I've been thinking for the past week or two (at least) about what I've started to call the expertise system. This is one of the less expected results of having pursued Baconian science for the past few centuries: so much information has amassed that an individual can only have a really complete understanding of one or two fields. We can certainly have a general practical understanding--in high school I was taught results of inquiries from physics to medicine--but a comprehensive knowledge of every field is really impossible, or nearly so.
This doesn't mean we've been doing anything wrong, of course. Indeed, as far as I can see, it means we've been doing something right: these divisions only exist because we know so much. But it does make for some problems. I've been spending a lot of time lately noticing the practical problem in medicine: Only doctors know how complete medical science is, where it is fairly reliable, where it is unreliable, and what kind of doubt to have about its findings. But everyone has to use medicine, so we have to make judgments about it without enough experience. Alternative medicines flourish, regardless of whether they are effective or not, because people don't know how to judge between them. People have no real choice but to put absolute faith in their doctors to come up with proper treatment, but they know that their doctors are not absolutely capable of treating them perfectly. Doctors, in turn, need to be able to explain to patients their diseases and methods of treatment, but these explanations have to be grossly oversimplified. Much the same situation exists in computers, where the division between hackers and average users continues to grow. We can even see it's effects in all the utter nonsense written about quantum mechanics and other advanced physics these days. People mean well, but without a fully theoretical understanding they can't know what to mean.
Summary: Some thoughts on the effects of knowing so much that one person at a time can't know it.
Keywords: science, Bacon, expertise, polymathy, interdisciplinary studies
Created: 29 July 1999
Modified: 29 June 2000