The Trouble with Generalism

On knowing what we don’t know.

Alastair Roberts writes:

One effect of biblical™ ideology has been to elevate pastors and theologians as universal experts. If all truth is biblical™, then the Bible experts are the universal experts. We should look to them for our psychology, philosophy, politics, economics, etc., etc. The result can be pastors who claim authority on a lot of issues about which they are naively ignorant, presenting these as matters of direct biblical™ authority in ways that end up undermining and even discrediting the authority of Scripture.

This is certainly true. It’s also true of more people than pastors and theologians. A pretense to expertise from a pastor is arguably worse because of the spiritual authority attached to his office, but it’s still pretty bad when journalists, politicians, and mommy bloggers do it too. In fact, pretense to broad authority based on specialized credentials is common enough in public life that we could consider it part of the problem with generalism.

To be a generalist is in some sense to always see continuity between issues and ideas, even—especially?—if that continuity may not really exist. Take generalist blogging. No one has done generalist blogging better or more interestingly than Andrew Sullivan. Yet it’s incredibly easy to peruse Sullivan’s archives and see where he is obviously stepping outside his knowledge. This isn’t something that a generalist blogger does despite his best intentions; it’s what he intends to do.

A lot of the American journalism industry depends on this kind of generalism. Most columnists are experts at writing, not experts at their subjects, which explains why it’s so common to see an MFA grad doling out explainers about foreign policy or the theological history of world religions. One of the secrets of the writing economy is that you don’t actually have to know anything to be a writer except how to write. The vast majority of books, articles, essays, and blogs, even the good ones, are the products of very brief research and virtually no seasoned experience.

Most of the smartest people I know are people are engineers, chemists, doctors, etc. You know what’s interesting about these friends? The vast majority of them do not blog about politics or submit articles on complementarianism. The most highly credentialed people I know are quite satisfied in their own specialized slice of life. They’ll talk circles around anyone when the topic turns to what they’ve spent years of their life learning and practicing, but they’re not going to be asked to be a columnist anytime soon, and they’d say no even if asked. The people I know who have the most to say about the highest number of topics, including myself!,  are not actually that qualified to talk about, well, any of them. We’re generalists, not experts.

When you say this, folks often get offended. They hear elitism and snobbishness. I think this is for two reasons. First, culturally, we really don’t make any distinction between free knowledge and deep knowledge. Google and iTunes U are epistemological Wal-Marts that constantly undersell the overpriced (=”elite”) competition. Everyone feels like an expert because why shouldn’t they? They’ve got the facts right in front of them, and they’re just as good as the facts at that university, right?

Second, the infrastructure of life in Western culture still does a pretty decent job of protecting ordinary people from the consequences of pretenses to authority. What Alastair is saying about evangelical pastors is definitely real, but it’s mostly a “dynamic” that is off-putting but seldom meaningful. There aren’t many stories about a church suffering a smallpox quarantine after hiring an anti-vaxxer as senior pastor (for what it’s worth, I think Jim Jones-like cults are a different kind of case). Likewise, a journalist with a bachelor’s degree who wages an ignorant Twitter war against history professors is mostly spitting into the wind. If you’re bound and determined to stick it to the “elites,” you can, of course, do so, but there’s only so much your Facebook posts can do.

All this makes it hard for most of us to feel the negative effects of generalism. It’s not that generalism is bad. It’s that generalism is generalism, not a synonym for “scholar” or “expert.” Alaistair’s point about evangelical pastors who use biblical worldview as a euphemism for selling their own intuitions and opinions is not an argument against actually doing biblical theology, or trying to live life in a biblically faithful way. It’s an argument against laziness, the laziness of wanting to constrict the complexities of life into a handful of truisms and in the process anointing Rehoboams as Solomons. It’s a temptation that everyone who likes to read and write widely faces, and it’s one we should be honest about.