What is the wisdom in your field that you don’t write down?

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Bryan Caplan faces the autodidact’s curse:

For me, what I do is so interdisciplinary so I’m always worried about this autodidact’s curse, where you’ve read a ton of stuff but you still haven’t actually talked to anyone who knows what’s going on. This is one of the things that I try to do to deal with especially the wisdom of a field. Oftentimes there’s wisdom in a field, where it’s known to people who have thought about it for a long time, but they don’t write it down.

Of course, that’s very hard for the autodidact to find out. “What is the wisdom in your field that you don’t write down?” This is where I try to reach out to people. Generally, I would say I get about a 15 percent response rate for the people saying they’ll at least read something, so I feel like it does give me some good quality control.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Textbooks only contain the basic information. The details and arcana are conveyed orally from senior professionals to newbies. The transfer is intensely one-on-one.

    The best example is sports. Nearly nothing is written down. All the techniques are transmitted from coaches to players verbally, sometime with head-slap emphasis.

    Another excellent example is the Ph. D. Candidates learn by doing under the supervision of established faculty. Literally nothing is written down. The critiques of student work are always entirely oral.

    You can trace “family trees” among professors from one generation of students to the next and so on.

    It is probably impossible for an autodidact to become truly proficient in any profession. You have to actually practice the profession in the company of other professionals.

  2. Senexada says:

    The master/apprentice model has a long successful history and is probably the most effective all-around method for the greater population.

    The “impossibility” of autodidact mastery is contradicted by several notable examples, the biggest being Isaac Newton: who was famously anti-social, who rarely spoke to Pulleyn (his proctor) at Cambridge, and who developed most of his theories in solitude.

    Calculus was developed at Woolsthorpe during the plague, and he secretly calculated a body’s path in an R^2 field years before it was discussed at the Royal Society, among many other examples. He self-taught geometry by working through Descartes alone, re-starting the book from the beginning each time he got stuck.

    He did correspond with quite an array of brilliant minds later in life, but I’m not aware of any strong mentor relation that “brought him up” in his fields of mastery. He often complained about such correspondence, like describing a letter from Bernoulli as being “teezed by forreigners about Mathematical things.”

    The short biography by Mitch Stokes is packed with these sort of interesting details.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    If important knowledge isn’t written down, that raises the question: why isn’t it written down?

    Whenever I go into an organization and discover it doesn’t have proper design documentation, I later discover that it is a troubled organization. Possibly even one where something illegal is going on.

  4. Kirk says:

    @Harry Jones;

    The important knowledge isn’t written down because the people who know it are never asked about it, and they’re not the sort of people who write things down…

    As well, the people who do write things down? They tend to think that everything in an organization that is important gets written down, and since that’s all they think about and work with, they’re blind to the unwritten.

    You’re right that it’s a sign that the organization is troubled, but the problems are not necessarily the ones you would think.

    British industry is an excellent example of this–You have firms like Dyson where the intellectual property, namely the design and everything else, is utterly brilliant. But, the execution is utter shiite, down where it matters on the factory floor and shipping docks. Which is why Dyson outsourced what they were doing to Malaysia, and shut down operations in Britain. It wasn’t the workers, either–It was actually the interface between the guys on the docks and the rest of the company, the middle management. Who didn’t listen to any input from below, and fundamentally disrespected the “trades” on the factory floor. And, due to the position they were in, between the company leadership and the workers, well… Things didn’t work out well. UK industry has that issue across the board–The elites do not interface with the lowest levels, and the intermediaries are, essentially, incompetent jobsworthies.

    You can see that going back a long, long ways, with the UK. UK-built tanks would arrive in North Africa having been poorly prepared for shipping, pilfered, and in such terrible condition that brand-new unissued vehicles had to go straight to depot in Alexandria for refurbishment. US-built tanks? Due to the shipping preparation that they normally received? The British Army was shocked to find that they’d start right up on the docks, and then be available to go to the battlefield with minimal preparation.

    It’s that “unwritten tribal knowledge” thing, and poor relations between the guys doing vs. the guys thinking about doing. The US has done well at this sort of thing, until lately. Now, we’ve got the creeping mandarin class, incompetent HR, and very little “grow from within” in our bureaucracies and companies.

    One mark of this dysfunction is the “thinking class” bringing in outsider “experts” and “consultants”, who tell the supposed wise ones of the organization precisely what the lower-level minions could have told them for free–If anyone was bothering to listen.

    It’s also the great secret of the Japanese industrial system, typified by Toyota: Wonder how it is that Toyota has similar build quality at it’s UK plants as it has in Japan, and the same with the US? Corporate culture, my friend, corporate culture. My friend who worked at Dyson also worked at what was British Leyland; same problems, same sources. British workers were great, albeit awfully prone to union BS, but the majority of the problems with British Leyland came right out of middle management; the same workers and some of the same factories are building much higher-quality cars for Toyota and Mitsubishi than they ever did for their old owners.

    I blame the UK class system, bureaucracy, and tendency towards hierarchy, all habits we’re picking up here in the US. You look at a Japanese corporate structure, and it’s virtually flat–And, without the massive difference between lowest level worker and president in terms of pay and status. Look at the same indicators in failed Western companies, and what do you find? Impenetrable layering, hierarchical pipelines, and bureaucratic ossification that has virtually fossilized the entity and whatever it is supposed to be doing. The process becomes more important than the product…

    You can see this in things like NASA, military procurement, and a whole host of other arenas. We’re doing it wrong, and aren’t even smart enough to recognize it.

Leave a Reply