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Generalist v. specialist

  • 04 August 2023
Trivia competitions are always a lot of fun. They’re a chance to show off a lifetime’s worth of generalist, if somewhat useless, knowledge. Oftentimes you don’t know how you know the answer. Chemical symbol for potassium? K. Last grey horse to win the Melbourne Cup? Subzero (1992). The English Victorian-age civil and mechanical engineer famous for his many projects including bridges and tunnels, and the Great Western Railway? Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

There are advantages to having a wide knowledge. Hopefully, it makes you a better listener and, therefore strangely enough, a better conversationalist. If you are interested in what interests other people it is easier to make personal connections. But knowing that K is the symbol for potassium doesn’t make you a chemist, much as knowing the list of the Melbourne Cup winners doesn’t make you a jockey.

People spend years preparing for their careers. There is formal and informal study, and then learning on the job. If you answer a question wrong in a competition, there can be momentary embarrassment or consequences in the form of missing out on a prize. Make a mistake in a chemical formula or on the racetrack and the consequences can be deadly.

We need specialists. We need those people who are committed to ‘following the science’. The ones who theorise, analyse, check and check again.

As a public transport user, the past few years has left me in awe of the engineers who have built tunnels and bridges and eliminated level crossings. That engineers can begin a tunnel from two ends and meet in the middle with the right gradient and not a millimetre out is nothing short of miraculous to someone who can add up the same column of numbers a couple of times and come up with three different answers.

Unfortunately, in this age of answers literally at the tips of our fingers thanks to our smart phones, we can be dismissive of expertise. In some pockets of society there has been a backlash against ‘elites’. This can happen when people feel disrespected or misunderstood in their circumstances or choices.


'If 99 per cent of climate scientists tell us we need to do something about climate change, then my individual experience of a cold spell in the middle of summer does not counteract their expertise.'  

People are equal in their dignity and rights as a person, but in certain situations some people have more value than others. I’m