Myths of competence and specialization

An idea has been going around for a while that science fiction, more than anything, is a literature of competence — the protagonists of science fiction are competent people who can be trusted to do the right things under the circumstances (given their knowledge of the situation), and their mistakes can generally be traced back to withheld information or the effects of external forces that manipulate their mental state (like drugs or mind control). This is true of a lot of golden age science fiction (wherein, generally speaking, the protagonists were also respectable, if not amiable — think Asimov & Heinlein), and is generally less true of new wave science fiction (think of Ellison, wherein occasionally our protagonists are mad or naive or belong to a culture with alien values) and first-generation cyberpunk (think of Neuromancer, wherein every character who isn’t mad is varying degrees of self-loathing and self-destructive). But, a fiction of competence is also the lens through which many people see the real world — and some of them are probably drawn to golden-age science fiction for this reason.

I have a friend who is, like me, a software engineer. He clearly sees the world through this lens. He sees people as, generally speaking, professionals; what I consider to be design errors he considers to be some unfortunate but inevitable product of circumstance that must have very good and acceptable reasons behind it. He acknowledges the occasional genuinely poor decision, when it’s undeniable that there’s no good excuse for it, but he considers such things rare and rarely acknowledges poor decisions made by people he respects. When faced with a problem, he prefers to theorize about it rather than probe it experimentally, and is willing to spend more time generating an elaborate mental model of a problem than experimentally discovering its contours. In other words, he has confidence in the integrity of his mind and the minds of others, and considers the production of mental models to be a generally foolproof method for exploring the world.

Although I respect him a great deal, and although I admit that his knowledge of many fields is deeper than mine, I consider his attitude naively optimistic.

My model of the world is compatible with the rule of the blind idiot god. The universe is complex enough that few elements can be modeled perfectly by human beings. Because competence is difficult to achieve, few people achieve it — incompetence and poor decisions are the rule, rather than the exception. Furthermore, even competent people have little reason to exercise their competence — the illusion of competence is rewarded moreso than actual competence, and exercising one’s competence takes time and energy that pretending to exercise one’s competence does not — and society rewards behaviors that are incompatible with the production and maintenance of genuine competence.

Human beings tend to value confidence in themselves. I consider this a major failure. Because the world cannot be perfectly modeled, all models are by definition imperfect — and confidence is faith in the predictive success of one’s mental model for situations upon which it has not yet been tested. Confidence is valued in oneself in part because confidence (i.e., lack of hesitation) is valuable in genuine emergencies — if you are being chased by a bear, spending mental effort determining whether the bear genuinely exists or is an illusion produced by a trickster god is detrimental to your expected lifespan. Genuine emergencies are more rare now than they were when the adrenal and peripheral nervous system first developed in our distant forebears, and they are less important to the survival of our genetic line — we are more likely to fail to reproduce out of a bias against children or financial instability or a lack of attraction to the opposite sex than out of actually being killed by something we could run away from (like a bicycle, an enemy, or a wild animal); as a result, in today’s world, it is generally more risky to be sure than to be unsure. The same confidence in the correctness of your mental model of the world that will save you from a wild animal will get you run over by a truck, because change blindness is part of the same set of energy-saving heuristics that allow human beings to do things faster and with less effort by introducing errors into our models of the world; the same confidence that would allow a human being in a nomadic-band-of-hunter-gatherers situation to fight effectively against another band trying to use the same resources will lead a modern person to fight and die in a religious war.

Human beings also value confidence in leaders. This is for a similar reason — if you are in a nomadic band of fewer than 150 other people, and you are being attacked by another group of approximately the same size, your odds are about even so long as your hesitation level is about even, but lack of hesitation gives you a tiny advantage. Your leader, because he is in charge of coordinating tactics, is the bottleneck — his hesitation is your hesitation. This is the context where leaders are useful — when discounting planning time your odds are 50/50, but when every second of hesitation counts against you, fortune favors fools who rush in over the ones who consider the situation carefully. But, few genuinely important situations today depend upon split-second decision-making. Unless you’re in the military, your ability to make poor decisions quickly will never be more important to your lifespan than your ability to make good decisions (although the ability to make good decisions quickly is beneficial in a wide variety of situations, it’s not really practical to develop), and unless you play professional sports the same is true of your livelihood. A good leader in typical modern circumstances is someone who takes minutes or hours to think a decision through, and who knows when to back off and reconsider a decision that has proven to be flawed — in other words, exactly the kind of person who appears unconfident to the point of neurosis. Because our heuristics are stuck in the stone age, to become a leader you must appear confident, but in order to be a good leader your apparent confidence must be an illusion.

This is not to say that I don’t believe in competence. In fact, I think competence is undervalued and under-sold. Take, for instance, the polymath.

A lot of people these days say that polymaths can no longer exist — that the world has gotten too complex. Bullshit. Our models of the world have gotten better — which means that our ability to predict the world has gotten better. It’s easier to be a polymath today than ever before, because being a polymath means being competent in a variety of fields, and great strides have been made in every field with regard to our ability to learn to become competent in them. The world has not gotten more complex, but instead, through human endevours, it has gotten slightly simpler — not because we have changed the world but because we have changed our minds, developing mental tools for organizing the massive clusterfuck that is reality into more and more useful predictive models, wherein the complexity of the model grows slower than its predictive utility.

The same narrative that claims that there can be no more polymaths tells us that specialization is desirable, or at worst an unfortunate necessity. If we can’t learn a variety of mental models because the models have gotten more complex, then we need to stick to our lane and go deep into one silo, solving the problems that fit into that domain.

But, all problems are in reality multidisciplinary. Disciplines and problem domains are inventions of human beings, and reality has no interest in them. The specialist is blind to this. The specialist sees the portions of the problem that fall into his domain, and perhaps slightly foggily sees the portions that fall into neighbouring domains; the remainder is some vast undifferentiated miasma that must be left to other people to figure out. As a result, the specialist can be very confident about his results — because he has chopped off everything in the universe that he doesn’t know how to model, and has applied a model to the tiny portion that has been left over. His model may not yield useful results, because he has ignored most of the universe, and he really can’t effectively isolate his subject that way.

The generalist, on the other hand, sees the universe and applies several different models that apply to different aspects of the subject (as well as sections of the world immediately surrounding it). The polymath, who is a generalist upgraded with the knowledge of several specialists, does the same thing with better results because he has a wider variety of useful models and the experience to determine which models are appropriate. The polymath can do this because he realises that each specialized field is a pattern recognition machine, and because some patterns can be found in the world wherever you look, many disciplines have independently reinvented the same or very similar models with different terminology. He can combine the similar models to form superior hybrid models, and when the models are exactly the same he can learn the new terminology or use the shared model to synthesize its sister models across domains. And, since models build upon each other based on shared patterns, he can use models from one discipline to more efficiently learn models from another, unrelated discipline because they essentially accidentally share patterns. Because of the polymath’s wider scope, he also is aware of common failures in various forms of various models — he is aware that the failures can compound, and so despite having better predictive results at a lower cost, he also has lower confidence; he has eliminated the artificially inflated confidence of the specialist and is left with a level of confidence more appropriate to the actual situation.

I feel like this myth of competence and confidence — the Captain Kirk character voyaging into the unknown and believing that he already knows it, confidently applying human biases to non-human situations and considering himself to be morally superior to cultures that don’t share his values — is not merely naive and optimistic, but actually regressive and dangerous. Any confident leader and man of action can be percieved, with a minor shift of perspective, as an arrogant fool who acts without thinking; any crusade against evil people doing evil things can be reframed as an intolerant bigot battling a system of values he doesn’t understand. This kind of literature transplants into the space age the kind of leader who hasn’t really been appropriate for a leadership role since the dawn of agriculture.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.

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