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Division of Labor and Experts: Generally Great but Sometimes Overrated

Our society has had great success due to the division of labor. People economically specialize. We have farmers, lawyers, barbers, bakers, security guards, inventors, novelists, architects, engineers, programmers, managers, marketers, etc.

Division of labor is far more efficient than everyone living independently and doing a little of each job. It lets people focus a large portion of their time, attention and learning on one area. As a result, they get better at it.

Trade is what makes division of labor work. I don't farm or bake but I can trade for corn and bread. Trade is how I benefit from other people doing something.

This system plays a big role in our lives. We're all familiar with it even if we don't really think about it or study economics. Besides providing material prosperity, it has led to certain psychological attitudes.

I don't know how most things work and I get them from specialists. I don't know how to repair a car so I rely on a mechanic. I don't know how to write a good poem so I get poems from poets. I don't know how to paint so I get my paintings from people who do. I do know how to create software, but I still get most of my software from other people who specialize in that particular type of software.

People have developed an attitude of not knowing how most things work and not needing to. Someone else will do it better than I would, anyway. For almost everything, there is a specialist who's better at it than me. If I do it, other than my career, it's just a hobby for fun.

This attitude is partly reasonable but partly dangerous. People can overestimate experts.

There don't actually exist good specialists for every speciality. Some areas have too few people working in them, e.g. life extension, AGI or epistemology. In some areas, tons of experts are wrong, e.g. Keynesian economists and Kantian philosophers.

People overestimate medicine's ability to fix their problems. Many surgeries and medications are cruder and less effective than people think. It's good that they exist. They're good options to have. But they aren't just safe, perfectly effective and wonderful. They're risky and doctors downplay the risks and side effects. Doctors can't fix everything and lots of the fixes have a meaningful chance of breaking something.

Worse are experts for mental, not physical, problems. Sad? Go talk to a "professional" to get help for your "depression". Marriage problems? There's an expert for that. Kid doesn't listen in school? There are experts for that. But these people don't know much about ideas. They are neither philosohpers nor scientists. They can give some basic self-help advice and they can use social pressure to manipulate people. The whole field isn't merely largely ineffective, it's dangerous with its brain-disabling drugs, it's imprisonment without trial ("involuntary commitment"), and how it misdirects people away from solving their own problems with self-improvement, studying better ideas, and other productive activities.

Experts encourage people to be irresponsible. Don't worry about it, the expert is responsible for getting a good outcome. But people are often disappointed by the outcome the expert provides. It's your life. You have to live with the outcome. You need to judge which experts are effective enough and when you need to take matters into your own hands.

Many types of experts are fine. People who produce material goods for sale are broadly OK. People who provide relatively simple or easily evaluated services are broadly OK. The longer term the issue is, and the more ongoing interaction with the specialist is needed, the more you should be careful.

The most dangerous experts that people consult direct are "mental health" experts. That whole industry is poison.

The capabilities of physical doctors are overestimated but they're basically on your side, try to help, and mostly make things better. Mental doctors make a lot of things worse. Many people regret interacting with them, and others are brainwashed/indoctrinated/pressured to the point they have trouble thinking critically about it and forming an independent opinion of their psychology or psychiatry experiences.

The most dangerous experts that people deal with indirectly are philosophers. Most people don't read philosophy books but they pick up ideas, here and there, about learning, knowledge, critical thinking, reason, morality, political principles, the metaphysical nature of reality, etc. Many of those ideas are badly wrong. They lead to people being irrational, unerasonable, bad at learning, biased, etc., which makes things worse throughout their lives. Economists also spread a ton of really bad ideas to people indirectly.


Elliot Temple on November 28, 2019

Comments (9)

I think this “Doctors can't fix anything...” is supposed to read “Doctors can't fix everything...”.


Anonymous at 9:16 AM on November 29, 2019 | #14622 | reply | quote

#14622 fixed ty


curi at 12:15 PM on November 29, 2019 | #14623 | reply | quote

Experts should be treated as advisors who present you with some options and explain them. You are then responsible for considering these options and deciding what to do. You could take some option, reject them all, or propose a modified version of one option and ask the expert if it has some flaw, and there are many other ways you could take responsibility for how you deal with experts.


oh my god it's turpentine at 2:14 AM on November 30, 2019 | #14626 | reply | quote

>The most dangerous experts that people consult direct are "mental health" experts. That whole industry is poison.

You're in no position to make this claim.


Anonymous at 9:09 AM on November 30, 2019 | #14629 | reply | quote

#14629 Do you have an argument against Elliot's position?


oh my god it's turpentine at 9:35 AM on November 30, 2019 | #14630 | reply | quote

#14630 you made the claim, burden of proof is on you


Anonymous at 9:15 PM on November 30, 2019 | #14631 | reply | quote

#14631 Do you have criticisms of the position explained in that book?


oh my god it's turpentine at 7:46 AM on December 1, 2019 | #14634 | reply | quote

> Experts should be treated as advisors who present you with some options and explain them. You are then responsible for considering these options and deciding what to do. You could take some option, reject them all, or propose a modified version of one option and ask the expert if it has some flaw, and there are many other ways you could take responsibility for how you deal with experts.

Not all experts can or should be treated as advisors. You must have in mind certain types of experts. E.g. there are farming experts. I don't get advice from them. They don't explain pesticide choices to me or tractor choices or choices about foods to plant. I just buy food that they expertly produced, from a store. The store has experts at shelf organization and stocking, and I use that expertise but I don't get explanations or advice about it. There are lots of parts of the division of labor where I just have some choices of impersonal trades, take it or leave it, and I don't get to ask any questions about the specialist's knowledge. I have a smartphone and there are people who are specialists/experts at making the CPUs, making the cellular modem, making the screen, assembling the parts, and so on, but the extent of my access to expertise about smartphones is pretty much some tech support and some sales reps at phone stores who will quite possibly just push Android to get a commission.

PS There have been a few trolls around for months. I recommend ignoring them.


curi at 2:08 PM on December 1, 2019 | #14638 | reply | quote

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