Never before has knowledge been so profoundly specialized.
The idea that someone working in one profession very quickly becomes out of their depth when discussing another is generally familiar. Nowadays, even between two people in the same profession, but specializing in different areas, one will probably not understand much of the other’s specialty.
Albert Einstein once wrote that someone with specialist knowledge alone “more closely resembles a well-trained dog.”
While he qualified that sentiment, it nicely sums up the predicament of the individual living in this era of specialization.
We use the term “doctor,” a “person of learning,” uniformly to refer to people who hold a doctorate, giving rise to the misconception that a person should be considered a polymath simply by virtue of the fact that they have such a degree. This is misleading in the extreme.
A doctor in the humanities would almost certainly be a complete novice when it comes to the sciences and someone with a doctorate in the sciences cannot be expected to have anything but a passing knowledge of their country’s history. Why, then, is the doctor equated with the polymath?
Indeed, a person’s qualifications do not always adequately reflect their academic erudition. The blind worship of anyone with a doctorate must end, and the idea that academics are necessarily the best people to govern must go with it.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has a doctorate from Harvard University, and yet he could still say with authority in a speech to Lions Club International that deer antlers, a famous New Zealand export, are the part of the deer’s fur that grows inside its ear. The president emphasized the point by indicating his own right ear. This was broadcast on TV, so there was little possibility his words were misheard or misrepresented by the media. Better confirmation could not be had for the idea that, while having a doctorate shows you are well-educated, it is certainly no guarantee of common sense.
If you are looking for examples of people with a wealth of knowledge, but precious little common sense among Ma’s inner circle, why stop at Ma himself?
Every caterer, buffet owner and roadside food vendor understands that oil, gas and electricity price hikes will mean an increase in the prices of the meals they sell, and yet National Development Council Minister Kuan Chung-ming (管中閔), who has a doctorate in economics, can still say — bless him — that Taiwan is a rare example in Asia of a country with a stable cost of living.
How surprised he must have been to discover that the price of the popular chishang chicken rice lunch boxes has gone up. Perhaps Kuan studied the economics of the ruling classes, not that of commoners. Otherwise, how could the new council head be so indifferent to the cost of living here?
He did, of course, refer to himself in an arrogant way the other day, before correcting himself, suggesting that he thought himself better than ordinary folk.
It was also Kuan who said that consumers were less well off in Japan and South Korea than in Taiwan because, even though those countries have a higher GDP, they also have higher inflation. He then used the prices of 92-octane gasoline as an example, saying that the price in Taiwan was about NT$34 per liter, compared with almost NT$50 per liter in Japan.
However, he forgot to take into account the fact that Taiwan’s per capita income is less than half of Japan’s, so that oil price increases affect Taiwanese consumers more.
It is Taiwan, then, where people have less spending power because of the increasing price of gas, not Japan.
In terms of academic qualifications alone, the nation’s Cabinet shines compared with those of many other countries in the world. It also has one of the lowest approval ratings of any governments. Should we think again about the advisability of filling Cabinet positions with people who hold doctorates?
Chang Kuo-tsai is a retired National Hsinchu University of Education associate professor and a former deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors.
Translated by Paul Cooper