Generalists part 2 – they can be trusted

There are two pieces of information that I hope sear their way into your brain as they have into mine.

The first is from Mike Lyden’s master’s thesis in 2008, where he took liberal arts students and pitted their predictions of the future against specialists in the U.S. Intelligence Community. What he found was that the liberal arts students were both able to connect wider sources of material and less subject to the biases of the specialists’ colored glasses.

“This thesis presents the findings comparing the accuracy of strategic-level estimative judgments made under conditions of accelerated analysis by undergraduate analysts at the Mercyhurst College Institute for Intelligence Studies to estimates of similar scope found in declassified National Intelligence Estimates produced by the United States National Intelligence Council. These historical research studies found that not only are the student estimates of greater nuance than their National Intelligence Estimates counterparts, but they were also of statistically equal accuracy.


Much of published research findings are false. There’s publication bias on the one hand, where 19 “normal” and confirming studies don’t get published, but the 1 “new” feeling study does.

On the other, it’s the specialization problem again. The Economist had a nice piece on the concept of science failing to self-correct, don’t forget that it was a “next ice age” scare before global warming, maybe there’s even a human side that these almost-memes help reveal, and of course, everything both causes and cures cancer.

“Nevertheless, most new discoveries will continue to stem from hypothesis-generating research with low or very low pre-study odds. We should then acknowledge that statistical significance testing in the report of a single study gives only a partial picture, without knowing how much testing has been done outside the report and in the relevant field at large.”

Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” PLOS Medicine Journal, John P. A. Ioannidis

You are a generalist whenever you want to be. All you must do is read a bunch, be curious, and always be open to influence from multiple fields—a framework agnostic.

P.S. I think specialists tend to bloat the importance of their craft through use of fear. “If you were only a ______________, you would understand how frightening this is!” Resist that fear with generalism! Specialist biases force them to be afraid of it all going to pot, yet it rarely does… because in the BIG picture, as Willy Wonka says, “it all comes out in the wash.” The specialism issue is why I don’t think much of fear-mongering is actually intentional—a huge swath of it is merely small-minded.

P.P.S. If you don’t like to think about the serious stuff right now, go look at some Spurious Correlations charts.


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