Expertise, Diminishing Returns, and Intersecting Niches

I have been thinking recently about skill development, because I have a habit of never being focused in a single area and instead trying to learn as much as I can in as many niches as I can. Because of this, I am only what could be considered an expert in a relatively narrow subset. However, I am significantly knowledgeable in a wider array of niches. I am beginning to think that this form of knowledge may actually be more valuable. (Crazy that I would try to justify my own shortcomings right?)

I also want to try to treat these mathematically in order to explain my thinking, however, do not worry the math will be kept relatively simple.

So this idea came to me after I was sitting and reflecting on the kinds of tasks that will become valuable as our economy progresses with increasing automation. The conclusion I came to is that many jobs now will be either partially or completely automated. Many industries where there is little fear of automation, will end up being partially automated, destroying job prospects and wages. For example: accounting. It likely will not be fully automated anytime soon, however, a significant number of hours are spent on heuristic based tasks that computers will be able to in large part supplant. There will still need to be humans, but if one person can do the work of ten wages will fall and job prospects will dissapear.

So what will become valuable? Until there is significant progress on Artificial General Intelligence, a huge amount of the automation will be in very focused niches. So the value will come from humans who can bridge niches, understand broader pictures and connect information from disparate realms. Now the issue with this at first glance seems to be that it is going to require significantly more time and effort to reach a competitive level in multiple niches rather than just one. I believe that may be a little bit simplistic however, and I will explain why.

There is this concept when you are learning a new skill called the point of diminishing returns. Basically as we asymptotically approach expertise the amount of effort required to gain additional expertise is exponentially greater. Or to phrase it more simply the vast majority of the improvement comes from the initial investments of efforts. The move from middle 50% to 95% may take the same amount of effort as the move from 95% to 99% which will take the same effort as the move to 99.9% which will take the same effort as the move to 99.99%. Why is this valuable to us? Because by focusing on intersecting niches we do not the same super high level of expertise in order to be successful.

Let me explain: expertise in intersecting niches can be expressed as the product of your expertise in each individual niche. So let’s say for example I am in the top 5% of the world in knowledge about healthcare, and in the top 5% of the world in knowledge about running a non profit, for expertise in running a healthcare based non profit I am not in the top 5% I am instead in the top 0.25%. How is this possible? Because our expertise in this intersection is equal to the product so in this case: total expertise=.05 * .05 = .0025. If I am correct about this construction of expertise (and I am not, it is vastly simplified but focus on the concept) then if we can bring even more niches into our areas of expertise we reach progressively rarefied realms of cumulative expertise.

To really emphasize this, consider the fact that we have already established that it will take the same amount of effort to reach the top 1% of a single niche, as it will take to reach the top 0.25% of the intersection of two niches. If I am correct about this vision of the future the value of the Renaissance man is back. Being able to conceptualize and view the world through multiple well honed viewpoints and see the connections between them will become an incredibly valuable skill.

If I am wrong, I have a whole list of skills where I am almost good enough to be an expert but not quite.

“Incels”, Toxic Masculinity, The New York Times, Philosophical Flaws, and Misogyny

This piece is somewhat heteronormative, that was done as the vast majority of people who self-identify under this term seem to be heterosexual.

“Incels” a self-described label used by men who feel that they are involuntarily celibate have entered the news recently because of the despicable and awful actions of a man, who will remained unnamed as I do not men like this to become notorious, in Toronto who killed 10 people. He was a self-described “incel” and it appears that may have motivated this attack. The terrorist posted ten minutes before the attack, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” as reported by CNN. It seems relatively clear from this to me that this was a primary motivating factor for him. This is not even the first terrorist attack motivated by this. There was another one in Santa Barbara in 2014. There is an entire online subculture that believes in this kind of thing that I refuse to link to where many members cheered on both of these terrorists. Many, although not all members of these communities, feel that men are being systematically discriminated and denied sex, because they feel women are exclusively attracted to hyper-masculine muscular men and that this is a form of discrimination against them.

All views like this are rooted in a form of toxic masculinity. These men have tied their entire idea of manhood, and as such their personhood, into sex. Since they feel that sex is an essential component of the male identity, they feel that as men they should be entitled to receive sex. This kind of thought process is shockingly prevalent in my experience and contributes to misogyny, rape culture, and many of the emotional issues men suffer from. Those emotional issues are also tied up in this as many of these men are deeply lonely and insecure. This form of toxic masculinity promoted by many of these communities does not allow for healthy ways to express this loneliness, to work on this insecurity, to take steps for emotional self improvement. The kind of acts that could help these men: sensitivity, openness, therapy, self-reflection, in toxic masculinity are seen as feminine and as such undesirable. This allows for this resentment and entitlement to ferment and now in multiple cases result in violence and death.

The fact that communities like this exist that advocate for violence, for rape, for acid attacks, is disturbing. That is why I was particularly disappointed when I read Ross Douthat’s opinion piece in The New York Times entitled, “The Redistribution of Sex.” You can tell from this title that he is following an argument in favor of the idea that there is something awry about the way sex is distributed. I am going to do my best to summarize his argument in the most generous form combining what he states in this opinion piece combined with a tweetstorm he made “restating the argument.” Although I do not think he actually restated the argument and instead made a second related argument if we are talking technically.

Argument summarized to the best of my ability:

  1. If the sexual revolution occurred, then a new heirarchy of sexual desirability arose.
  2. If a new heirarchy of sexual desirability arose then certain members who were once sexually desirable will no longer be so.
  3. The sexual revolution occured.
  4. Therefore, members who were once sexually desirable are no longer so.
  5. If there is a general decline in the ability of the sexes to relate, then it exacerbates the problem of the lack of sexual desirability.
  6. There is a general decline in the ability of the sexes to relate.
  7. Therefore the problem of lack of sexual desirability is exacerbated.
  8. If there is a society that promotes sex as an ultimate goal, then those who do not receive it will be likely to look for recourse in revolution.
  9. Society promotes sex as an ultimate goal.
  10. Therefore those who do not receive sex are likely to look for recourse in revolution

It is important for me to note that the author does not specifically cite violent revolution, but it is important to remember that the recent terrorist used the phrase “rebellion”, and the Santa Barbara attack was cheered on as a “revolution” by these communities online.

This is an inherently flawed argument for several reasons. Let’s begin with the first three premises, that center around the sexual revolution. The institution of a “new heirachy” inherently implies the existence of an old heirachy. Yet, for unknown reasons these attacks are a modern phenoma. Focusing purely on the changing heirachy does not contribute any explanatory power to why this is such a modern phenomena. Is it not wrong, but it is meaningless.

My second problem relates to his claim that there is a fundamental decrease in the ability of the sexes to relate. In order to support this claim he uses the evidence of falling marriage rates, and a decrease in sexual activity. I am not convinced that those pieces of evidence in any meaningful way show what he is trying to claim. There is relatively good evidence, that the change in marriage rates can at least in large part be explained by changing socioeconomics conditions. Namely, young people are reaching financial stability at a later age and as such marriage is being delayed until that point. The decrease in sexual activity is likely a side-effect of the decrease in marriage rates. Namely sexual activity is significantly more common in stable relationships, and as such without those relationships total amount of sexual activity declines.

The third issue I have is the claim that sex is promoted as the ultimate goal in society. If anything, and the author admits this, this has been decreased in recent years. As such it fails to contribute any explanatory power to the more recent emergence of this phenomena. Again it is not wrong, it is just meaningless in allowing for this to be better understood.

The fourth issue I have is the claim that if people are kept from some “ultimate good” they will eventually seek recourse in revolution. Even if this is accurate, that does not make any form of revolution necessarily moral. Explaining why someone does something does not inherently make that thing okay. The author is aware of this claiming in this piece that he sees the potential commercial and technological revolution to this as “bad.” As such again we are left at a point that provides no additional explanatory power.

As such I feel purely on a philosophical assessment of his argument it fails to contribute any explanatory power to the current phenomena, and lacks appropriate intellectual rigor. It is also odd to see such philosophical detachment from an issue when there are literal people dying. This is not a thought experiment. There are literally men being motivated by the factors explained who are actively committing atrocities. There are women who now live in fear, knowing that there are entire online communities plotting violence. Ignoring that reality when discussing this is dangerous.

The other factor being ignored is that it is men committing the atrocities. The sexless women are not responding in the same manner, and as such any explanation that ignores the role of masculinity is fundamentally incomplete. Trying to use an argument like this to create some kind of intellectual separation from this issue while ignoring that fact is to me a form of intellectual dishonesty. Since is it men who are committing this form of atrocity it then paints arguments like this in an even more disheartening light as a continuation of the normalization of misogyny. It is suggesting, subtly and quietly, that it is men who are going to be pushed to revolution, and subtly and quietly suggests, that there exists a justification for that. This inherently suggests that women who choose not to have a sex with a subset of men are in turn helping provide justification for this “revolution.” This is awful. It is not the responsibility of women to provide sex in order to make up for the stunted emotional development of men. It is not the responsibility of women to provide companionship to make up for the stunted emotional development of men. It is not the responsibility of women to aid men in developing healthy social coping skills. The belief that women have the responsibility to do these things is rooted in toxic masculinity that prevents men from dealing with their issues, because it is feminine, and misogyny that treats women as a tool to “complete” a man.

Toxic masculinity like this is a difficult, but not intractable problem. There are several steps that I believe need to be taken to start trying to help correct this problem. One, men from a very early age need to be taught to view women as people. Not objects, but equal beings (often better if I’m being quite honest) with moral judgement, agency, and intelligence. My hope is that once men truly see women as equals with their own agency it will allow for an expansion of platonic male-female relationships, which will hopefully help men continue to challenge misogyny, rape culture, and toxic masculinity when it comes up. Secondly, male-male relationships need to become more open. Men, especially in America will often have friends who know very little about them internally. They hide their struggles, their fears, their hopes. More openness in male-male relationships like this will allow for men to realize many of their insecurities, many of their flaws, many of their fears, are not unique, and that others share them. Finally, misogyny of any sort cannot be tolerated. It must be called out, and treated as a serious offense, not to be waved away as just a “joke.”

I was a “late bloomer.” I did not have my first kiss until I was 19. I am speaking as someone who can understand the loneliness and the insecurity. I am speaking as someone who intimately knows the sting of rejection. However, when I was graduating High School and realized I was suffering from social anxiety I sought help, including therapy. After my first relationship when I realized I had been acting in ways that were unhealthy I started reading about healthy relationships so that I could improve myself. When I realized I was still missing social cues and messing up small talk, I bought books and worked on improving that part of myself. If you are someone who feels that frustration, who feels that rejection, who feels that insecurity, I am speaking to you and saying that you have the option to improve yourself. It is not easy, and you will have setbacks, failures, and moments that crush you. However, it is possible to improve yourself and work through things. No one owes you anything, and that includes sex. However, if you work on improving yourself, treating others with respect, and living as a good person, it is much more likely that you will become sexually desired.

My thoughts go out to the victims and the families of these atrocious attacks.

A Rant About Grade Inflation and GPA and A Half Baked Solution

What follows is a poorly organized rant about my frustrations with the current grading system, and a solution that makes sense to me in theory, but that I have never actually tested. This article was prompted by a recent discussion at a meeting of the Augustana Socratic Society.

First things first, there has recently been a push among certain people to make the claim that GPA does not matter. These people likely did not apply to graduate programs, many of which will ignore applicants with below a certain GPA or research internships that use it as a first pass filtering criteria. GPA matters a lot, but it is broken, and I see it broken for three clear reasons. Those reasons are: grade inflation, difficulty, and outside factors.

Let’s start with grade inflation. This has been pretty well covered by a variety of outlets, so all I am going to focus on here is some of my own experiences I can share with you guys. So first and foremost, I’m pretty sure this is happening at my own college. In 1944 the standard for the “Smart Set” at Augustana College was a 2.5 GPA and 34 students out of the 377 students enrolled. This is less than 10%. To make the list now requires a 3.5 GPA and 1,138 Students out of 2,647. This is about 43%. The standard has been raised by an entire grade and the number of people achieving it has quadrupled. This to me seems to suggest rampant grade inflation. This kind of grade inflation makes GPA’s much less meaningful as a useful determinant of academic ability. But as we have already established GPAs are important and because of that it leads to a secondary feature, grade grubbing. Students are desperate to do everything they can to preserve their GPA. Students will ask for teachers to round up, beg for extra credit, and do everything they can to eke out every single point they can in order to try to preserve their GPA. This puts Professor’s in an uncomfortable position, they often care deeply about their students and want them to be successful, and can understand the importance of GPA, but are also hesitant to change their standards or apply them in an unequal way. This is an uncomfortable position for every single person involved in the interaction. However, there are also students who Professors have described as acting as if they are entitled to a certain grade. The overall inflation of grades has made it such that students tend to react negatively to more difficult grading standards, which is understandable because again GPAS MATTER.

The second part of the issue is what I call the difficulty issue. Namely the way the current system is designed it currently strongly incentives against taking difficult classes, or classes outside of your expertise. Right now if you take a class that is something you are not good in, or a class with a difficult grading scale, it runs a decent chance of hurting your GPA. Since the GPA is important for so many students, those students are less likely to push themselves and take classes from different disciplines. This is especially disappointing for me to see at a school like Augustana College, which is supposed to be a liberal arts education in which students develop these interdisciplinary skills. And this makes me even crazier, because in the new economy those interdisciplinary skills are going to be much more important. Many (but not all) of the direct skills for fields like the sciences, math, and accounting and the like will be automated over the next three decades. Thus, the higher level thinking skills helped by an interdisciplinary approach will become those in demand. The current system due to this difficulty dilemma is actually contributing to a reduction in the most important skill development there could be.

The third part, and this is sometimes considered is what the student is doing outside of class. Now there are the areas that people do frequently think about, such as extracurricular involvement, but there are many that are often forgotten including jobs. There was a recent Washington Post article that suggested that 36% of students are food insecure. There are a huge number of students who are working incredible hours in order to get themselves through their college experience. This is an issue I cannot solve with my half baked solution, but is something that every single admissions committee should consider fully, and every college that considers raising their tuition should feel personally. These students are always going to have a more difficult time maintaining the same academic levels due to greater stress and less time to complete work. I worry that this factor is not being considered as fully as it needs to be by college administrators and by admissions committees.

So finally, my half baked solution to the GPA problem. I had this idea one day when I was really frustrated having one teacher tell me that it requires incredible effort to get a C, and then another saying that they don’t believe in C’s and that if you participate and show up you were basically guaranteed a B. Each of these classes will count equally towards my GPA. That doesn’t seem to make sense though does it? So what I propose instead, and this is only a partial solution, is to throw out GPA’s. Now I can already hear you protesting, and saying that there needs to be some way to differentiate students. I agree. What I propose instead is showing how students compare to the overall distribution of the class. Meaning instead of the grade being reported, you are directly told how far above or below mean you are, and you are given an idea of what the distribution looks like. This will make it so you are unequal classes no longer have equivalent weight. However, there are several issues I still see with it and I will do my best to answer them:

  1. What about small classes?

Good question. My first thought is that for teachers who have thought the same course in a similar way for extended periods of time, they can compile the data over many years and use that instead. However, there also may be times it’s a new class and for those we need to rely on the distribution description to help cover it.

2. What about classes outside your expertise?

This question is focusing on a question I raised earlier, basically students are disincentivized from taking classes outside their expertise. My answer is basically that it would be possible to segment this data to show data for majors vs. non-majors and give a more accurate number.

3. Won’t this promote a dangerous level of competition?

Quite honestly I hope so. I love and thrive on competition, and I see no reason making what is currently the implicit competition explicit will have negative effects.

4. Doesn’t this exacerbate the problem with students who are taking on significant work outside the classroom?

Unfortunately yes. I do think it would make it more clear which students are struggling to perform due to external obligations. The only solution I have been able to come up with for that is for admission committees to start taking note of that fact, and for there to be some kind of change in student loans and the continually rising tuition.

It is not a perfect solution, but it does provide an opportunity to help eliminate grade inflation, and make the GPA a more meaningful measure. There are ways to expand it for large universities, including difficulty quotients and the like, but that seems excessive to cover in here. Do you have any comments or ideas, please let me know. This was an unedited rant I put together quickly. I would love more developed and well-researched thoughts so I can improve my thinking, especially from educators.