Generalization, Specialization And Climatology

generalistGuest Opinion: Dr. Tim Ball

In a recent article, I was pleased to read that Willis Eschenbach identified himself as a “Generalist” on his business card. In doing so, he correctly identifies it as a unique, even out of step position, especially in the science community. There is a degree of whimsy in his self-assessment, but it also identifies an underlying real issue. It is like the woman who gave me a business card with the self-assessment of ABC, an acronym for “Another Bloody Consultant”.

Eschenbach’s position and defense don’t surprise me. I watched academia transform from the idea that there were general rules with exceptions, to the idea that everything is an exception. It translated into the view that to generalize is the mark of a fool to specialize the mark of genius.

Eschenbach adds that it is an advantage in climate science. It is not just an advantage, but essential in studying climatology. I wrote about this in various ways in previous articles, but it needs a larger context as the world grapples with increasing fragmentation of information and knowledge.

Climatology is the study of weather patterns of a place or region, or the change of weather patterns over time. Climate science is the study of one component piece of climatology. The analogy I’ve used for decades is that climatology is a puzzle of thousands of pieces; climate science is one piece of the puzzle. A practical approach to assembling the puzzle is to classify pieces into groups. The most basic sorting identifies the corner pieces, the edge pieces and then color. Climatologists say the four corner pieces, which are oceans, atmosphere, lithosphere, and the cosmos are not even fully identified or understood. Climate scientists tend to hold one piece of the puzzle and claim it is the key to everything.

The year 1859 was pivotal in reducing people’s ability to understand the world. In that year, Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, and Alexander von Humboldt died. Darwin’s theory evolved from the collection of large amounts of evidence. The collection of information dominated European science of the 19th century. The information came from all over the world in increasing volumes and rapidly overwhelmed the ability of anyone to know it all.

Because of that Von Humboldt is credited with being the last “universal” person. That is he was the last person who “knew” all the science and geography known at that time. We still have renaissance people with a wider knowledge of several subjects, but not universal knowledge.

Since then the proliferation of knowledge, information, and ideas encouraged and lauded specialization and derided generalization. People specialize and become experts in one small piece of a very large complex puzzle, but are incapable of seeing the larger picture necessary for context and real understanding. For example, psychology studies individual behavior while sociology studies group behavior, but in the real world they are intertwined and inseparable. We are truly in a world where we cannot see the forest for the trees. We have more information and less understanding.

The problems became apparent for people studying the real world. A farmer told me of such an experience. He knew there was something wrong with the efficiency and productivity of his soils. He went to the University of Manitoba School of Agriculture. They told him they had no expert on soils, but they could line up several specialists, on such subjects as nematodes, trace minerals, clay colloid complexes, and plant microclimates. He ended up at his local fertilizer dealer who knew more about the soil problems of his area than any specialist.

Only those in the academic world dealing with the real world understood and responded to the problem in two basic ways. One was the creation of interdisciplinary studies. University calendars are now replete with them. As always the status quo resisted. They viewed them as hybrids and impure. Often specialists who put too much emphasis on their specialty chaired them. Environmental studies were likely the most expansive interdisciplinary study because it encompassed the new paradigm of environmentalism. They were also controversial in the academic world because they crossed the largest academic and intellectual boundary between Arts and Science.

The second was the introduction of systems analysis. It is interesting to read the various attempts to define system analysis. I only use Wikipedia here because it illustrates the problem.

“Systems analysis is a problem solving technique that decomposes a system into its component pieces for the purpose of the studying how well those component parts work and interact to accomplish their purpose”. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, systems analysis is “the process of studying a procedure or business in order to identify its goals and purposes and create systems and procedures that will achieve them in an efficient way”. Analysis and synthesis, as scientific methods, always go hand in hand; they complement one another. Every synthesis is built upon the results of a preceding analysis, and every analysis requires a subsequent synthesis in order to verify and correct its results.

Other definitions provide insight and explanation about why a computer model was a natural vehicle for systems analysis.

The analysis of an activity, procedure, method, technique, or business to determine what must be accomplished and how the necessary operations may best be accomplished.

Or,

The analysis of the requirements of a task and the expression of those requirements in a form that permits the assembly of computer hardware and software to perform the task

Computers apparently provided one other major benefit in the volumes of data they could include and mathematically manipulate. As climate modelers quickly discovered, to build a model you need adequate data and accurate understanding of the underlying mechanisms. In the case of climate, neither were available.

The need for computer models and the need for adequate data was a conflict that evolved at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU). Hubert Lamb knew the computer and models offered potential. As a result, he hired Tom Wigley. He explains in his autobiography,

The research project which I had put forward to the Rockefeller Foundation was awarded a handsome grant, but it sadly came to grief over an understandable difference of scientific judgment between me and the scientist, Dr. Tom Wigley, who we appointed to take charge of the research.

Lamb set up the CRU believing,

The first and greatest need was to establish the facts of the past record of the natural climate in times before any side effects of human activities could well be important.

This approach is in line with Darwin’s that you need adequate data as a basis for developing a theory.

“Since my retirement from the directorship of the Climatic Research Unit there have been changes there and in the direction of my own efforts. My immediate successor, Professor Tom Wigley, was chiefly interested in the prospects of world climate being changed as a result of human activities, primarily through the burning up of wood, coal, oil and gas reserves…”

 

After only a few years almost all the work on historical reconstruction of past climate and weather situations, which had made the Unit well known, was abandoned.”

 

Lamb knew it would degenerate into creating the historical record needed for the political agenda, as exposed in the leaked emails.

A computer model is a generalization created by a specialist with each component produced by a different specialist. You only have to read the chapter on computer models in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Physical Science Basis Reports to see the resulting disconnect and dissonance. I identified this as a Gestaltist or learning problem, but it is much more. The volume of data grows, but the division into narrower specialties continues.

Through this period climatology, a generalized approach became the specialties of climate science. Computer models offered a chance at dealing with large volumes of data and the ability to simulate natural systems. Most climatologists were generally not interested nor capable of producing computer models, as Lamb acknowledged when he hired Wigley. Instead, computer modelers cast around for large-scale systems to challenge their skills. The other issue was the cost of the computers and operation time, which only governments could afford. They either operated the computers themselves or provided funding to academics doing the research they wanted. After a discussion with a computer modeler in 1998, I realized the limitations of his weather and climate knowledge. Despite this, I watched modelers take over as climate scientists and become keynote speakers at most climate conferences. It became so technologically centered that whoever had the biggest fastest computers were the “state of the art” climate experts. I recall the impact of the Cray computer on climate science. The idiocy continues today with the belief that the only limitation to the models is computer capacity and speed.

This pattern in climate science reflects President Eisenhower’s warnings.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

 

The comment that follows the above is more important because it provides the template for today and tomorrow.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

This statesmanship was on display at the recent Heartland Climate Conference in the presentations of Senator Inhofe, US Rep. Lamar Smith, and State Sen. Carlyle Begay. They are the vanguard to fulfill what Marcel Masse observed,

The more the world is specialized, the more it will be run by generalists.

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122 thoughts on “Generalization, Specialization And Climatology

      • Actually, I am still mad at Ike. He may have been right about the tekkies, but he was wrong about the MIC and his speech made it that much harder to win the Cold War.

      • You have to read the whole speech to understand that Ike was giving the age-old advice of moderation and balance. “…It’s good not to grasp the one and let go of the other.” The phrase “military industrial complex” was too useful. Too catchy. It has taken root in the hearts and minds of many, and while it’s undeniable that there are elements of truth to the accusation, the extent to which many people believe it is greatly exaggerated. Or. at least, it seems that way to me.
        rip

    • Definitions of an EXPERT:
      1 – one who knows more and more about less and less;
      2 – ex- ‘has been; ‘spurt’ – a drip, under pressure.
      Sadly some potentially true. There we go.
      Auto

      • Reminds me of the definition of POLITICS:
        1 – POLI, meanings ‘many;
        2 – and TICS, meaning ‘blood-sucking parasites’
        🙂

      • Definition 1 can be extended somewhat. Some-one who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing.

  1. I would add that many specialists also believe in uniting different specialties, with concepts that many generalists can see are false and contradictory, or at best inconsistent and/or often invalid or untrue. These concepts are often related to each other, and include:
    -linearity in natural systems.
    -evenness in natural systems.
    -evenness in spatial distribution of natural resources and natural phenomena, and with a linear decline in value or magnitude from a central point, which point is also defined by the specialist
    -variables which are set in magnitude in space and time (and which do not therefore vary in their temporal or spatial magnitude or significance).
    -undue significance placed on averages.
    -downplaying the significance of uncertainty, and/or data that doesn’t ‘fit’.
    -imposing scaling and homogenization on data which often isn’t justified.
    From my experience it is usually the specialists in their fields who show the above assumptions, possibly because of reasons cited in the above article; they fail to see or understand the bigger picture, perhaps partly because of their narrower field of study to begin with.

  2. Excellent essay. Reminds of something I read a long time ago about farming:
    If, in a herd or flock, a ‘troublemaker’ was discovered (one animal that consistently searched for and exploited any weakness in a field or enclosure) that led to the escape of many, that animal would be off to the slaughterhouse forthwith. Then all would be calm and controlled again.

    • “If…a ‘troublemaker’ was discovered…one..that consistently searched for and exploited any weakness in a field…off to the slaughterhouse”.
      Sounds like what they are proposing for skeptics, no?

  3. I do not think there is such a thing as a ‘Scientist’ – a different person from the rest of the population.
    There is a ‘scientific method’. ANYONE who uses this to examine a problem is behaving as a ‘scientist’. At some time in their lives, the vast majority of humanity – perhaps everyone – will have ‘been a scientist’.
    The idea that there should be a separate job-classification for ‘scientists’, who are then empowered by this job to tell other people what to do, is a dangerous precedent. It is one that Eisenhower, amongst others, warned against, and his warnings are now coming true. I wish that people, instead of saying “A scientists told me so it must be true, but I am not competent to judge.”, would say ” Someone tried to explain this to me scientifically, but I could see some flaws in the argument…”.

      • “Science is nothing but trained and organized common sense, differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit: . . . .”
        –T.H. Huxley

    • Good point Dodger. At least in the United States for the last 50 years or so the academic bar has been progressively set so low as to be on the ground! Having a college degree no longer means that you have been exposed to classical education and been required to study world history, math, history of science, literature, art and language as well as the field of specialty and it’s prerequisite courses. An inquiring young mind exposed to the great ideas in art and science is less likely to get “specialist myopia” and be capable of becoming an “expert” without knowing everything about nothing and nothing about anything. Give me a generalist any day chances are you’re looking at a good citizen!

      • Which explains the youthful infatuation with Bernie Sanders. They lack all historical context.

    • Except I think you’re wrong, there are people who are different, more curious about things I guess. I use to drive my parents nuts because I tried to take almost everything apart to discover how they worked, and I still drive people crazy showing off pictures from my telescopes (for sake of everyone I’m leaving out near 50 years of examples of this stuff), while not a professional scientist I am different from most people, and most would say I was a “scientist” if asked.

      • micro6500 says “I tried to take almost everything apart to discover how they worked”
        That was me as well. I started learning how to re-assemble as a teen, and my father obtained several Heathkits for me to assemble (shortwave radio, VTVM). Back then they were sometimes called “grief-kits”.
        When the Altair 8800 came out, I ordered a kit computer with 8k memory board of 1kx1 memory chips. I soldered every socket, a total of over 5,000 solder joints using a Weller temperature-regulated iron. It worked the first time. It also didn’t do much but it was awesome with switches and LED’s. I have a nice computer now, but it just doesn’t feel the same — a black box with only one blinking LED for the disk drive. Back in the mainframe days we’d turn out the lights, open the cabinets of the Control Data 1604’s and the room was illuminated by a galaxy of blinking lights! That’s where I learned machine language programming.

        • I passed my fcc 2nd class license test on the first try at I think 16 (75?), but the Altair 8800 was beyond my allowance, later I did onsite support for some of the first workstations in 1984, and started building my own out of spare obsolete parts. About the same time I did buy a Ti99-4a, and before I plugged it in, I took it apart, which my wife had a hard time accepting, though it wasn’t all that unusual for me so she let it slide.
          Curiously, I’m now a triple digit expert consultant, very specialized, a match for the best of my specialty, all of 20 or so in the world, but it’s the breath of my experience and not my general programming skills (a self admitted hack) that make me as good as I am.
          Also, it’s learning to check the power switch, before carting out the heavy equipment, it’s not that it caught you out, it’s that you learned from it, my experience is that most never figure out it was the switch in the first place, it just got replaced.

          • micro6500 says “I passed my fcc 2nd class license test on the first try at I think 16 (75?)”
            I went straight for First Class, in Honolulu, I think it was 1975. It was a devil of a test, about 3 hours, and I got a parking ticket because I was there for so long. They’d show a diagram for a Hartley oscillator with just one component missing, wrong or unlikely value. Find the problem and what would you do to fix it?
            The “ticket” was very pretty. I lost it in my frequent Navy moves, still have the little wallet card. Then I worked on amateur radio; did it the long hard way, Morse code, novice license. I’m now an Extra class. Compared to that FCC First Class, Amateur Extra was a walk in the park but still reasonably complicated.
            My father worked for the FAA at a long range L-band radar installation so I learned on klystrons and magnetrons, even a thing called an “amplitron” which is a very big magnetron with a huge magnet that is so powerful warning signs advise keeping tools about ten feet away from it. Strange I’ve never looked into exactly what it is but here’s the story:
            http://www.radartutorial.eu/08.transmitters/Crossed-Field%20Amplifier%20%28Amplitron%29.en.html
            Before him, my grandfather was a radio pioneer with a few patents to his name. Scotch, too. Besides drinking it that is, which he did, but also his heritage. Many inventors from Scotland.
            Anyway, then along came digital and practically turned the world on its head. The thing is, under the hood everything still obeys those laws of signal transmission, impedance matching, reflections, group delay and so on.

          • My first job out of HS in 76 was at Denton radio, but never got a ham license, from there worked on LC displays, IC failure analysis, built the first 5V LC display on a digital memory chip, then 15 years of pre and post sales EDA tools (simulator expert) and the last 17 doing PLM systems, mostly database construction for new customers. So lots of time in front of customers yada, yada. But a lot of it was good training to understand GCM’S and study temp data.
            Lots of entertaining tales, self-deprecating humor, and interesting hobbies. While I have things I can complain about, I have a lot to be thankful for, and most days I still enjoy my job, what’s not to like.

          • Your post got me thinking about all of the Forest Gump moments I’ve had. So the paper I wrote on the lcd was requested by someone who was going to use it as proof of concept to build tftn lcds displays. I spent time in the Hubble control center at Goddard, watched the solar panels halfway deploy in a break room there. Saw the first mostly working Hughes satellite TV prototype work after working with the designer, AT&T HDTV system that was to be their submission to the FCC, a qtr of Cray’s Redstorm in the integration lab, a artificial knee lifecycle test lab with a knee flexing away.
            Blessed with interesting times.

    • Common sense should be what common core education is centered on… fat chance of that.
      I recall my 6th grade teacher promising that if we only learned one thing that year we would learn common sense. She was highly successful at transforming us into successful Jr. high students and beyond.

      • Common sense should be what common core education is centered on… fat chance of that.

        After being perplexed(an have many I assume) by similar examples of common core math equations, it dawned on me, they’re trying to teach how I solve complicated problems in my head, so I don’t know it’s what they’re trying to teach, but how they turned those methods into a lesson that’s the problem.

    • A scientist is a follower of the philosophy of science, so yes, scientists exist just as communists and capitalists exist. The problem is that a degree in a field of science does not make a person a scientist..
      The instruments of science were once known as ‘philosophical apparatus’ or other terms relating to philosophy – things like microscopes, thermometers, beakers and retort stands.. and these were used by the philosophers who were seeking to make quantitative observations about the world around us to explain it.
      The scientific method of skepticism and attempts to falsify theories was always with us since the earliest of times, it’s just that scientists sought to codify the methods – Whether people are scientists depends on whether they abide by the methods and philosophy of science.
      There are many problems that can arise however even in the strictest adherent to science – human cognitive faults and limitations, the various logic systems that we run in parallel (inductive and deductive reasoning).. after all, running a brain is a very energy intensive process for the body, if it can develop ‘lazy’ cognitive shortcuts it will do so.

      • There is no single philosophy of science.
        Inductivism and critical rationalism are both scientific methods even though they are significantly and fundamentally different.
        “Inductivism is the traditional model of scientific method attributed to Francis Bacon, who in 1620 vowed to subvert allegedly traditional thinking. In the Baconian model, one observes nature, proposes a modest law to generalize an observed pattern, confirms it by many observations, ventures a modestly broader law, and confirms that, too, by many more observations, while discarding disconfirmed laws.” (Wikipedia)
        “Karl Popper from the 1930s onward was the first especially vocal critic of inductivism as an utterly flawed model of science.” (Wikipedia). Here are some extracts which seems essential to me:
        The empirical method stands directly opposed to all attempts to operate with the ideas of inductive logic. It might be described as the theory of the deductive method of testing, or as the view that a hypothesis can only be empirically tested—and only after it has been advanced.
        it is still impossible, for various reasons, that any theoretical system can ever be conclusively falsified. For it is always possible to find some way of evading falsification, for example by introducing ad hoc an auxiliary hypothesis, or by changing ad hoc a definition. It is even possible without logical inconsistency to adopt the position of simply refusing to acknowledge any falsifying experience whatsoever. Admittedly, scientists do not usually proceed in this way, but logically such procedure is possible
        what characterizes the empirical method is its manner of exposing to falsification, in every conceivable way, the system to be tested. Its aim is not to save the lives of untenable systems but, on the contrary, to expose them all to the fiercest struggle for survival.
        (extracts from The logic of scientific discovery by Karl R. Popper.)
        Obviously there do exist fundamentally different scientific methods – also today. And a great variety of scientific methods are practiced by researchers. And most certainly – the scientific method of skepticism and attempts to falsify theories was not with us since the earliest of times. It is not even with all researchers today.
        Hence the term scientist is by no means a precise term. It really does not tell anything about which scientific method the researcher endorse. The term scientist does not tell us whether the researcher endorse the method of inductivism or the empirical method – or any other method or combination of methods.

  4. Specialisation means that you are an ‘acknowledged expert’, and cannot be contradicted.
    This is extremely good for your job prospects. For instance, the West has a current security scare, and a vast industry has arisen producing warnings of ever-more-extreme threats which must be countered by the application of money to the experts.
    So long as people respond to ‘specialisation’ by saying “Ah, you are an expert – tell us what to do and we will just do that without either thinking or raising any objection..”, there will ALWAYS be a job opening for ‘specialists’…

    • As far as the customer was concerned, an “Expert” was anyone from out of town. As for the engineers, “ex” was a has-been and “spert” was what a dog does to a tree.

      • Interesting to read your definition of an ‘expert’ Joe.
        On my first day as a freshman engineering student about 400 of us filed in to the main lecture theatre in the faculty building to be welcomed by the dean. After the usual warm words of welcome we got our first warning against the risk of developing hubris about our knowledge of how things work and go together. He said that no engineer EVER refers to him or herself as an ‘expert’. ‘ ‘x’ is an unknown quantity’ he advised ‘and a ‘spert’ is a drip under pressure’. Its nice to know the sentiment is widely held.
        I give technical evidence in legal maqtters from time to time and am engaged as an ‘expert’. I cringe but reassure myself that it is only lawyers who are using the word and on balance that is a healthy thing.
        The more things happen in an engineer’s with them listening rather than the engineer in their chambers and having to listen to their world view, the better. Witness the recent court case in Holland with ‘judgement’ given that the government had to cut carbon emmissions. Truly crazy stuff.

      • I imagine that ‘consultant’ is about the same as an ‘expert’. I was told by an older engineer that a consultant was anybody at least 50 miles away from home.

      • Seward,
        I’ve heard that engineers aren’t wanted on juries (they generally KNOW that there is always another way of looking at things, as such they can’t be herded into accepting one way of thinking as absolute).
        Although, there are the few engineers that KNOW what they think is always correct and absolute. Since they will say this, without cringing, they become the repeat expert witnesses. And, I always wonder if they really do believe in their absolute wisdom, or if they are just in it to be able to bill triple hourly rates.
        I tell the clients (and lawyers) that those guys that give absolutes are either lying or deluded. It is somewhat perplexing to me that they haven’t heard this before. (What the lawyers don’t seem to get is that all they would usually need to do is have just one more expert than the other side … they spend to much time developing one major expert opinion instead of getting three minor opinions and calling them experts).
        There is a climate science analogy somewhere in there ….

      • DonM, you said: “Although, there are the few engineers that KNOW what they think is always correct and absolute. ..”
        Don’t think I ever met an ME that felt that way. We still drop too many bridges, roofs, walkways etc. Oops, I forgot to add airbags… When I was in school, one of the professors told us that a major event (read that as ‘screw up’) had to occur every so often just bring everyone back to reality.

      • I know a few that have (or had) no doubts. One no longer has a license, others have higher insurance premiums and/or stay away from certain geotechnical work (and their insurance carriers have crafted certain weasel language, for them, for their contract agreements).
        I don’t associate with ME’s, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are a better breed of folks, on average, than the CE’s.
        I’m afraid that there is no climate science analogy here.

    • My dad loved the line that an expert was just a plain ordinary person out of state.

  5. Specialization is understandable. If you wish to “be someone,” you have to carve out your own niche and become the “expert.” If you succeed, then you will become invaluable and sought after. It does lead to fragmentation of knowledge into tiny useless pigeonholes, but what does it matter if knowledge and understanding is sacrificed for primacy in your specialty? You are “special” and “in demand” and if you are ever so lucky, you might even become “the Mann!” Is it good for science? Not really, but personal success and ego stroking usually is more important to the individual anyway.

    • What I know, or think I know, about Willis is that his is the embodiment of the explorers or farmers of older times. He is a keen observer and has the ability to grasp the significance of many things ordinary people ignore. Both species always knew where the sun was in the sky; both knew the direction of the wind and the clouds in the sky; both knew the behavior of the animals they saw and what that suggested; both were aware of the sea state and what that foretold. Many nowadays are content to let someone else worry about details they should be interested in.

  6. The header reminded me of a science fiction story in Arthur C. Clarke’s “Tales from the White Hart”.
    One of the characters, Harry Purvis, says, “That’s a lot of nonsense. I can prove it to you-magnetism’s my specialty.”
    “Last week you said crystal structure is your specialty”, replies a second character.
    ” I’m a GENERAL specialist,” Harry Purvis responded..

  7. Interesting… “The Generalist” is one of the names given to Personality Type “7” on the Enneagram Personality Typing System. Sevens are also known as the Epicure, the Entertainer, the Motivator, the Jack of All Trades. From what I’ve seen of Willis’ interests and his writing style, I suspect that he is indeed a Type 7. Sevens are story-tellers, and in that, they revel in the whimsical.

  8. Who can say for sure that a puzzle only has four corners? When you don’t have a full picture to begin with, only when you are sufficiently into the construction will you know.

  9. Good art requires discipline, and that’s rational thought or dare I say it a scientific method chugging away inside the artist’s head. Good science demands inspiration, insight and the persistence to chisel down a cube of granite to a piece of art. They’re incomplete without each other and when they come together, the results are spectacular. eg Da Vinci
    Pointman.

  10. Reminds me of the difference between someone who knows a little about everything as compared to someone who knows a lot about nothing.
    Specialists come into the latter category.
    What they do know is rendered valueless because they have no idea how it relates to the broader perspective..

    • If they have humility then specialists are a great resource.
      in my opinion, the failing isn’t in the way people apply themselves but in the character of the person.
      There are many ways to live your own life but few ways to share it.

      • Thanks M Courtney. Humility and character are crucial to being a good anything. Scientist, engineer, citizen,… or person.

      • If they have humility then specialists are a great resource.

        Or to quote “Dirty Harry” Callahan, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Because I’m an engineer, people respect my opinion in technical matters. When you get your PE license, one of the first things they warn you about is: “Don’t practice outside your area of expertise.” I try, with varying degrees of success, to remember that both professionally and personally. “I don’t know” is a perfectly reasonable answer to a great many questions.

    • Reminds me of two experiences many years ago. In the first, we had a PhD Chemist who analyzed a reactor explosion and concluded it was due to a rare chemical reaction. If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. Turns out it was a mechanical problem.
      In the second, one of my friends brought me a paper written by a PhD examining a proposal by an outside expert. The tract was exemplary in analyzing and evaluating the suggestion, pointing out that it could not work. Then he concluded with a proposed action: Hire the guy on a contract to pursue the idea. My friend (a technical VP) and I had a great laugh together.
      Sometimes specialists cannot get the big picture.

  11. I perform root cause analyses of adverse events. These may involve equipment failures, human errors, process/procedure issues, organizational and management errors – often it is a combination of many things that lead to an event. ‘Deep Generalists’ that emphasize working with facts and logic and can coordinate thoughts across multiple disciplines and work with specialists (often translating ideas between them) are the most accomplished and prized workers in this field.

  12. “The more the world is specialized, the more it will be run by generalists.”
    Sounds very military to me. The guys armed with the clubs, swords, spears, pikes, muskets, rifles, cannons, et al, are directed to exercise their skills by someone who, hopefully, sees the bigger picture and understands how the forces at his command can be used effectively.
    We don’t have much of that these days.,

  13. In the natural world there are rules and patterns found in specific areas of inquiry that have analogs in other “specific” areas of inquiry. Enlightenment often comes from the unexpected, problems are solved when people step outside of their comfort zones, and scientific progress is often made in such ways. I’m afraid that specialization has often inhibited (as much as it may have facilitated) progress in the pursuit of truth.

  14. I often describe myself as a generalist. A long time ago, partly in response to constant re-orgs but also to fight against finding myself pigeon-holed, I had my business cards printed with no division/group name, and no title. Just the company logo, my name and contact information.
    These were surprisingly well received. People either thought I was someone “special”, or they totally understood and preferred dealing with a person rather than a glorified title.
    Even longer ago, I worked for Netscape, in professional services, running a very small group within PS which responded to high profile problems with high profile customers. We would typically be called in when the customer was at the point of throwing a hissy-fit, having suffered some problem for a considerable length of time and getting no resolution from support.
    We had two aims, one was to fix the problem, and the second was that if we couldn’t fix the problem, to save them as a customer, so the job was half technical and half diplomacy.
    I was embarrassed how successful we were in the first aim, fixing the problem. We fixed probably 60% of the problems. We should not have been able to fix these problems in a day or so when tech support had failed over several weeks or months.
    We succeeded because we were generalists. We didn’t stop at product boundaries, but followed the problem wherever it led, be that into the OS, into the network or even into other products not from our company. We were not product specialists, but would call on them as required, same for OS, network etc. We would work with other companies tech support, we just did whatever was needed to solve the customer’s problem.
    We succeeded because we were generalists.

  15. Hey, let’s get this straight. Willis has NO earned degrees! And no one without a “degree” has done anything worthwhile (or technical). No wait, Edison…OK, exception. Tesla, whoops another exception. The Wright Brothers…, dang, Bill Gates, (this is looking bad, very bad). Eli Whitney…A friend of mine, (he does have 3 “tech school” diplomas, does that count?) who has made this site: http://www.calcinator.com Which solves in symbolic form, differentials, integrals, algebra, trig.. Similar to the original MAXIMA, but done by ONE person instead of 5 graduate students at MIT. OK….OK…I’ve convinced myself. An “earned degree” might be a detriment to true innovation. WILLIS…keep hammering on THUNDERSTORMS! I think the key to equilibrium is right there, staring us in the face.

      • Michael 2: Macsyma was the original. Which I was using courtesy of the Department of Defense, at Offet AFB in Omaha to work on my M.S. Thesis for Mechanical. At that time there was one professor and his 5 grad students working on it full time. Key point, they all probably are Phd’s teaching these days. (My ‘full time employed as a programmer friend, will NEVER be teaching as they are…he has no credentials, he’ just have to settle for his great salary and putting out things like the Calcinator, as sufficient in life!) And yes, the MAXIMA is available. (Both my friend and I have copies on our PC’s.) IT was specified in the “will” of the professor that developed it that he wanted it “public domain”. Now time for you and me to get going and do things! (Like Willis does, GO WILLIS!)

    • For a PARTIAL, you can add Freeman Dyson, who has a BA in mathematics, but didn’t bother to get a PhD.
      Despite this lack of a PhD, he was made a professor by Cornell.

    • Sir George Cayley Bt. in the place of the late comer Wrights please. Even they acknowledged their debt to Sir George. His other discoveries and inventions fill a large book (e.g. seat safety belts, tension spoke wheels, aerodynamic research). Another rather famous scientist lacking a degree was Mr. Einstein who was awarded a PhD on the basis of the work shown in his paper on general relativity in 1915. He at the time only had a high school diploma for the teaching of mathematics.

  16. I am thinking similar to GPHanner. An effective generalist is the one who knows and maintains a realistic context which is informed by pieces of specialized information. IOW, the “Big Picture” person. In the Corporate world, that is the Chief Executive’s job. Any leader has to be able to the larger implications, choices and consequences. Eisenhower’s comment was one of the best in this sense.

  17. I’m somewhat of a polymath myself (nowhere up to Willis’ quality, of course!) and even cross-disciplinary studies leave some of the most important data out: actual, physical experience. Nobody understands a bicycle until they’ve become a rider. Nobody understands chimpanzees until they’ve lived with them. If you want to understand ancient iron, you have to be somewhat of a smith yourself. The mind is part of understanding; the body is another part. Until they’re working together, understanding is only a pale shadow of what it could be.
    Willis’ observations upon clouds are an example. The man has *lived* with clouds.

  18. So a generalist is somebody who can apply intelligence to practical application? It doesn’t necesarilly mean he or she doesn’t have a specialty also. In my dummy world they call that “street savvy.” Maybe not on the actual streets in this example but the same idea. Bill Clinton had this. Obama does not Imo.

  19. einstein also said that ‘science’ is just organised common sense
    Science is organized neural function (Brain) LOL

    • “Science is nothing but trained and organized common sense, differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit”–T.H. Huxley

  20. Ya, but, from my observations most elected officials are generalist too.
    Out in West Texas on a fence building job over say the CapRock just East of Lubbock where it is way rocky, way steep, and the work is in August, the “generalist” will be found sitting in the PickUp Truck
    with the air-conditioning going full blast on his cell phone talking about himself and setting up his dinner date at the Cattlemen s restaurant in Ft. Worth stock yards area.
    They are also known by the guys digging the post holes or driving the T-Post as BS’ers.

  21. Several, possibly many, human endeavors require multiple specializations but not perhaps total omniscience.
    The “bridge” person straddling two disciplines (network engineering, system administration):
    A network (computer) engineer with little or no knowledge of what is being transported over the network is hampered by that lack of application awareness. He can look at a “sniffer” but what will it mean? He will undertstand the network protocol but not understand what the application is trying to do.
    Conversely, a system administrator of a server, trying to diagnose a problem seldom thinks of using a protocol analyzer but it is one of my first “go to” tools when working on email problems. Someone must understand all 7 layers of the OSI model and how to interpret it on a protocol analyzer (which can see only layers 2 through 7 of course).
    I have several such stories in my military/government career where “partitions” exist that occasionally prevent effective troubleshooting and problem resolution.
    A common problem is data engineers forget that ultimately everything is electronics so having a good grounding in electronics can sometimes help solve difficult “data” problems.

  22. Willis like many of us can represent a spin on matters when it comes to the climate that make it appear he is correct while everyone else is wrong ,until you read the spin on this subject from someone else.

  23. Expert: Someone who knows more and more about less and less till they know everything about nothing.

  24. Interesting article. A prime example here is medicine. Possibly the ultimate generalist is our General Practitioner (GP). Someone who knows not “a little” about everything, but quite a lot. Probably 80% to 95% depending on field, training and specific interests.
    But they also know what they don’t know – medical exams are negatively scored to discourage guessing and encourage you to admit you don’t know and find someone who does. Sensible.
    Which is why we have specialists (or consultants) who know almost everything about a very narrow field. If your GP can’t fix you, and they do in 90% of cases, they’ll take a best guess at which specialist to pass you on to.
    Now, if it’s not the right specialist, you’ll get sent back to your GP. Your specialist won’t say “ah, not really a knee issue, more to do with your thigh. You need to see Dr Smith down the corridor, he’s great with thighs”. He’ll pass you back to your GP with a snarky note saying “this clearly wasn’t a knee issue”. And your GP will be left to work out where to try next.
    Now, ask said specialist what current medical best practice is in anything (and I mean anything) other than knees, and he won’t have a clue. No idea at all.
    Yet society values the specialist more, pays them more and somehow thinks the generalist is second class.

  25. I have a Grade 12 diploma here in Toronto, Canada, earned in 1983, so I already consider this to be the equivalent of many bachelor of arts degrees from a liberal college circa 2015.
    I did go to Grade 13 and earned 5 of 6 credits, so that’s practically a masters these days. Included in my final two years of high school were four writing credits and two for journalism, including one as a co-op student.
    A few years later, after a two year community college education (didn’t graduate, learned what I wanted to and told the pretentious git who held back my diploma that I would never agree with his politically correct nonsense) I became a freelance copy editor and spent some time editing textbooks.
    In other words, I was an uneducated “generalist” who somehow made a living correcting much more educated “betters” who made more than enough mistakes to pay my rent.

    • In other words, I was an uneducated “generalist” who somehow made a living correcting much more educated “betters” who made more than enough mistakes to pay my rent.

      And I bet, they don’t like you much for that.

      • I don’t think any Vegas book would take that bet… No, experts rarely like being told they are wrong. They certainly don’t like it when they are shown to be wrong.
        Just the other day I reached over and pressed F9 to recalculate a spreadsheet for someone who told me that, no, my numbers could not possibly be correct, as she had been updating her numbers for weeks….I would have joked that we all sometimes forget to ensure we have “automatic recalc” chosen. But she brags very often about her Masters, so I just let it slide. Well, I smiled and wondered what exact shade of red she turned, might look good in our kitchen.
        Maybe I should get a card that says “Peer Review: Old Skool Style. Yes, this may hurt your ego a bit”.
        I could tell you the story of my Grade Nine drop out father who scored a repair and subsequent property management contract because the owner lost a bit of confidence in the architect and builder who ignored my dad’s warning that ice would build up if they followed the original design. But its a long one and tells the same story.

        • I don’t think any Vegas book would take that bet… No, experts rarely like being told they are wrong. They certainly don’t like it when they are shown to be wrong.

          Definitely not by a “lessor” person (obviously you were not the lessor in your story) 🙂 Working in a technical field where most have 4+ year college degrees, I ran into that often enough, now no one would know unless I tell them, and even then most would never say anything about it other than being surprised by it.

          Just the other day I reached over and pressed F9 to recalculate a spreadsheet for someone who told me that, no, my numbers could not possibly be correct, as she had been updating her numbers for weeks

          I love it when I solve one of those problems that just doesn’t want to be fixed, in the first 2 minutes of looking into it. When it’s a customer I just explain I’d rather find the power was off (h/t Michael 2), saves me a lot of time trying to solve something more complicated.

      • Engineering schools have an uphill job. Some profs have good ways to get critical thinking engaged early in the process. A friend of mine studying ME came into our hangout on campus swearing a blue streak. He had scored well on the previous week’s project in one class, designing a restraining system for a rocket nosecone payload of a given size for given stresses and torques on the load, and preset door-hatch and weaknesses in the nose-cone assembly that could not be connected to. He got 8 or 9 out of 10 possible marks. For the current week’s project the prof handed them back their previous project and told them to detail the means of access and order of connection of the bolts to attach the payload inside the nose cone. This assignment was worth 90 marks. One had to pass the homework projects to pass the course. IIRC only 2 or 3 out of 100 got top marks for having a design that could actually be used. Most could not complete the assignment and got 0. Although one wag did receive a bare pass for placing an ad for a suicidal midget to be sealed inside with the payload to do up the last few connections.
        His students were much more careful for the rest of the course.

  26. Its the ‘use’ that specialists are used for that causes the problem?
    Who would you want to perform a heart bypass operation? a specialist heart surgeon who performs 5 heart operations per week and does no other work or a generalist surgeon who performs 1 heart operation per year and many other ops?
    Who would you use to build a brick wall? a brickie or a elecy?
    We are seeing a surge in ‘specialists’ being asked generalist questions.
    Perhaps this is the problem?

    • Steve –
      I fully agree with your post … some of the comments above that specialists “know a lot about nothing” (et. al.) is mind numbing in my experience. But maybe theses comments were meant as a joke or sacasm?
      Dan

    • steverichards1984 asks “Who would you want to perform a heart bypass operation? a specialist heart surgeon who performs 5 heart operations per week and does no other work or a generalist surgeon who performs 1 heart operation per year and many other ops?”
      I would probably prefer the generalist who realizes that my problem is heartburn or esophagal reflux.
      But once the generalist realizes and more correctly determines the nature of the problem then you invoke the specialist.
      Starting with a specialist is where problems arise.
      I once spent an hour trying to fix a machine that wasn’t turned on. My excuse is that it was at 2 a.m. or so. The power switch was located where someone in a swivel chair could bump it with the arm of the chair and certain parts stayed powered on so it wasn’t conspicuously “off”.
      I approached it from a “high tech” perspective; brought out the oscilloscope and meters, checked fuses — everything but the power switch! It was when I went to turn it OFF (it was an on/off toggle) that I turned it ON. Oops!
      Had the diagnostic procedure started with one of my junior sailors, she would likely have checked the power switch first lacking any knowledge of oscilloscopes and things like that.

      • Hi Michael –
        I think that most of us can empathize with your “On-button story” … it happens all to often to me. But the problem you faces wasn’t that you were a specialist but rather either (1) not a specialist for that machine, or (2) you were just experiencing the fact of being human! Of course, in my case I also have the excuse that, well, old age is setting in.
        Dan

  27. Over the course of my career as an engineering R&D team member (early) or as a team leader (later), the dichotomy between specialist and generalist discussed in this article and ensuing comments has rarely been clear-cut to me. For significant projects, both types of members are needed. Additionally, in my mind the concept of specialists, for example, can span the range of skills from the laboratory scientist, to the highly skilled combustor designer, to the highly skilled welder, to the highly proficient rig test operator etc.
    Whether for a specialist or generalist; the main traits that mattered to me were whether these individuals were team players, committed to the project, have skill in their role, and maybe most importantly are sufficiently self-aware that they know what they don’t know … aren’t hesitant to discuss associated technical issues. Maybe the latter trait relates to M Courtney’s assertion that humility is truly important; in either event I couldn’t agree with him more!
    Dan

  28. Surely this is why we have managers, directors, project managers, site supervisors and politicians. People who do not have the specialist knowledge but have the ability to sieve out the garbage and construct a coherent whole from the body of “experts” on any project. It is a shame the quality of politicians is so low at the moment.

  29. Willis is on to something. To be a generalist you need an open mind and he has one. The so-called experts on climate have closed minds. This is not exclusive to climate science and its roots go back to the medieval traditions of our university system. The professor at a university in the nineteenth century was not one whose opinions could be questioned. Sometimes the fate of a person or the fate of the world could be determined by that. Galileo’s treatment in the hands of the Inquisition is well known. They were actually lenient to him by their standards because Giordano Bruno who had questioned them before had been burnt to death. The discovery of uranium fission just before the war broke out is another example. If it wasn’t for academic overreach by the chief scientists involved the discovery could have happened several years earlier. Needless to say, the outcome of the war could have been very different. I get this from the June issue of Physics Today. It seems that a German scientist by the name of Ida Noddck studied the puzzling radioactivity that uranium produced when bombarded by neutrons and decided it was caused by uranium fission. She published it in 1934. But scientists Enrico Fermi, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman who read her paper simply ignored it. As we know, uranium fission was first recognized in January 1939 when Lise Meitner, now in Sweden, and her nephew, Otto Frisch, figured it out and published it. That was almost five years after Noddack’s original work . Had they followed up Noddack it is likely that the potential of uranium fission to make the bomb would have been discovered several years before the war started. Both sides would have had the bomb and the outcome might have been very different. I can relate to such arbitrary and arrogant decisions by experts because I am now in a similar situation with respect to climate science. In 2008 I was doing research on my book “What Warming?” when I discovered that warming had stopped for 18 years in the eighties and nineties. We would call that a hiatus now but the word had not even been invented yet so I simply described the stoppage graphically as figure 15. Today we have a newer hiatus or cessation of warming that by a coincidence has also lasted for 18 years. Dozens of papers have been written to prove it does not exist The latest one is byKarl et al. I have periodically mentioned this cessation of warming in the eighties and nineties for the last five years but have simply been ignored.. The powers that be have over-written that hiatus with a phony “late twentieth century warming” and that is how it appears in ground-based temperature curves. But not so in satellite data-sets which they still don’t control. You can still download the satellite temperature chart for the hiatus of eighties and nineties. The crooks who used fake warming to hide it include HadCRUT, GISS, and NCDC climate workshops. The connection is made by shared computer footprints that are identically the same in their publicly available data sets. Apparently if your work was not scrutinized by their censors it simply does not exist. Like Noddack’s work did not exist for Fermi, Hahn and Strassman in the thirties.

    • The professor at a university in the nineteenth century was not one whose opinions could be questioned.

      I skipped college, Now I wished I hadn’t, but because of the things I’m not good at (it’s long since been something that would be an advantage to my work), at the time I classed it as the place where you learned all the things that weren’t true, and thought that glossed over an awful lot of stuff at the edge.

      • I didn’t get much from college relevant to my employment but quite a lot relevant to understanding the world, understanding other people and understanding business. When I meet people I find it interesting to discuss a wide variety of things, and from that interest their perception of my technical ability magically increases. It helps to tell jokes (such as at the Tickle-me Elmo factory where someone gives them “test tickles”). It makes me more normal (not quite normal but at least not completely alien).
        It also helps to know what other people are being taught and what they believe of what they are being taught.

  30. The edge of knowledge is the domain of emotion. As you drift from the former to the latter, reason is displaced by belief. The boundary is the battlefield where generalists and specialists engage in the game of progress. Unfortunately the referees are politicians who have neither specialization or generalization except in the art of self promotion.
    They’re actually very skilled. They just aren’t playing the same game as the rest of us.

  31. And yet another fine article Dr. Ball. Thanks.
    I would add that we don’t always have a “generalist” who knows enough to get the job done. What we often need is a group of people cooperating on a problem and the group itself needs all sorts of people with varied backgrounds, experiences, skills. and so forth. A good leader of such a group may him/herself be a generalist or perhaps the leader is just a good leader who makes sure that all voices are heard.
    For example; can you imagine a group that had “Dr.” Mike Mann and also statistician William M. Briggs on it? I doubt such a group would have come up with a “hockey stick” view of past temperatures! In fact, having Briggs or Steve McIntyre on the team would have saved many groups from publishing absolute garbage. After all, modern climatology is often a statistical study even if they never seem to be able to find the statistics department down the hall. And a couple of people who know a little about thermodynamics would be nice … darn nice.
    The group can be stronger than any individual. This is a great reason why open sourced publishing of science papers rather than the present pal review system would be far better.

    • Mark –
      As I commented “slight above”, well disciplined, trained and motivated teams are exceedingly stronger — at least within well run engineering organizations!
      I’m a very frequent reader of WUWT but don’t comment much; however, I have previously commented that a significant problem with “Climate Science” is that it is of such importance to get this right, that it shouldn’t be entrusted to scientists attending their “smoke stack” , but rather should be treated as an engineering problem by a multidisciplanary organized team(s) that actually know how to do independent, non-politically or grant driven research and development.
      This is likely hard to do in the current climate (err, situation) … yet until a holistic approach is undertaken, absent the cozy relationship between researcher and gov’t funding types, the current course can only lead to havoc and uncertainty!
      Dan

    • Hi Mark, again.
      On rereading my post of 12:26; I realized that my reference to “smoke stack” might not be understandable to some/many readers. Many large engineering organization, over the last 2 decades, have worked successfully, at least in part, to breakdown the “walls” separating their constituent sub-organizations. That is to say, these efforts attempted to promote collaboration, cross-wall data flow, and most importantly team-work that shares the cost and reward of progress. So “smoke stack” equates to isolation among individual organization. The benefit, removal of “smoke stacks” promotes share responsibility and success rather than “finger pointing” and ultimately collaboration.
      If this explanation was unnecessary … my apologies.
      Dan
      P.S. Yes there is collaboration in the climate science but of the ugly kind … not bound by science or reason!

      • “P.S. Yes there is collaboration in the climate science but of the ugly kind … not bound by science or reason!”
        That hit the nail right on the head! 🙂

      • Hi Mark –
        Thanks … particularly for not challenging the typos (e.g., the phrase after “finger pointing” that should have been “and ultimately non-collaboration”. Sorry, maybe I was just in a rage and typing faster/slower than my brain 🙂

      • Dan, typos are just part of making comments. I am always generous in my reading of others and hope that others treat me the same way. If only I had a dollar for every spelling or grammar error I have made on the internet — I could fund a space station I bet. 🙂

      • I have seen the phenomenon you describe more often referred to as “stove-piping”. For some reason I recall that phrase being popular in military and intelligence circles.

  32. Good post and many good comments.
    Exception to Salvatore at 9:24 am: From my perspective, Willis rarely “spins” his presentations. Through evident curiosity and hard work, he seems to be adept at finding hidden connections among the various tentacles of climatology. He gives his reasoning as to the interpretation of what he finds, and is completely open to constructive criticism. In other words, if you disagree with something he wrote, let him know your thoughts. That’s how collective knowledge progresses.
    A “Ted Talk” by James Flynn, “Why Our IQ Levels are Higher Than Our Grandparents’,” touches on some of the issues broached here. (I can’t seem to get a good link, so just Google it.) Dr. Flynn proposes that significant increases in abstract reasoning have led to higher IQ scores, based on comparable tests. This obviously conflicts with Jonathan Gruber’s assessment of the mental acuity of the American Voter, which, sadly, appears to be correct. How did “horse sense” become a thing of the past?
    “The World According to Dilbert,” along with the comic strip provided deep insight into management practices. Personal experience and discussions with other scientists have allowed me to place names to the various vignettes presented in the book. “That isn’t your job,” was a common managerial statement related by many industrial scientists. The managers arrogated to themselves the role of generalist, so as to justify their existence and salary. Critical assessment of work from other sections, and particularly outside consultants was squelched. Scientists were shown the door if they violated the rule, or sat mum as another researcher described his/her latest noise chase, complete with evident instrumental artifacts. Richard Feynman described his discussions with the engineers associated with the Challenger, prior to getting the message that he wasn’t to do so. Yes, those blankety-blank o-rings. The Hubble mirror was tested with a far more precise set of optics measurement equipment prior to launch; did someone check the accuracy? The Mars Climate Orbiter crashed; but the computer model gave the correct answer – oh, ya, that units thingy. My blueish complexion arises from the number of times I have told my students to check the units on every calculation. Those same managers appear before Congress to claim that American students entering the workforce do not have the specialized knowledge to adapt to the work environment, and so the number of H1-B visas must be increased. That pal-review process produces similar results.
    The problem-solving story related by Philip at 8:08 am is another symptom. Students attempting to identify systematic errors will invariably assert equipment malfunction or “human error,” and have an expectation of getting full credit. I want to tell them that they remind me of the movie, “Disclosure,” with its repeated advice from A. Friend to , ” Solve the problem.”
    So, IMHO, schools, as well as the technological environment may be enhancing abstract reasoning among the young, but the ability to marshal the educational resources and experience one obtains to address complex problems is left by the wayside. In addition, staying on point with reasoning and reporting is a lost art. Consequently, questions regarding 1) the the size of the effect relative to background variation, 2) the meaning of any averaging (non-representative sampling, intensive variables, disparate quantities, nonlinear effects, etc.), 3) validation of models, 4) the size of aledged effects relative to historical precedent, and so forth, are ignored. The focus on feelings has limited the willingness to give and receive constructive criticism, as exemplified by the attitude: Why should I show my work if you’re just going to knock it down? Thus, it is a distinct benefit to the scientific community to have a website such as this to combat these negative trends, even if certain comments run too long. (Sorry)
    Finally, Dr. Ball shares much of the Willis horse sense, so I can understand his appreciation.

    • Hi EdA the New Yorker
      I wish you had constructed a more succinct and clearer argument in your post …. maybe it’s just me but your introductory paragraphs struck me as inflammatory … and that’s OK. But when I read the following:
      Consequently, questions regarding 1) the the size of the effect relative to background variation, 2) the meaning of any averaging (non-representative sampling, intensive variables, disparate quantities, nonlinear effects, etc.), 3) validation of models, 4) the size of aledged effects relative to historical precedent, and so forth, are ignored.
      I changed my mind … did you trick me?
      Your appreciation for model validation (and pre-supposing code validation) pulled me further towards your argument. Unless I read your overall message wrong, I agree, that solid data, verification of associated GCM codes, and ultimate validation of model prediction are truly necessary to achieve forward estimates of global temperature predictions (if that’s even possible … I doubt it!)
      If I’ve misread your seemingly vacillating diatribe, please let me know … so I won’t be pulled into a future bi-stable argument that you might post. I don’t have the time.
      Dan

      • Hi Dan,
        I didn’t mean to ruffle Salvatore’s feathers, just disagreed with him (or as I read his comment) as to how a typical Willis post differs from those that push an agenda. Willis always stimulates my thinking.
        The Ted Talk referred to is interesting, but I disagree with the implied connection between intelligence and abstract thinking. Problem solving requires an observation of tangible facts. Specialists tend to have a deep knowledge of their field, but will frequently overlook obvious evidence that runs contrary to their initial hypothesis. Horse sense, IMO is equivalent to Dr.Ball’s concept of the generalist, and thus the apparent shift in tone.
        I accept your criticism 🙂

      • Hi EdA the New Yorker –
        Thanks for your response: I had also contemplated a dismissive response to Salvatore but demurred … as likely it woulud be a waste of time. Additionally, I have engaged many academic “specialists” over the course of my career in multidisciplinary programs; many have provide useful knowledge, but some not so much — some I’d go into battle with, others, no way. In running technical R&D programs over the three decades of my career in aerospace, I’ve learned that insight, ideas, improvement comes from all quarters … the guy in the lab and the guy on the floor … I cherished them all because each team participant at each level has an opportunity to move the ball ahead … and when you truly do have such a team … somehow it works.
        Now a final point … I’ve been stewing on this almost the entire afternoon. This entire generalist vs specialist argument, dichotomy, issue, whatever: is the result of the rumination of someone, Dr. Ball that seems clueless … at least based on my experience. I certainly don’t hold that against him because I don’t know his history. Yet I also believe that there are industries that do engineering properly and ethically, whereas there are pseudo collaborative efforts, such with climate, that don’t have a clue.
        Maybe now, I’m guilty of overstating my case … it so, I apologize.
        Dan

    • Ed A The New Yorker-as you can see I let Willis, know my thoughts. Jut sent him this reply below a few days ago. Many agree with Willis many do not.
      Tim Ball by the way thinks solar has a big impact on the climate as I do. Willis does not agree. Makes for a ballgame ,and time will tell who is correct.
      Willis, let me try to approach it in this manner. Your shortfall when it comes to climate is you are unable to intergrade all the various factors that are involved when it comes to the climate that will not result in a given item (the sun) changing in a given way resulting in an x climate outcome. Somehow you have this opinion that an x change in solar variability has to immediately translate to an x change climatic response. In addition you seem not to be able to incorporate lag times into the equation of the climate. You expect instant results from something said to have an effect upon the climate.
      I will add, climate regime change, and natural variation of the climate within a climatic regime are entirely two different things. What throws you off is the natural climatic variations within a particular climatic regime. This is what obscures for you the solar climate connection.
      In addition I will go so far to say the climate can not change into another climatic regime without the aid of solar variability but that does not mean it can not fluctuate within a given climate regime. That being the basis of your problem when it comes to the solar/climate connection.
      Willis it is these four factors (Milankovitch Cycles, Solar Variability ,Geo Magnetic Field Strength ,Land/Ocean Arrangements/Ice Dynamic ) which govern the climate of the earth and give it a beat of 1500 years or so but never as you said in some regular fashion ,that again is due to what I said in the above and what follows.
      The factors that govern the big picture when it comes to the climate are Milankovitch Cycles, Solar Variability, and these last three, the Geo Magnetic Field Strength of the Earth , Land /Ocean Arrangements/ Ice Dynamic those last three (geo magnetic field, land/ocean arrangements/ice dynamic) determining how effective Milankovitch Cycles and Solar Variability will be when it comes to impacting the climate.
      This explains why the cycle is there but it varies so much over time.
      In addition the evidence is mounting that the climate changes in sync in both hemispheres which eliminates a redistribution of energy within the climatic system for the reason why the climate changes ,which is on weak grounds to begin with ,and strengthens the fact that it is only changes in the total energy coming into the climatic system that can change it enough to bring it into another climate regime.
      Further I maintain that all Intrinsic Earth Bound climatic factors are limited as to how much they can change the climate due to the total amount of energy in the climatic system they have to work with. Hence, they have the ability to change the climate within a climate regime( maybe plus or minus 1c) but they can not bring the climate from one regime to another regime. They refine the climate.
      Then finally Willis, you have the rogue asteroid impact or maybe super nova explosion some where off in space that at times had a big impact on the climate system which would further obscure or even eliminate at times the 1500 year semi cyclic climatic cycle.

    • I should have said as far as Willis is concerned that we have major disagreements about why/how the climate changes.
      I also have nothing against Willis on a personal level we just disagree.

  33. A “Ted Talk” by James Flynn, “Why Our IQ Levels are Higher Than Our Grandparents’,” touches on some of the issues broached here.
    I have read experts who believe that just the opposite has happened. And my decades of teaching tells me that our children do not have higher IQs if by IQ we mean the ability to learn.
    Stupid in America … http://reason.com/archives/2006/01/13/stupid-in-america
    A little dated perhaps, but worth a read.

  34. “Science is the belief in the incompetence of experts” Richard Feynman. You could interchange the word “experts” for “specialists” in this quote quite easily.

    • Hi wickedwenchfan —
      I won’t even question the veracity of your purported quote by Richard Feynman … but either way the sentiment is not ttruthful. I could disprove this falsehood in thousands of ways via example …. but I ask you this instead, why do you continue to promote this falsehood?

      • Science is the belief in the incompetence of experts

        Here’s the text of the speech
        http://www.fotuva.org/feynman/what_is_science.html
        The actual quote is

        Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts

        I quote the following 2 paragraphs

        When someone says, “Science teaches such and such,” he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, “Science has shown such and such,” you might ask, “How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?”
        It should not be “science has shown” but “this experiment, this effect, has shown.” And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments–but be patient and listen to all the evidence–to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.

        I think the highlighted statement is where climate science (sic) missed the boat.

      • Hi micro6500
        Thanks for correcting wickedwenchfan’s Feynmann quote. All of us, expert or not, are ignorant in the sense we don’t have complete or certain knowledge. But a true expert acknowledges the uncertainty and the gaps in their knowledge. However, the acknowledged uncertainty and knowledge gaps don’t equate with incompetence.
        Dan

        • Dan

          However, the acknowledged uncertainty and knowledge gaps don’t equate with incompetence.

          I agree with you right up to the edge where the uncertainty and knowledge gaps are lied about, making a mistake is human, lying about it is deceitful.
          To give an example, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, if the engineers mistake was a mistake it’s one thing, if they knew that high winds could make the bridge wave about, but decided that the wind wouldn’t ever go fast enough and then didn’t confirm the maximum winds speed in a design review, it’s another.

  35. Medical specialists are paid more, so all new doctors tend to become specialists heading us towards a shortage of general practitioners. While having many narrowly defined specialists improves profits, improved care is debatable. For some things like fixing broken bones, a bone specialists is a good thing to have. On the other hand the human body often defies the artificial boundaries of specialties especially in the diagnostic phase, but also in the treatment phase.
    Specialist thinking infected corporate IT as well where for a time “best practices” stated a generalist is one who is good at nothing but poor at many things. Having many specialists who knew only discreet components of an application, required communication of heroic proportions when it came to modifying said system. It was like a bunch of blind monkeys feeling their way in the dark to determine how to make the changes. Coordinating the changes was another expensive hurdle. The primary result of the specialist fling was in driving costs up.
    I left the business a couple of years ago and at that time they were starting to wise up, investing in creating a new age of generalists. Unfortunately at that time the new age generalist was too general, often just unnecessary overhead. Maybe they are getting it right now.
    BTW Michelangelo and Leonardo D’avinci were generalists. Not saying Willis is the next Michelangelo 🙂 . Just saying generalists, due to a broader base of knowledge and experience can see more and do greater than a specialist.

  36. Call me a punctuation nerd, but a hyphen between “fool” and “to” in Paragraph 2 would transform the meaning from baffling to sage.

  37. Thanks Dr. Ball, I guess I too fit in that category. Hate too speak of myself but this is one mind I know intimately. (grin)
    It gets too complex for a climatologist always stuck in some corner of specialization to be a generalist, they don’t have the time since they specialized and must stay myopic. I majored in physiology, minor chemistry, but my interests over the decades since has not primarily been of physiology or biology, though I read up on those too, but computer programming, math, physics, astronomy, modeling solar system dynamics and ephemeris, arbitrary precision deeper math systems, three-d systems and the like and it goes on and on. Does that make a generalist?
    And that is not even mentioning the last eight years coming to speed on atmospheric physics and this raging ‘discussion’ on the Earth-specific atmosphere and climate. Had to go back and take refresher courses including general physics (2), calculus, multivariable calculus, linear algebra, kinematics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics (3), relativity (2) just to make sure I was still on the same page.
    So do I feel incredibly smart and intelligent now? Absolutely not! The opposite. I feel more ignorant now that when I first got out of college. The more I know the more I know that I do not really ‘know’ so are these specialized climatologist some god given gift to humanity that ‘know’ what they are doing and think they ‘know’? Not in the least. They seem like they cannot see the forest for the trees.
    My recent studies of other atmospheres has shown vividly that our atmosphere, contrary to common beliefs, follows the same rules, the same laws and is no different that any other atmosphere but for the primary gases involved (not the traces) and the culumn mass and radius of the bodies themselves (gravitation influence) and the solar input that is not either absorbed nor reflected by the atmosphere itself.
    The object now seems to be for governments and activists to keep the public so confused in meaningless and time consuming details and pointless arguments that they will never see what hit them up the side of the head, and this site, among others, are doing the same whether they know it or not by not concentrating on the few factual aspects that refute the common assumptions and that this is just a grand charade. All that happened since the 70’s is that we went up a very normal 30-32 year upward leg of a 60-64 year cycle, that is all. Remove the scientist-created positive adjustments and see for yourself. http://i44.tinypic.com/29axhua.png

  38. I remember at uni when I was a physics undergraduate we were dealing with spherical harmonics and solutions to the wave equation in 3-D.
    The lecturer said something along the lines of
    “We have three variables r, theta, phi so let’s look for a solution as a product of three functions R(r), T(theta) and F(phi).
    We did this and it all worked out. We generated the Legendre, Fourier and Bessel functions as I remember. (please correct me if I am wrong).
    I always thought to myself – what if the solution had not been separable like that? What if the solution had involved products of the parameters? We would have been in real trouble. Nature has been very kind to us (we were afterall only undergrads!) and I felt that we had dodged a bullet.
    If nature had been feeling a bit less cooperative and the solution was not separable then the whole thing would have to have been solved with a single massive equation and there would have been no possibility to break it into smaller components and pass them out to specialists for solution.
    I suspect that The Climate is not separable and so I do not buy the idea that it can be neatly pulled apart into smaller parts that can be solved and put back together by the various specialists. So when we hear that the science is settled because each of the various disciplines (oceanography, meteorology, solar science etc) have all contributed their bits I am not convinced.

  39. The problem with specialisation is that it is very easy to lose context. Looking at one thing in more detail means that you can lose the overall view and the related interactions that could impact the thing you are looking at. Everything in this universe has a context, and if you lose touch with that context you are no longer looking at the universe as it actually is.

  40. I consider myself to be a generalist. And I have a possible explanation for what is bedevilling Climate Science, put simply it is this. The single most important ‘greenhouse gas’ (a term I despise) is Water Vapour. But the problem is that as well as ‘trapping’ heat in the atmosphere Water Vapour it is also the major conduit for heat to leave the atmosphere. i.e. it has a dual role.
    I sometimes refer to Warmists as Water Vapour Convection Cooling Deniers!

  41. I’ve been a consultant.
    “someone hired to tell management what the staff already know in a way the staff themselves are unable to, by dint of being ignored. And to do it in the most complex language and at sufficient length to justify an enormous fee, and to take the blame for the decisions made thereafter”.

  42. Laurie Anderson Only An Expert:
    Now only an expert can deal with the problem
    Because half the problem is seeing the problem
    And only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    So if there’s no expert dealing with the problem
    It’s really actually twice the problem
    Cause only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    Now in America we like solutions
    We like solutions to problems
    And there’s so many companies that offer solutions
    Companies with names like Pet Solution
    The Hair Solution. The Debt Solution. The World Solution. The Sushi Solution.
    Companies with experts ready to solve the problems.
    Cause only an expert can see there’s a problem
    And only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only and expert can deal with the problem
    Now let’s say you’re invited to be on Oprah
    And you don’t have a problem
    But you want to go on the show, so you need a problem
    So you invent a problem
    But if you’re not an expert in problems
    You’re probably not going to invent a very plausible problem
    And so you’re probably going to get nailed
    You’re going to get exposed
    You’re going to have to bow down and apologize
    And beg for the public’s forgiveness.
    Cause only an expert can see there’s a problem
    And only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    Now on these shows, the shows that try to solve your problems
    The big question is always “How can I get control?
    How can I take control?”
    But don’t forget this is a question for the regular viewer
    The person who’s barely getting by.
    The person who’s watching shows about people with problems
    The person who’s part of the 60% of the U.S. population
    1.3 weeks away, 1.3 pay checks away from homelessness.
    In other words, a person with problems.
    So when experts say, “Let’s get to the root of the problem
    Let’s take control of the problem
    So if you take control of the problem you can solve the problem.”
    Now often this doesn’t work at all because the situation is completely out of control.
    Cause only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    So who are these experts?
    Experts are usually self-appointed people or elected officials
    Or people skilled in sales techniques, trained or self-taught
    To focus on things that might be identified as problems.
    Now sometimes these things are not actually problems.
    But the expert is someone who studies the problem
    And tries to solve the problem.
    The expert is someone who carries malpractice insurance.
    Because often the solution becomes the problem.
    Cause only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    Now sometimes experts look for weapons.
    And sometimes they look everywhere for weapons.
    And sometimes when they don’t find any weapons
    Sometimes other experts say, “If you haven’t found any weapons
    It doesn’t mean there are no weapons.”
    And other experts looking for weapons find things like cleaning fluids.
    And refrigerator rods. And small magnets. And they say,
    “These things may look like common objects to you
    But in our opinion, they could be weapons.
    Or they could be used to make weapons.
    Or they could be used to ship weapons.
    Or to store weapons.”
    Cause only an expert can see they might be weapons
    And only an expert can see they might be problems.
    Cause only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    And sometimes, if it’s really really really hot.
    And it’s July in January.
    And there’s no more snow and huge waves are wiping out cities.
    And hurricanes are everywhere.
    And everyone knows it’s a problem.
    But if some of the experts say it’s no problem
    And other experts claim it’s no problem
    Or explain why it’s no problem
    Then it’s simply not a problem.
    But when an expert says it’s a problem
    And makes a movie and wins an Oscar about the problem
    Then all the other experts have to agree that it is most likely a problem.
    Cause only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    And even though a county can invade another country.
    And flatten it. And ruin it. And create havoc and civil war in that other country
    If the experts say that it’s not a problem
    And everyone agrees that they’re experts good at seeing problems
    Then invading that country is simply not a problem.
    And if a country tortures people
    And holds citizens without cause or trial and sets up military tribunals
    This is also not a problem.
    Unless there’s an expert who says it’s the beginning of a problem.
    Cause only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can see there’s a problem
    And see the problem is half the problem
    And only an expert can deal with the problem
    Only an expert can deal with the problem

  43. This may be slightly off topic for the evolved thread, but has anyone noticed the education that environmentalists receive? I frequently have Progressive disciples of Gaia come to the door bearing a petition, that they want to collect my signiture on. I invariably ask them, what their major is, and more often than not it is environmental studies. I then ask them what math or science courses they have taken, and often it is few and far between, if at all. Sadly, it is these people, who will go on to populate the EPA, etc., if I am not mistaken. I think they are initially being trained as generalists, but the depth of their knowledge appears to be severly underwhelming. Is this what we face in the climate modelers, someone who knows how to write code, but really has no conception of the compexity of world or the processes, they are trying to model???

  44. One last comment on Dr. Feynman and the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, I recall a movie I saw on his life, and as I remember it, the engineers workiing on the shuttle knew, what the cause was from the start. It was just that they couldn’t or wouldn’t say anything about it to the outside world. Maybe under threat of never working again? So, they led Dr. Feynman to the truth, and let him expose the dirty laundry. I believe he stated as much in the movie. Do you suppose, that there are climate scientists out ther , that know the truth and are not willing to destroy their careers over it, or am I just remembering history incorrectly??? I believe that Freeman Dyson may think that.
    The more I learn, the less I know.

  45. No mature discussion about the salutory role of “generalists” can take place without consideration of scientific competence. While the myopic limitations of highly specialized experts are quite obvious, the pitfalls that often trap generalists are nowhere near as patent. This is particularly problematic in physical climatology, which requires not only geographic and statistical acquaintance, but a masterful grasp of basics in thermodynamics, geophysical fluid dynamics and signal & system analysis. Seldom is such multidisciplinary competence found in those who are most prominent in the climate debate.
    Sadly, what we see here is the failure to distinguish between the rigorous science of system analysis and the often heuristic “systems [sic!] analysis” of business management . Elsewhere, proper spectral estimation of time series is almost never done and often thoroughly mangled. Fundamental misconceptions about oceanic processes are profligate on both sides of the debate. And there’s scant recognition in a fairly recent text on the thermodynamics of oceans and atmosphere that the atmosphere is warmed primarily by moist convection from the oceans. Absent classical standards of competence , the debate is carried on by academic careerists, clever charlatans, and carpetbaggers with style.

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