Beware the Casual Polymath

Applied divinity studies:

We live in times of great disaggregation, and yet, seem to learn increasingly from generalists.

In the past, an expert in one field of Psychology might have been forced to teach a broad survey class. Today, you could have each lecture delivered by the world’s leading expert.

Outside of academia, you might follow one writer’s account to learn about SaaS pricing, another to understand the intricacies of the electoral college, and yet another to understand personal finance. In economic terms, content disaggregation enabled by digital platforms ought to create efficiencies through intellectual hyper-specialization.

Instead, we have the endless hellscape of the casual polymath. A newsletter about venture capital will find time to opine on herd immunity. The tech blog you visit to learn about data science is also your source of financial strategies for early retirement. The Twitter account you followed to understand politics now seems more focused on their mindfulness practice. We have maxed out variety of interests within people, at the cost of diversity across them.

It’s not difficult to imagine how this happened. The flip side of disaggregation is that each would-be expert is able to read broadly as well. The world of atomized content through hyper-specialization isn’t a stable equilibrium. We are all casual polymaths now.

As romantic as the idea seems, I worry it’s grossly suboptimal. Sure, there are cases where combining ideas from disparate fields can lead to new insight, but today’s generalists are not curating a portfolio of skills so much as they are stumbling about. Behavioral Econ is the love child of economics and psychology, early AI researchers maintained a serious interest in cognitive science. What exactly are your cursory interests in space exploration, meta-science and bayesian statistics preparing you for?