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Specialization of Labor cuts both ways

August 17, 2011

Sometimes it seems like those in power are very stupid. Far stupider than one would expect to be running the world and making decisions that impact so many people. It is not limited to just politics. When I first started learning actuarial science, I was amazed at the simplicity and inexactness of actuarial models, despite the fact that actuaries are quite smart people and the field is not very complex (although it is complicated). We use annual tables for death rates, we don’t adjust much for individual health and generally we use a back of the envelope setback (for those likely to live longer) or set forward depending on a rough estimate of how long we thing people will live. The fact of the matter is that life expectancy has changed pretty dramatically in the last century and even the smartest thousand people in the world couldn’t predict it if they tried. Here’s the thing: I think pretty much every field is probably like this.

There are now over 6 billion people on the planet. Let’s say half are too poor to really develop their skills to a reasonable degree. Now break human striving up into 1,000 categories: baseball players, physicists, pencil makers, etc. That leaves 3 million people in each category. If you are only concerned with the top 1%, that’s 30,000 people. The top 1% of the top 1% is still 300 people. Even at the very top of specialized environments, there are enough people to fill a sports stadium. One individual is still just a cell in the gigantic organism that is the human race. In order to distinguish themselves, people need to become hyper-specialized and thus the whole is too complex for any one person to understand. Even delegation becomes difficult as the the knowledge required to delegate becomes harder to gather to integrate many fields of striving. On one hand it is very beautiful to be part of something so huge. On the other hand, it makes you feel very small.

“Every department of knowledge becomes so loaded with details, that one who endeavours to know it with minute accuracy, must confine himself to a smaller and smaller portion of the whole extent: every science and art must be cut up into subdivisions, until each man’s portion, the district which he thoroughly knows, bears about the same ratio to the whole range of useful knowledge that the art of putting on a pin’s head does to the field of human industry. (…) Experience proves that there is no one study or pursuit, which, practised to the exclusion of all others, does not narrow and pervert the mind; breeding in it a class of prejudices special to that pursuit, besides a general prejudice, common to all narrow specialities, against large views, from an incapacity to take in and appreciate the grounds of them.” – J.S. Mill

3 Comments leave one →
    • August 17, 2011 1:40 pm

      The only problem I have with that is that it implies you know a lot more about a subject than I think you could. By the end of the picture, it looks like you know 10% of world knowledge. I think any one person could know at most maybe a millionth of world knowledge and maybe know that 1/10,000th of the knowledge actually even exists.

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