Praise Polymaths

Once upon a time folks who traveled far were treated with suspicion.  Sure if you were rich and traveled like the rich you weren’t more suspicious than other rich.  But those who traveled more than their class were suspected, correctly on average, of being less loyal to their neighbors.

Today travel is mostly celebrated; people love to talk about their trips and admire the well-traveled, even beyond the wealth it signals.  But travel today doesn’t much threaten loyalty – intellectual contact with locals is limited, and usually selected to be like-minded.  Ooh look, another pretty building.  True intellectual travel, where you actually take the time to see things from different perspectives, is rare, more valuable, and yet elicits more suspicion than admiration.

You see, our beliefs are severely distorted by our culture and training, and intellectual travel remains our only remotely reliable remedy.  We all know that we would have been inclined toward different beliefs had we been raised in different cultures or disciplines.  We see consistent differences between folks trained in West vs. East, science vs. humanities, economics vs. sociology, and in different schools of thought of most any discipline.  We like to think that we correct for this, but when we realize how hard that is, we throw up our hands saying “what ya gonna do?”

But we do know one thing that actually works –  taking the time to be trained in several conflicting cultures, disciplines, or schools.  Yes most of us don’t have the time for that, but if we were really concerned about such biases we would be respectful of and eager to learn from those who take the time to make honest intellectual travel.  We would be quite curious about, and deferential toward, the conclusions of smart thoughtful travelers about which sides in these conflicts seem more right.

But in fact, we are mostly suspicious of true intellectual travelers.  We much prefer loyal ambassadors of us, who visit them to 1) make us look good, 2) make them look bad,  3) persuade them, or 4) learn more about their weaknesses, etc.  For example, interdisciplinary academics take care to show they are loyal to a core discipline, and cross-cultural pundits take care to show they haven’t “gone native.”  We love to point to ex-them who have converted to join us, but we don’t trust those folks farther than we can throw them.

To counter these strong currents, try to celebrate, and truly listen to, honest intellectual travelers, who take the time to be trained in other cultures, disciplines, and schools, which then influences their thoughtful contributions.

Added 13FebCarl Djerassi sensibly prefers “intellectual polygamy”:

Nowadays people that are called polymaths are dabblers—are dabblers in many different areas.  I aspire to be an intellectual polygamist. And I deliberately use that metaphor to provoke with its sexual allusion and to point out the real difference to me between polygamy and promiscuity.  To me, promiscuity is a way of flitting around. Polygamy, serious polygamy, is where you have various marriages and each of them is important. And in the ideal polygamy I suspect there’s no number one wife and no number six wife. You have a deep connection with each person.

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  • http://michaelnielsen.org/blog Robinson Crusoe

    “True intellectual travel, where you actually take the time to see things from different perspectives, is rare, more valuable, and yet elicits more suspicion than admiration.”

    Really? Evidence? The few people I know who’ve done that get way more respect than do those who go sightseeing.

    Your broader point is interesting. There’s an obvious political explanation – academia has fractured into disciplines not because of the nature of knowledge, but because there are political advantages to building alliances: they help you lobby for resources. But there’s an interesting alternate explanation as well, which is that discovery progresses fastest when disiplines share certain norms that distinguish what is worthwhile from what is not. I suspect both explanations play a role in suspicion of the true travellers.

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  • Proper Dave

    Interesting I had the discussion with a friend about travel just recently. I of course wanted to go and see the Inca pyramids and explore the rain forests in South America.

    He countered that he will go and meet the people and party with them… I was kind of taken back, travel IS supposed to be so superficial according to our culture! You go to the “places” not the real place and gawk superficial at the foreign culture.

    • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

      Wait, do you mean that your trip was superficial, or his? Granted, partying yourself into unconsciousness for a week isn’t going to gain you any insight, but less extreme forms of mundane activities (especially if you speak the local language) can give you a much more useful and broad sense of the local culture than going to look at 1000 year old artifacts can give you of ancient cultures.

  • DW

    Yet success is typically the result of deep specialization.

    • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

      And this is why polymaths are a disappearing species.

  • A dude

    A lot of it must have to do with bargaining. Because the human society is overpopulated compared to history, a lot of effort is spent on trying to elevate your worth vis-a-vis the others (so that you can sell it at a higher price on the job/mating/status market).

    So if you are, say, a mathematician, your bias is to mock other sciences because there is less math in them. If you are from a specific culture, your bias is to present yours as superior to others. This probably includes a polymath bias — if you are one, you try to elevate your status vis-a-vis the hillbillies.

  • komponisto

    Yes!

    (Disclaimer: Of course it’s easy for me to agree, as an intellectual traveler/polymath myself.)

    • Cyan

      Do your experiences as an intellectual traveller corroborate Robin’s description of how such individuals are received? (Robin has obviously omitted the disclaimer “on average”, so a different report wouldn’t falsify his claims, but it would still be interesting.)

      • komponisto

        Do your experiences as an intellectual traveller corroborate Robin’s description of how such individuals are received?

        Somewhat. People are mostly careful to appear deferential on the surface, but I often detect discomfort and a (to me) shocking lack of curiosity underneath.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    You see, our beliefs are severely distorted by our culture and training, and intellectual travel remains our only remotely reliable remedy. We all know that we would have been inclined toward different beliefs had we been raised in different cultures or disciplines.

    There’s a beliefs-values dichotomy there. Actually, there’s a beliefs-(belief-related-values)-values trichotomy there. There is no reason for me to envy the values of others, even if their beliefs are more accurate. The fact they are better killers, for instance, doesn’t mean I should defer to their jugement as to whether killing for fun is justified or not. Of course if I’d been brought up like them I would share their values; so what, I wasn’t and I don’t. A non-killer cannot want to be a killer unless he… wants to be a killer. All they can offer me is greater accuracy, not moral instruction.

    Where it gets interesting is where (belief-related-values) are concerned. Suppose I start with the statement “infidels are evil”. Then intellectual travel will force me to break that down into ifs belief and value components. The first will be something like “infidels often do evil things” and the second “infidels are evil intrinsically, whatever they do, think, or say”. As long as I stay at home, I don’t need to do this split; if I travel intellectually, I might meet “infidels who do not do evil things”, which forces the split.

    So intellectual travel can offer me greater accuracy, and also a clearer division between my beliefs and my values – all laudable aims. But I also know that I am socially wired with biases that result in “folie a deux” and “stockholm syndrom” and the general tendency to adjust my values through social pressure. So there is a risk as well, especially if my intellectual travel is a permanent move, rather than a visit. I can sensibly choose to decline the offer to become a killer with more accurate beliefs.

    To counter these strong currents, try to celebrate, and truly listen to, honest intellectual travelers, who take the time to be trained in other cultures, disciplines, and schools, which then influences their thoughtful contributions.

    This is the best advice there is – it gives you all the positive elements of intellectual travel, without the negatives.

  • tim

    Are you saying exchange students are distrusted? That doesn’t seem right at all. Anecdotally, I’ve found that people who participate in exchange programs or simply live abroad for a while are treated with more respect, especially if some aspect of their experience is visible, like another language or cooking skills or what have you (what isn’t respected is adopting a foreign style of dress).

    I have little doubt it’s different in the US than here in Canada, though; whereas Obama was attacked for spending a few years in his youth out of the country, our current Leader of the Opposition spent more than 30 years living in the UK and the US. Political attack ads taking advantage of that fact never gained much traction.

    • http://www.edwardgaffney.com Edward Gaffney

      I’m sure this is one of those cases where we wave our hands and say that exchange students aren’t REALLY who the post was about.

    • komponisto

      Are you saying exchange students are distrusted? That doesn’t seem right at all.

      Ahem, cough.

      (Yes, I realize you probably meant “in their home country”. But there does seem to be a general suspicion of people who have left their home to be somewhere else.)

    • Jayson Virissimo

      Robin, why do many Canadians go through so much effort to distinguish Canada from the US? As someone who has been to both countries, it appears that they are more alike then just about any other two countries in the world, but Canadians seem to really be striving to find differences to latch onto.

      • tim

        Of course Canada and the US are very similar, but there are significant differences as well, and one of the biggest differences is politics. This is much more obvious to Canadians, who are exposed to a lot of American politics (for example, basic cable gets you CNN’s 24-hour war room terrorgasm), whereas Americans are largely ignorant of goings-on in Ottawa.

        For example, we have a multi-party system, the head of government is a member of Parliament, he is treated with very little respect, and in fact governs from a minority. In the US, a sizable portion of the population treat the President like some kind of god-head, and think he has carte blanche to go to war, assassinate, torture, etc. (but usually only when the President is a Republican). And Sarah Palin? She’d have trouble landing a job as a weather forecaster on local television up here. In the states, millions of people think she should lead the country. Isn’t that a pretty glaring difference?

        The fact is that Canadian people are very much like American people – at least, Canadians west of Quebec are mostly like Americans who live near the Canadian-American border, people from Seattle and New England. We tend to be much more progressive than even those parts of the US, though – gay people can get married in Alberta, but not in New York, and the debate over health care ended before I was old enough to wipe my own bottom.

        I do know that many Canadians have a bit of an inferiority complex, and why shouldn’t they? Our fair country will never be anything but a fraction as powerful and influential as the US. Still, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating our differences as well as our similarities, as long as we’re not just being petulant.

      • Aaron Denney

        I’d consider Australia and New Zealand to be closer together.

      • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

        This is a reply to Aaron Denney.

        Not at all obvious. There is much competition between OZ and NZ. The former is more like the US, rambunctious and rough and so on, the successor to Georgia as a penal colony, whereas NZ is more like Canada, more Anglophile, especially Christchurch, which competes with Victoria, B.C., for being “more English than England.”

        I can think of plenty of countries more like each other than either of these pairs, although many of them are not all that prominent, such as Qatar and Bahrain or Mali and Niger.

  • http://adequatelyreserved.wordpress.com bcg

    There is an abandoning of the home’s values that makes people at home mistrust them. What do you all think of American ex-pats – more trusted or less trusted?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Robinson, what “few people”? Sure they were one part of “us” visiting another part of “us”?

    DW, of course; not everyone should be travelling.

    Stuart, how do you know you have the right values, if you know your values would have been different?

    tim, are respected exchange students traveling intellectually or just physically? Are they really being trained in beliefs that conflict with home beliefs?

    • tim

      Exchange students attend foreign universities. To do so successfully, I imagine it would require some academic perseverance and a willingness to assimilate the local culture. In any case, if going to school in another country doesn’t train you to think like your local classmates, what the heck are your classmates learning?

    • http://lesswrong.com/ CannibalSmith

      Is there such a thing as “right values”?

    • Stuart Armstrong

      Stuart, how do you know you have the right values, if you know your values would have been different?

      I don’t see any way in which there could be an objective standard of what makes a “right” value (beyond consistency), so I don’t think this question makes any sense.

  • Philo

    “Ooh look, another pretty building.” But viewing old foreign buildings does give you some information about the people who built them and used them. These are not current foreigners, but foreigners from the past, who are probably more unlike us than present-day foreigners are.

  • kaspar hauser

    Funny you should say that. Resided a while in an LDC and learned, or more accurately, recalled, the international human rights conventions. The U.S. signed the ICCPR eighteen years ago. I knew about it then, thought it was a big bipartisan deal, then, uh, forgot. It had dropped way down to where you put big benders and childhood-abuse flashbacks. How could that happen? You think of propaganda as misinformation, manipulation and lies, but this was a brutal reminder of the limitless capacity of the memory hole.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    At some level of course, trying something new is a good thing. But, I find it quite tiresome to read the latest econophysics or psychonomics, which breathlessly exclaims a fruitful intellectual revolution is being stifled by a cloistered cabal of craven insiders. Most of these claims are 1) overstated 2) explain, don’t predict, and 3) are not new. Merely being innovative or different is not a good in itself. It’s not bad either, but most new ideas are just flat wrong or irrelevant.

    Pick your poison: research that tries another variation on a tired but useful theme; bat-shait crazy research that is new and incorrect on many levels.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Eric, there is a big difference between physicists applying their methods to some econ data, and actually learning economics the way that economists do. I’m talking about the later, not the former.

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  • Mike Howard

    Robin, do you feel economists love to point to you as a convert but not trust you farther than they can throw you, and physicists treat you with more suspicion than admiration, when they should all be quite curious about, and deferential toward, your conclusions?

  • Eric Falkenstein

    I wonder what percentage of economists at top research universities got their undergraduate degree in economics. If it’s low, that suggests something’s wrong with economics.

  • http://www.takeonit.com Ben Albahari

    Intelligent Life magazine had an article on the challenges of being a polymath:

    http://www.moreintelligentlife.com/content/edward-carr/last-days-polymath

  • TVH

    I think an historical comparison is appropriate: what I understand from art and literature in 18th century France and 19th century Britain, polymath cross-cultural experience was valued differently.
    Both societies at the time were more outward-looking and engaged in the world in an exploratory, if you will ‘jihadist’ manner.

    I’ve considered this problem before, and my guess is that, today in the US, it’s a function of two current cultural trends: (1.) a much higher valuation on self-actualization, which process tends to be both very local and culturally specific; and (2.) economic insecurity

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I just added to the post.

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