Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Generalists Versus Specialists

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I have recently been dipping my toe into an area that is new to me, and a colleague who I respect as much or more than anyone in the world offered the wise and well-meaning FWIW counsel that this may Toe be something you don't want to try at home.  That may be par for the course in the funny hybrid that is legal academia, and a source of the prevalent (and by no means trivial) sense that "law and . . . " requires a deep level of expertise, if not an advanced degree, in the ". . ."  In this particular case, the warning was that the specialists in the particular field believed that attempts to generalize or analogize from the specialty were usually off-base, because you had to be a specialist truly to understand the point, and most non-specialists screwed it up. 

That is counsel worth taking to heart, but is it the end of the story?  It certainly bespeaks caution, and in my case it was a wake-up to respect the precision of the particular specialty.  But I started wondering about several things.

First, I drew on long practical experience to say "I have a natural distrust, born of many years of being a generalist dealing with specialists, of specialists telling me that only specialists can really understand the subject matter of the specialist, but being unable to tell me why because I'm not a specialist."  When you are the generalist sitting "atop" an acquisition, for example, it's often the case that you compromise the optimum position in a specialist's area, whether it is real estate, or environmental, or insurance.  But it's also possible really to hack up something if you don't understand it - I'm thinking in particular of transitional service agreements that are common when the buyer of a division needs the seller to provide a set of services to the business for a period after the closing.  I have seen instances where the generalists did not understand, for example, how the SAP contract allocates "seats", because of insufficient specialized knowledge, with the result that the buyer either ended up paying more to resolve the issue, or simply had no support service. 

Second, as to counseling businesses more generally, you can think of a Venn diagram with overlapping circles representing law and business, respectively.  My position was always that the lawyers were responsible for understanding the overlap and being able to explain it to the business people.  It didn't mean that a lawyer had to be an accountant or a manufacturing engineer, but it meant understanding enough of the cross-discipline to get the overlap right.  (Many litigators love being litigators because they have to become "experts" capable of communicating to fact-finders the essence of something as to which they are not experts over and over again.)

Third, I have written before on a Harvard Business Review article from the early 1990s by Womack and Jones, the authors of the classic industrial organization study The Machine that Changed the World, entitled The Myth of the Horizontal Organization.   As businesses within diversified corporations became more "empowered" and "decentralized" and "specialized," and the organization got "flatter," the question was who would be responsible for seeing the opportunities that lay between these specialties.  By and large, it couldn't be the specialists.

Fourth, there's no question that scientific theories take on an analogized popular meaning.  If you say something outside of quantum physics about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, you are probably not talking about issues of particle momentum and position, but instead some kind of polarity in which being precise about one pole means that you cannot be precise about the other.  I don't know how nuclear physicists feel about that.  Do they just shake their heads and say - "what can you do?"  Relativity and Freudian psychology have produced similar effects.

But does that mean the analogies, or the popular sense of the scientific principle, are invalid?   Do you have to be an expert in both disciplines to be cross-disciplinary?  Am I wrong in saying the great 20th century philosophers of science were not scientists?  Do philosophers of science and scientists of philosophy (brain science?) have anything to say to each other?  Perhaps a dose of pragmatism is helpful here:  if the analogy is useful, regardless of its technical bona fides, then it is worth something.

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A bit tangential to your questions here is the the fact that science itself is so utterly reliant on analogies and metaphors, particularly when it comes to making scientific progress, to scientific 'revolutions,' in short, to scientific creativity. The fact that scientfic theories can be tranlsated into a more or less public language that is accessible to you and I certainly allows for drawing upon science for analogies in other fields of inquiry, thus the analogies are not simply the only means by which nonscientists come to grasp scientific principles. When scientists are being 'scientistic' or making some epistemic claim to the cognitive superiority of science, they will speak of the theoretical difficulty of the their work, of how scientific ideas and even practices cannot be understood by those outside their discipline. But when they seek funding for 'pure' or 'applied' scientific projects, they have no difficulty in explaing to those with the funds what it is they are doing and the alleged benefits down the road from their endeavors. I think that this is proof enough that scientific principles and ideas can be put in a language accessible to most of us, even without resorting to an 'analogized popular meaning.' And of course there is much interdisciplinary use to be made of scientific discoveries: for instance, the wave and particle models in physics are necessary and complementary but seem (prima facie) to be contradictory. Thus Niels Bohr said 'A complete elucidation of one and the same object may require diverse points of view which defy a unique description' (In fact, Bohr also said the models of quantum physics are more like poetic metaphors than literal descriptions of the world!). This is an intriguing refutation of the idea that relativism and perspectivalism are contrary to objectivity. And I see nothing at all wrong with taking something like Godel's uncertainty theorem, intended to be applied to formal mathematical systems, and extending it to logical systems in general or even to conceptual frameworks, hence, for example, no worldview can prove its own basic assumptions or axiomatic presuppositions while staying within its own boundaries as it were.

There's so much more I want to say about questions you've raised here Jeff but I'm finishing up the semester by grading papers and preparing for my last lecture (on Marx, one of my favorite political philosophers if only because of his truly remarkable grasp of capitalism) so I better stop here. But many thanks again for being so provocative.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 9, 2007 5:23:22 PM

erratum: explaining

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 9, 2007 8:17:41 PM


I'm not at all sure what you mean by 'scientists of philosophy,' and whatever it might mean I don't think 'brain science' (neuroscience?) fits the bill.

A seemingly intractable dilemma does arise from the fact that if we grant that comprehending 'our world' is increasingly ever more elusive owing to its growing (exponentially in the case of technology) complexity--the specialization and fragmentation of the natural and social sciences intended to break down that complexity into manageable domains of intellectual inquiry and experimentation--the need for cross-, inter- or trans-disciplinary is therefore that much more acute, the only means by which we can look at the synoptic and proverbial big picture. As Nicholas Rescher notes, 'scientific progress is a matter of complexification because oversimple theories invariably prove untenable in a complex world. The natural dialectic of scientific inquiry ongoingly impels us into ever deeper levels of sophistication. In this regard, our commitment to simplicity and systematicity, although methodologically necessary, is ontologically unavailing. More sophisticated searches invariably engender changes of mind moving in the direction of an ever more complex picture of the world.' Thus, 'this ongoing refinement in the division of cognitive labor that an information explosion necessitates issues in a literal dis-integration of knowledge. The "progess of knowledge" is marked by an ever continuing proliferation of ever more restructured specialties marked by the unavoidable circumstance that any given specialty cell cannot know exactly what is going on even next door--let alone at the significant remove. Our understanding of matters outside our immediate bailiwick is bound to become superficial. At home base one knows the details, nearby one has an understanding of generalities, but at a greater remove one can be no more than an informed amateur. This disintegration of knowledge is also manifolded vividly in the fact that our cognitive taxonomies are bursting at the seams.' Ironically, 'the very attempt to counteract fragmentation produces new fragments.' More to be said, but another time. The quote material is from Rescher's The Limits of Science (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 12, 2007 5:55:42 PM

As to "brain science", I was being a smart aleck but it arose from a conversation in which somebody pointed out to me that philosophy of science is in the philosophy department.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | May 14, 2007 6:07:47 PM

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