demonstrated that the equation a^3 + b^3 = c^3 does not have a solution. And the final demonstration of the so-called “Fermat’s third theorem”, which is that the general equation does not have a solution for n > 2 , was given by Andrew Weil in 1993.

So its fairly impressive that Leonardo was on a path that leads to Euler and then to Weil. Of course, Euler himself was a 'mathematical polymath' as it were, with a wide range of proofs across a number of fields.

To critise Leonardo da Vinci for not being good enough at mathematics is a little like complaining about Euler's drawing skills.


> And the final demonstration of the so-called “Fermat’s third theorem”, which is that the general equation does not have a solution for n > 2 , was given by Andrew Weil in 1993

That should be Andrew Wiles [1]. There was a mathematician who did important work in number theory named Andre Weil [2]. I wonder if they got him mixed up with Wiles?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Wiles

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andr%C3%A9_Weil


And I'm pretty sure it's "last", not "third" theorem.


Good spot, I should really have noticed that - seems that was not the greatest source!

Yeah, they probably did get Weil mixed up with Wiles. Another good example of the difficulty of trying to analyse a polymath's work.


I have written that last sentence in my journal to record for posterity.


> Most teaching is done by non-generalists -- be it in schools, on TV, in documentaries, in courtrooms.

So you believe K-8 teaching, the greatest amount of teaching by far globally in the modern era, is done by non-generalists? Who specializes in arithmetic (number theorists and spreadsheet wizards aside)? If you define “pedagogy” as a specialty, perhaps, but that’s not the generalist/specialist discussion here. Even high school teachers generally only require a Bachelor’s degree...two years of content study (Junior-Senior...first two years is general education) out of an adult lifetime of, say, 50 years. Any “working professional” in a discipline wouldn’t count that for much. The media and courtroom teaching...you’d have to expand that discussion a bit for me to believe it. Law school, media studies...well, that’s another matter.

It’s not that rare to contribute across multiple disciplines...the entire discipline of systems engineering is predicated on it.

BTW: Can anyone summarize the thesis? This isn’t a tl;dr situation. I’m too old to read articles that look like the argument, if any, hinges on semantics with evidence that is, at best, anecdotal. (Frankly, we all are.) And so I don’t.

PS: I really like the “>” indent style for quotations for block text in this UI.


> So you believe K-8 teaching, the greatest amount of teaching by far globally in the modern era, is done by non-generalists?

I think you're smart enough to know what I meant (and I even made the "of import" qualification). You don't need to hold a PhD in mathematics to teach kids their multiplication tables.


I think you should have been explicit that you mean say advanced or post graduate education.

Most people think there is great value in teaching people to read or learn simple maths.


This is an experiment (I think) along the lines of the Turing test. I am quite pissed at the moment so take what I say with a pinch of salt!

The text I see may not be the same as you. I see this nonsense:

"It’s not difficult to imagine how this happened. The flip side of disaggregation is that each would-be expert is able to read broadly as well. The world of atomized content through hyper-specialization isn’t a stable equilibrium. We are all casual polymaths now."

It is bollocks. Complete and utter rubbish. It superficially looks like ... something but it is cobblers.


One wonders if the author is a sociologist of knowledge or if they are themselves engaged in dilettantism.


In life everyone is pushed to have an opinion on everything. On the internet any casual comment about anything is up for the attack “oh so now you claim to be an expert on X do you, well let me put you in your place...”.

> “The Twitter account you followed to understand politics now seems more focused on their mindfulness practice.

What a "hellscape" it is when you’re reminded that other people are people and not service-providing objects that exist for your one-sided extraction of value. Just because you pigeonhole someone as “the politics person” doesn’t mean they do that to themselves, and just because they tweet about mindfulness doesn’t mean any claim to being a polymath, and just because you want to "learn about politics" doesn't oblige someone to "know their place" in your life and stick to it.

I'm sure there's something more interesting and deeper to be brought up about how it fundamentally doesn't seem to matter if you know a lot or a little, outside the lense of maximising capitalist money acquisition, but it's too hard to get past the rest of it and get to it.


You can just say "no, I don't have enough information to form an opinion on the matter" and leave it at that. Or maybe "I'm not convinced…" There's people who might attack you as ignoring a major issue, or being a lame duck, but you can remind them that it's certainly better than rushing into an opinion and choosing something you don't believe in.


That's a good point. If you follow a twitter account dedicated to political news and they start talking about meditation, thats different than following a person who likes to talk politics and dives into other subjects


> The incentive is to ramp up variance, make bold claims in a variety of areas, and hope you’re right some of the time.

Well said.

However, is a casual polymath any different than a blowhard with a bit of knowledge or a poser? It seems to me a true polymath, casual or otherwise, would value knowledge enough he would be careful not to make claims he was unsure of.


Assuming this isn’t some GPT-3 garbage, why does any of this matter? I can’t discern why I should care whether the author is right or wrong - the implications of the argument seem to be centered entirely around whether Twitter popularity is deserved or not, or just semantics about the definition of “polymath”.


The first line is:

"We live in times of great disaggregation, and yet, seem to learn increasingly from generalists."

This is an experiment. The whole thing was probably written by kittens.


Yes, fake experts are everywhere and draw from the Well without peeling back the layers of abstraction or demonstrating knowledge by putting something back in the Well. This writing seems to me to be an elaborate way of saying this, and it makes me wonder if he has been professionally or personally jilted by such personalities in his knowledge domain(s). The article oozes with insecurity.


We are told to be wary of who is speaking, what their qualifications are, if they are only casually opining on something, they may be wrong, we may not know any better.

We are told in the form of a long, wordy blogpost on a blog that is called "Applied Divinity Studies", there is no author named, there is no "about" for the page at all.

Although at the bottom of the page is a link to another article that seems to be about free market capitalism and a previous one that's about the politics of secession.

What was that it just said about blogs that have lots of wordy, generalist opining from non-specialists ?


What's equally hilarious to me is that this self-descriptive article, is being argued over by folks on this website, which was started by a man who also engaged in this style of writing.


^This is the real takeaway. Why is this getting so much traction if it’s so bad/over-written/directionless/hypocritical/etc.? My theory is that many HN users quietly consider themselves to be polymaths, and so were baited into reading it to look for either (a) reasons they don’t fall under the author’s umbrella of “casual”, or (b) holes in the author’s argument.


yes I agree, the article basically discusses 95% of hacker news commenters :)


> We already understand this intuitively, but only in a limited set of cases. If a pop star becomes an actor, we are not impressed by their wide range of talents. Instead, we understand that popularity is a semi-fungible good.

Yes. But where we got wrong is when the currency of celebrity is used as justification for worshipping their thoughts and ideas in other areas unrelated to their expertise/fame.

I suppose this simply human nature on our part. None the like, like other biases, we should be mindful of it siren-like power. We should guard against the influence of false gods.


> Gell-Mann Amnesia

Quick reminder-- this concept is an off-hand blurb from a sci-fi writer. It's no more based in research than the inkling that nation states should tighten their belts when the economy gets rough because after all, that's what a sensible hard-working family does. Or the notion that it's "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."

Those last two are usually uttered by people who have an agenda and are not interested in doing serious, open-minded research into those topics.

If you're the kind of person who does enjoy learning from research papers, you might reflect in your free time on why you're repeating the inkling of a sci-fi writer, and perhaps even whose agenda that could be serving.


I'm sorry, but if being an expert in art, engineering, acting, AND directing doesn't make you a polymath, then precisely what does?

The author severely underestimates the universal genius of diCaprio.


Taking this back to the startup world, I find that the enjoyable wicked problem of cross-disciplinary engineering in a startup environment is that you get to build things in areas in which you have only generalist knowledge. The task of the founding team is to optimize not only the process of discovery within those specific domains but also to ensure the development and management the team, providing a correct degree of emphasis on tangible outputs with respect to commercialization and available resources, with an eye on the future developments and business and research landscape. It's damn hard, it's fun, it's addictive, it's unlike anything else.

More briefly, the venture notion might be re-construed as the belief that generalists who reliably and tirelessly execute win large returns because they have their eye on the big picture and can deliver aggregate value beyond component achievements. The patent world has long recognized this notion as something like a 'novel arrangement' of pre-existing components.

Another idea is that specialists, by virtue of the well defined discipline in which they hold expertise, are easily located and hired/consulted. Arguably rarer competent generalists therefore become the de-facto 'glue' to link the requisite fruit of those specialist domains.

Da Vinci himself was apparently against overt formalization of learning and rigid professional hierarchies: They will say that because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to treat of. Do they not know that my subjects require for their exposition experience rather than the words of others? And since experience has been the mistress, and to her in all points make my appeal. - Leonardo Da Vinci ... via https://github.com/globalcitizen/taoup


I am reminded of this lecture by Hamming entitled you and your research where he basically says you will fail at research because you're lazy and/or will lose time reading useless stuff.

https://youtu.be/a1zDuOPkMSw


Very good article !

Could all of the "claims" or "awards" better be seen if the person (doing the awarding or admiration) were only to ask - the critical question:

"How likely is this data (purposed solution) ?"

Not to side track the post, but I've seen time and time again in my daily life, how valuable this question is, even if you know nothing about the domain.

Example: S.O buying an android phone for the first time and trying to move her "contacts and Apple life" to Android device.

The "only solution" she found was some "app for $50". I simply stated (long time android user) , I can't believe that over the years that an APP of $50 is the only way to move from Phone-System1(Apple) to Phone-System2(Android)

Turns it it's not, there are many "free" ways todo it.


I found this article interesting, but surely there is some kind of deliberate provocation in an author posting in an anonymous blog with a weird name and no bio covering a grab-bag of subjects - warning against casual polymaths? I kept waiting for the "but".


I also noticed there seemed to be a bit of cognitive dissonance in this fact. I started reading the other posts and it appears the writer is doing the same thing he is railing against. On top of that, the writer does not have any identifying info about their domain expertise. That being said, still found it an interesting read.


The urge to be a polymath comes from a desire to understand the world, hardly a worthless aim.

If the polymath claims expertise, I suppose that’s one thing, but he needn’t have expertise to have useful insights for himself.


But, it seems like there are more polymaths in the past than now - more people who were extremely smart, even if the general intelligence of people nowadays has increased. I think being a "casual" polymath is the important part: like the article mentions, you'd need a deep understanding of a subject to actually have it's interdisciplinary benefits. I think with the Internet today, it's easy to see so many interesting hobbies and topics, which takes time and effort away from just pursuing one or a few things really in depth.


Presumably (am not an expert in this!) because the barrier to entry in a field of knowledge was lower in the past. As in, at one point you could read all there was to know about a subject.

Also, there was more 'low hanging fruit' in the past. No one is impressed now if you reinvent the calculus. So it used to be easier to have major discoveries in multiple fields.

Finally, the whole idea of different areas of knowledge is relatively modern. The 'sciences' used to include astrology, for example. Even the distinction between biblical studies and observation of the natural world was vague at some point.


In the past in order to be a dilettante you generally needed to be one of the idle rich - that gets you the trifecta of time, resources, and lack of pressure to produce anything worthwhile. Today all you need is an internet connection.


Why do you think there were more people who were extremely smart? It does not seem that way to me.

Plus, there is also effect of us glorifying past people more then contemporary people.


I think the term “halo effect” could’ve been referenced in there in several places. When someone is good (or successful) at one thing we assume them to be good at many other things.

(Interesting article though.)


I love the typo "efficienciencies" in the context of TFA, and hope it stays in there as a reminder of the anti-deduplicatory nature of content disaggregation.


Prestigious institutions in different fields have been producing terrible knowledge and terrible predictions for a very long time. From the World Health Organization, to the economist elite in 2008, to the nutrition world, to psychology...

We don't seem to live in a world where one can just trust prestigious institutions, but a world in which those prestigious institutions need to be built.


> Polymaths use status in one field to gain capital in another

Reminds me of how people tend to conflate financial success with technical merit.


Statistically, the number of true polymaths has probably risen, but against total world capability to communicate, I suspect it has risen slower than the pace of n^2 connectedness, and the consequent ability to speak rubbish at large, believably.


If you like this kind of topic, but let's say with a lot more thinking behind it check out the Commonplace blog - https://commoncog.com/blog/


Am I seeing the same thing as you? Below is a CnP from the start of what I see when I follow the link. It's absolute rubbish. This is an experiment.

------------------ 8< ---------------------------------- "We live in times of great disaggregation, and yet, seem to learn increasingly from generalists.

In the past, an expert in one field of Psychology might have been forced to teach a broad survey class. Today, you could have each lecture delivered by the world’s leading expert.

Outside of academia, you might follow one writer’s account to learn about SaaS pricing, another to understand the intricacies of the electoral college, and yet another to understand personal finance. In economic terms, content disaggregation enabled by digital platforms ought to create efficienciencies through intellectual hyper-specialization."


... I don't think it's absolute rubbish?

"Aggregation" is centralisation, meaning centralising all information in the hands of a few - e.g. people who could only get an education from a religious school with a religion as well, or you must take every bit of advice from the local wise men and their ivory towers, or from the government, like buying all products from Walmart.

"Disaggregation" is de-centralisation, you can get information from many sources - e.g. theology from the Church, medicine from the doctors, happiness from the psychiatrists, education from the academy, like going to a baker for bread, a butcher for meat, a cheesemonger for cheese, instead of Walmart for everything, and get better quality bread, cuts of meat, cheese, from people who specialise in those things.

We live in times where small specialists can broadcast their information, freely, to people far and wide - the internet, social media - makes "going to" a specialist just as convenient as going to a central source. So you might expect people to do that, and get their information from many specialist sources, political news and ideas from someone who specialises in politics, gardening advice from a gardening forum. And yet, the author claims, we seem to congregate around popular people instead and try to get all information on all sources from them, somewhat paradoxically.

In the past, an expert in one field of Psychology might have been the only person available or accessible to teach many classes and the students would learn less well from the lack of expertise. Today, there are many more people, more specialists, and more options for remote education, they could have each lecture from a world expert on that topic, but we don't do that.

Outside of academia, a normal person might choose to follow many social media accounts on many topics, to gain specialist information in each area they are interested in. In economic terms, decentralising control of content and publishing ought to remove bottlenecks from running everything through a few people, remove problems such as only being able to access education if you also take religion and life advice from the same source, and create extra benefits because each specialist can go deep into their specialty.


Yes. And it is absolute rubbish.

The rest of the article seems (I skimmed it when I lost interest, so I could be wrong!) to be about something very specific: media outlets no longer relying on true domain experts, but rather outsourcing that expertise to the same group of rotating general-experts. The Daily Show had a running gag where the same set of comedian actors were used, but every time they were shown on-screen as Senior (Farcically Specific Domain) Expert. This is now reality as you see the same talking heads speaking authoritatively on whatever the important issue of the day is. That is a problem.

But yeah, the quote that starts this article reaches way beyond this specific problem and makes a bogus claim.


maybe this is just the trend towards greater understanding with increased information transfer speed - the average amount of knowledge one has will increase. The people back in hunter gatherer tribes knew very how to hunt and make weapons very well, i'm sure they would consider someone who knows about darwin's theory of evolution and newton's laws of physics a casual polymath, even though those are considered commonplace mental models today


Maybe it's more like, "I'm good at this one thing, but these are some tools I find useful to achieve that."


So 'beware' sure, but I'm not sure if the reasoning is correct here especially the bit about the 'rich kid' getting into Congress. There's an incredible amount of 'good opinion' being had from armchair experts, the question really is how to sort through it.

Very few are actually 'prepared' for Congress, and frankly, it's always been an elitist affair, and ironically when it's not, i.e. the 'Restaurant Server' gets elected, for some reason we tout that as positive?

JFK was not a lazy entitled 'rich kid'. From among an overly entitled class, he was probably the most deserving - he was very bright, educated, definitely had a vision for what public service should be. He was incredibly curious and intellectual. He was chronically ill with certain ailments but didn't let it affect him, he had most of the qualities we would want for that kind of office.

When JFK and Jackie were dating, he would have Jackie translate entire books on cutting edge French philosophy just so he could read them. Just fathom that again: 'Sweetheart, I really want to read Lyotard's latest book on Postmodernism, can you go ahead and translate an entire book for me just so I can read it'? And she did. Imagine what that says about the intellectual foundation of both of them.

In 2020 we have enough transparency to recognize that the foundations of many of the 'Sciences' and certainly private and public institutions are definitely frayed. 'Casual Polymaths' can provide a lot of ideation, insight, a kind of 'oversight', even sometimes facts about a particular subject that really can't be ignored.

COVID is a good example - it's fairly obvious from intently watching the various governing agencies public displays of knowledge (i.e. Dr. Henry in BC, Dr. Tam at Canada Federal level, the Swedish Minister etc. ) that there is an incredible amount of disagreement about various aspects of it, and that they are not always paying attention to one another. Especially where the science crosses public policy, economics etc. there's a lot of fodder for discussion. Dr. Henry, in BC, whom I admire, has not once in 6 months even hinted at the economic impact or social/health impact of any of the Province's policies, as if 'people's means of subsistence' didn't matter at all in light of the pandemic. It's probably exemplary of the worldview of an MD/Epidemiologist/Bureaucrat who thinks in other terms - which is fine, but it needs public voicing.

Particularly in the area of Social Sciences wherein the science is really difficult to shake out - and - individuals can have tremendous life experience that speaks to human behaviour - discussion should be had.


I feel like the author wrote this with Eric Weinstein in mind.


Incorporates many of Nassim Talebs ideas! Great article! :)


We already have a word for this, "dilettante".


FTA: "Popularity is fungible."

Yes, and so is affinity.


This looks like an experiment.

Please de-cloak and explain.


Could you elaborate as to why you think this blog is machine generated?


Wow, so much divergence in the comments from what the OP is telling us.

;tldr Generalists are good for some things, but why educate yourself on a topic from a generalist when you have access to the experts?


There is no spoon


What a pretentious rant...


Would a human write that crap or are you shouting at a computer generated thingie?


I feel like this post was written with some of HN's highest karma posters in mind.


So, what experience has the author to talk about casual polymaths? is that his area of study?


Well there are some pretty deep evaluations of that post here already.

It's bollocks. Quite involved bollocks but really big, round and very, very hairy.

Probably machine generated.


I had the same impression. The only other alternative possibility I could come up with was that the author was willingly playing in meta irony, or that they were someone who feels extremely specialized in something and must cast aspersions at those who are not.

My counterpoint to this article would simply be:

Beware of opinions of self-selecting experts, especially those with a chip on their shoulder.

As mentioned above in the discussion, you do really need specialists and generalists working together to solve the hardest problems. The specialists deserve no more credit for progress than the systems thinkers who choose to operate at the macro level and understand full well why this is essential.


I'm about 95% certain this article was written with GPT or some similar algorithm. I don't have clear evidence for this other than that personal experience writing code that utilized the API looking at the outputs it gives on the playground defaults extensively. This looks exactly like what GPT output looks like to my eyes. If I'm wrong I apologize for the insult but the article doesn't appear very cohesive or coherent in my opinion and immediately jumps out as being written by GPT.

The other articles on the website it should be noted, are written in a style that looks very different from the style of this article.


HN guidelines: “Please don't post shallow dismissals, especially of other people's work. A good critical comment teaches us something.”

There are multiple tells to me which indicate that the article is not GPT or similar. Edit: I do agree there is word salad, but many writers/thinkers do that as good as any ML system ;-)


I don't think so. Uncurated GPT-3 output is generally very noticeable because it is unable to hold coherence for an article of this length, and will often make the same points over and over in slight variations and sometimes even contradict itself. I see none of that in this article. I do agree that the general "feel" of the text is similar to reading GPT-3 output, but this seems to be just because the author has a somewhat rambling argumentation style. (I can relate; my own tendency is to ramble on loosely related topics when writing down my thoughts.)

This could of course be curated GPT-3 content, but sufficiently curated GPT-3 output is indistinguishable from human writing, so there's little reason to criticize the article on those grounds.

edit: Well, inspecting the site some more, I agree that there's a moderate chance that this is a test run for a process or a program that uses some kind of novel technique to get GPT-3 or some other LM to produce more coherent essays. I'm still about 80% confident there's a human in the loop, though.




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