Hyperspecialization: Rusty Nails & Rusty Paradigms

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvius Man, or The Universal Man.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvius Man, or The Universal Man.

We are entering a period of accelerating hyperspecialization.  Consider these two quotes:

In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
– Andy Warhol

In the future, everyone will be world-famous to 15 people.”
– Anonymous

The second refers to Internet interactions, and is an attempt at humor.  But as our knowledge base accelerates, it is becoming more serious.  In fact, we already see this situation with hyperspecialization in serious research.

Renaissance Man

I have talked a lot about changing change, and how technology and information have exploded in the past 250 years. Of course, those 250 years of Western expansion, roughly coincident with the founding of this country, are outgrowths of the Enlightenment, which derives from the Renaissance.  And the Renaissance was an escape from the Medieval mindset, a mindset with which we still struggle.

We are familiar with the term ‘Renaissance man,’ someone who can do it all.  Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, writer, anatomist, inventor, musician, poet, mathematician, etc.  That was possible in his day. In fact, there was an effort to synthesize several of these abilities into one art form, and da Vinci’s father was one of the founders of it.  Because they created a combination of ‘works,’ they named it for the Latin word for ‘(a) work’, opus.

Or in the plural, ‘opera’.[1]Mongoose/mongooses, goose/geese, moose/moose. English is highly inconsistent, but to my mind there should be no ‘operas,’ it should be like ‘moose’.

The ability of one person to be familiar with much of human intellectual activity lasted for a long time.  Even into the early 18th century, it was possible for some intellectuals to have read everything published in English.

Drilling Down vs Expanding Knowledge

Today?  I research in a field called sexual selection, a subset of behavioral ecology, which is a subset of ecology, which in turn is a subset of biology, which is part of the sciences.  Just keeping up with the literature in sexual selection is tough, forget the rest of it.  And beyond my college and med school classes, I have almost no knowledge of the other sciences; I am a product of hyperspecialization.  The same thing is true of my field of emergency medicine, I cannot keep up with much else beyond it.

As we drill down on knowledge, the number of experts in a field becomes smaller and smaller.  It is quite a surprise for most academics to meet someone or receive an email, and realize that they have just encountered one of the 15 people to whom he or she is famous.


I have posted about how what we know today will be a negligible part of what people know in the future. Obviously as we go forward, we will need more and more thinkers, and fewer and fewer manual laborers.

To use a computer science metaphor, we are moving from serial to parallel processing. Rather than a king, or an architect, who analyzes and designs solutions and then sends his designs down the hierarchy for further refinement, interpretation and realization, we are moving to something like the ‘unseen hand’ of the free market, where each person is an autonomous agent, and ideas are flying fast. The good news is, that gives us diversity of ideas and talent.

The bad news is, we aren’t prepared for it. First of all, we aren’t even trying to teach kids to think, and in fact we have actually inherited a system that discourages them from thinking. But among those who are supposedly trained to think, in medicine and in science, we can see a larger problem.

Rusty Nails

RustyNails 300Some years ago one of my colleagues, a good ER doctor who would later join the faculty of a large medical school, told me that when someone steps on a rusty nail, we should core out the wound with a scalpel.  I expressed skepticism, so he brought out a book by a surgeon and showed me the passage.  I had nothing to say in response.

As I thought about it over the next few days, however, I began to have doubts.  Almost everyone has stepped on a rusty nail at some time, and we see many of such people in the ER, mainly to get a tetanus shot.  And yet with all of those injuries, I realized I had never once seen an infection to the bottom of the foot.  (I’ve been practicing medicine for 30 years, and just a few months ago I saw my first such infection.)

So I started looking in books and journals. There was nothing at all.  With all of the millions of people each year who cut and stab their feet on rusty nails and other things every year, there wasn’t a single mention in any of the ER texts I could find.  I also couldn’t find any journal articles on it.

Rusty Paradigms

I have previously noted that an absence of evidence isn’t evidence of an absence.  But an absence of documentation is another thing altogether.  If rusty nails were causing much of a problem, someone somewhere should have published something about it.

Nevertheless, with no real evidence here was a surgeon insisting on an extreme treatment for a common problem, one that has not required any treatment previously.  And here was a good ER doc, and presumably many others like him, practicing questionable medicine based on the recommendations of a questionable authority.

The larger problem is that we select doctors through some of the harshest criteria, and we educate them under the most intensive and rigorous educational approaches.  So if doctors defer to their own opinions and the authority of others so readily, what are we to expect of everyone else?

Accelerating Hyperspecialization

The problem will become acceleratingly more acute.  As our knowledge base expands, as we discover and create more and more fields, we will necessarily experience accelerating hyperspecialization.  That will produce fewer and fewer authorities in any field.  We have an ever-expanding knowledge base, and an ever-diminishing number of authorities to examine each aspect.

Large numbers of autonomous thinkers are required to thoroughly analyze and test new ideas.  So we will be more and more including ideas that have not been tested very well.   There will be less review, reflection, criticism, and debate, for these new ideas.  On each topic, society will need to be confident of the work of fewer thinkers and scholars.  So we will need better thinkers, more rigorous thinkers, more objective and skeptical thinkers.

Our educational paradigms will not produce these thinkers.  We have talked about K-12 here, but as we see here, we perpetrate our our out-dated educational paradigms through graduate and professional school.

Our educational systems saddle us in ways that largely discourage thinking.

But second of all, even in those disciplines where analytical thinking is critical, our educational systems are doing a poor job.  It teaches us to defer to the book, and to authority.  It does not teach us to think flexibly, to become citizens and critical thinkers.

And the busted paradigms of current educational approaches simply aren’t up to the task of dealing with rapidly expanding knowledge

Vitruvius Man courtesy of Wikmedia.org.

Rusty nails courtesy of Pixabay.com.


1 Mongoose/mongooses, goose/geese, moose/moose. English is highly inconsistent, but to my mind there should be no ‘operas,’ it should be like ‘moose’.

One Comment

  1. Charlie Beckett

    You are a little late to the party, Joe.

    “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”

    Nicholas Murray Butler

    04/02/1862 – 12/07/1947

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