Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Specialization vs. Generalization

  1. Dec 10, 2009 #1
    For some occupations, (for example: technicians, construction worker) it makes sense to have specialized knowledge. I agree for the most part it is important to specialize in a specific trade.

    However, for research in science and engineering, it seems as if a whole lot of information must be known. A discovery in mathematics can be used in economics, engineering, physics, etc. However, how would these other people know about these discoveries? Engineers know a lot of mathematics, but they don't know everything in mathematics.

    So how do scientist and engineers inquire information, and use it for their own research. There is only so much information one person, yet there is so much information out in the world.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 11, 2009 #2
    That's why we have libraries and universities.

    If you don't know something, you can look it up or find someone who does know it.
  4. Dec 11, 2009 #3
    Which brings up this question: If you can just look anything up, why learn anything?

    Also, I'm sure there are some problems that your not even sure how to direct yourself to information.
  5. Dec 11, 2009 #4


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    There's a big difference between reading information on a topic and understanding it, then applying that knowledge to solve a problem.

  6. Dec 11, 2009 #5
    Because figuring out what keywords to type into google is sometimes non-trivial, and making sense of the information that you get is also non-trivial. For example, if I want to learn about the Chrysler/GM bankruptcy, the right keyword is "363 sale". You can google and find Article 5, Paragraph 2 of the Chinese Enterprise Bankruptcy Law, but what it *means* and what it has to do with 363 sales is something that isn't obvious, and a lot of the commentary is in Chinese.

    Also being about to read the stuff that google comes up with is non-trivial. I can find pretty much anything you want about Banach spaces online. However, if I had you a paper on Banach spaces, you may not be able to read it. If I hand you a paper on Banach spaces written in Russian, you are even more in trouble.

    The fact that you can look everything up, makes literacy *more* important.
  7. Dec 11, 2009 #6
    There's this thing called the internet that's useful for this sort of thing.
  8. Dec 11, 2009 #7
    First of all, there *are* unsolved problems in the world that do not currently have answers.

    Secondly, even if you have found an answer, you need to be able to understand it and apply it, as stewartcs said.

    If you don't know how to direct yourself to the information you need, consult an expert. That's a major advantage of a university... they are filled with experts, most of whom are happy to point you in the right direction.
  9. Dec 12, 2009 #8
    On the other hand, you have to be very careful with experts since they may often point you in the wrong direction. Because......

    1) People are experts in something, and may know nothing at all about a field outside their area of expertise, and worse yet, may not know the limits of their field of expertise. One good example, is I've found that physics professors tend to be the worst people in the world to ask about careers in physics, since this is a topic that they just don't know much about.

    2) Experts always have biases. For example, if you ask me whether or not I think Wall Street is good for the economy, my answer is *absolutely yes*. But is my advice influenced by the fact that they hand me reasonably large sums of money. Of course it does. Now I *try* very hard to tell you both sides, and point you to people that think differently (Paul Krugman for example). But this poses a problem, since I'm human and there is a limit to which I can try to correct for this, and also, if I point you to Paul Krugman, then you end up with conflicting opinions that you have to sort out.

    This is particularly a problem if someone is biased by the mere fact of being an expert. If you know a lot about derivative securities, then the very fact that you *could* make a lot of money from that expertise will change your view of the world. Even if it's not money that is influencing them, it could be power, prestige, fame, or ego. One thing that is really hard for an expert to say is "I don't know" and sometimes that's the truth.

    3) How do you know you really have an expert? Well maybe they have some sort of brand. But how do you know that brand is worth anything.

    4) Experts can be expensive. (Although this is less of a problem in universities), and they often don't have that much time (which is a huge problem).

    There are a lot of things that you can do to work around these sorts of problems, but it turns out that making use of experts does require quite a bit of expertise.
  10. Dec 12, 2009 #9


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    With all due respect, most engineers don't know mathematics. They are fluent in specific applications of specific fields.
  11. Dec 12, 2009 #10


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I think this thread brings up a really important topic.

    In order to do research in a field, you have to be well-read in it. You have to regularly read the relevant journals, attend conferences, discuss issues and problems with others in the field. This is what puts you in a place where you have enough of an understanding to know what hasn't been solved yet, which problems are currently being worked on, and what new ideas are worth pursuing.

    But that only makes you an expert in a single field.

    How does a discovery in one field filter down into other fields where it would have a relevant application?

    My answer would be that it takes both time and people willing to explore beyond the confines of their tradiational fields.

    We live in an interesting time. There's so much research being done these days. Scientists are pushing the boundaries of every imaginable field. But in this rush to explore, there is a lot of potential for the gaps between different branches of science, or even between disciplines to increase. As a result, I think a lot of scientific work done in the near future will consist of inter-disciplinary breakthroughs, where people will make careers out of making connections between different fields.
  12. Dec 12, 2009 #11
    I agree, and would even go further and say that making use of damn near *anything* requires quite a bit of expertise. Going back to the OP's questions, that's why you need to study, despite the abundant amount of information available.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook