Incompetence as the Basis of Civilization

July 6, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

I was reading about Gallium metal, and got sidetracked by a debate about math software. The point that got my attention is the contention that civilization is based on an institutionalized principle that we all are incompetent in many important fields. The item being debated was the necessity of children developing skill at long division and such procedures.

The process of civilization arguably began as early man began to specialize. A man who could not hunt to support his family because of a game foot becomes an expert flint knapper, and trades his specialized skill for the products of the more common skill of hunting. He passes this skill on to his sons, who never become competent hunters. A grandchild might become a more specialized expert at finding fine-grained stones. And so on.

How many people do you know who can pass a wilderness survival test? How do they survive in spite of their total incompetence to make it on their own? Civilization. Before we developed specializations, everyone had a total wilderness survival skill set. Now, most people wouldn’t recognize an edible plant if it was planted in rows. Can you tell hemlock from parsley or carrots?

We are all massively incompetent, and things have never been better.

Except that we now accept incompetence from those who are supposed to be the experts. A politician is not elected because he is the best at managing his constituency; he is elected because his handlers are the best at getting him elected. Products are hot because of clever promotion, not product quality.

The real question becomes one of orders of ignorance. How important is it for people to be aware of what it is that they are not aware of? Should people at least learn what subjects there are that they would need to know about if we were subjected to a lower level of civilization?

Religion and politics (each arguably a force to be reckoned with) both depend on the majority being sufficiently ignorant about those fields. Other than that, there is no excuse for people to not have at least a rough idea of how much they don’t know. But then, I know that I am incompetent in the fields of education and social anthropology. So take all this with a grain of gestalt.

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Category: American Culture, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Education, History, Politics

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A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Why Gallium? I heard on Science Friday that an alloy of aluminum and gallium will release hydrogen (fizz) when dropped into room temperature water. How? The aluminum oxidizes, and the gallium acts as a catalyst. You get hydrogen gas, and a sludge of aluminum oxide (white pigment) and gallium metal in the bottom of the tank. The gallium can easily be melted out (at around 90° Fahrenheit), and the oxide recycled back into aluminum to repeat the process.

    The process is being touted as a low pressure, low cost method to power hydrogen cars. There are still technical hurdles: How to control the release of the alloy into the water by demand, how to store (buffer) the excess hydrogen, how to get the sludge out, and so on.

    Also, the price of gallium metal is currently high because it is mostly used in ultra-pure form in the semiconductor industry (gallium is the basic building block of LED's and high-speed military processors). The aluminum alloy can use much lower grade gallium.

    Of course, you need to use electricity to make the aluminum. The best technique is to set up an aluminum refining plant at a power plant (ideally nuclear, hydro, or wind to reduce the greenhouse potential).

    The energy you get out is necessarily less than what you put in. But it is still more efficient than many other hydrogen transportation ploys such as liquefying, high pressure tanks, or metal hydrides.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan: Thank you for clearly expressing the seriousness of this topic. It certainly deserves much attention.

    Why do we have experts? Because none of us can know enough about everything. We have experts out of necessity. We need experts in our version of civilization because they are highly skilled at things the rest of us couldn't understand without dedicating our lifetimes to rigorous fields of study.

    But here's the irony: we choose our experts largely based on things other than our understanding of their expertise. We are incapable of choosing experts based upon any understanding of their expertise because we simply don't understand their expertise. I suppose I should moderate this claim. Many of us have some glimmering of understanding of what many experts have a say. Some of us have intuitions which offer valuable guidance to us when an expert goes beyond the evidence (or contradicts the evidence). Occasionally, some of us spend the weeks or months necessary to dig into the data to raise necessary questions about the conclusions of experts.

    As you point out, though, most of us usually choose who to trust as experts based upon their looks, eloquence and other social factors having nothing to do with their competence as experts.. As long as experts are benevolent and wise (in a well-rounded way), the situation is tolerable. But what happens when our experts become as corrupted as those who wave money in front of them? What happens when our experts become as corrupt as the moneyed members of our corporate/political system? We already know the answer, because we've seen it often enough. All too many experts, whether in the courtroom or in the form of public opinion, draw the curve based upon the flow of money money and only then do they plot the data. We see it when "experts" write reports downplaying the dangers of tobacco and climate change, for instance. On all too many occasions, those with big money use experts as puppets to give their corrupt positions the cachet of scientific respectability.

    The bottom line is that expertise enables us to do things that no society can do without experts. On the other hand, unless our experts stay independent, thoughtful and benevolent, we become vulnerable to the whims of those wielding power.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    An expert is a person who avoids small error as he sweeps on to the grand fallacy.

    Benjamin Stolberg

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