The esoteric threshold

by phil on Friday Oct 22, 2010 3:11 AM

I love this headline: "Glenn Beck calls evolution 'ridiculous,' says he's never seen a half-human, half-monkey." (As an aside, I feel like the tea party is deaf to certain kinds of humor—look no further than their earnest use of the phrase "tea bagging."). The article goes on to mention that 50% of Americans reject evolution. The sad thing is that that number probably won't change for a long time, if at all.

Scientific advances since the mid-1800s ceased to become advances in the lay understanding of science. All advances before then ultimately permanently enlightened humanity. 99% of people believe the Earth is round and that the Earth revolves around the sun, despite a lack of direct observation. But concepts like relativity or evolution either require an advanced understanding of science, or a tremendous amount of faith in it. And most people's faith in God is stronger. I bet of those 50% who do believe in evolution, only 5% really remember why they adopted that belief in the first place. And only 1% can explain the actual evidence for it.

You can probably take every academic discipline and point to a date in history when it breached that esoteric threshold, whenceforth any further advances only enlightened experts and insiders. If you take the earliest of those dates, that would mark the beginning of the end for the "Renaissance Man," the person who could know the sum total of human knowledge up to that point.

What does it mean if all future advances are increasingly esoteric. What if it gets to the point where even the vast majority of academics within a discipline can't keep up. I read that many professors now rubber-stamp peer reviews simply because they don't have the time, energy, or expertise to wrap their head around the papers.

I remember watching a YouTube of the construction process for a Boeing 747, and thinking to myself, that there doesn't exist a single engineer working on that thing who has a concept of how the whole thing is built. All the instruction manuals have been lost or are indecipherable. If you annihilated that factory, and asked them to build a Boeing 747 from scratch, they'd have to nearly re-invent it.

Likewise, computer chips are now manufactured using automated processes programmed using computers. If you got rid of all the computers in the world right now, how long would it take for us to get back to the Intel Core Duo 2.4 Ghz? Would we have to recapitulate the history of the development of computers?

Could we ever get to a level of advancement and sophistication where we no longer have an idea how everything around us came to be? What would happen to our faith then?


Tod Fairfield said on October 25, 2010 2:07 PM:

I would agree with you that the depth of knowledge is a lot great now then it ever has been. In order to work on any given subject you would probably have to become a specialist in that field. This is why any 'good scientist' knows enough not to speak with authority about a field he is not actively involved in.

That being said, it is still very easy for the layman to pick up the knowledge that science provides. Even though every one seems to have agreed on the earth being round, it was probably just as hard to grasp back in its day as quantum physics is now. and even today we do have 'flat earthers'.

The issue is not the barrier to understanding, rather the denial of the evidence provided. The only reason why the theory of evolution has met resistance is because there are people making noise about it. The only reason these people make noise is to serve their own agenda separate from scientific understanding.

Phil Dhingra said on October 25, 2010 2:24 PM:

I feel like the skepticism toward evolution has a lot to do with that evolution is simply not intuitive to our human brains. It's hard to look at something as complicated as the eye and imagine that trial-and-error is what made that. It doesn't matter how many PBS series I watch on it, it's still not intuitive. I still believe evolution simply because I remember studying it, and remember agreeing with it, but that was 20 years ago.

Tom said on November 5, 2010 1:29 PM:

I really enjoy your site. I thought I'd convey a point that's peripheral to the larger point of this post, but curious as you are you might find it interesting.

I have a lot of experience in designing Boeing airplanes I can tell you that if the factory (and the people who build airplanes for that matter) were removed from the process, that you still have drawings and CAD models of everything, including all processes, etc.

These drawings/models are the authority for everything. No engineer or guy on the flight line knows how to do everything, that's true, but having the design authority rest with the drawings/models is how that becomes irrelevant.

You actually don't want anything to be built because someone 'knows' how to do it, every part and every action performed to make each part comes from the models! Endless documentation, trust me...... (but absolutely necessary)

Making new 747/777/787s without the big ol' factory there in Everett certainly wouldn't be easy, but the challenge would be to find people who could create everything per the models/drawings, not to re-invent airplane itself, and that's an enormous difference. (At any rate finding good people is hard enough!)

Philip Dhingra said on November 5, 2010 1:33 PM:

Alright Tom, that's good to know! But that's still interesting, because the authority is now in the artifice, and there's a lot of trust we place it in it.

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