Professionalism vs. amateurism

Here was one MR reader request, from Philip W:

Professionalism vs. Amateurism, the merits and demerits of each. And the relationship of these to science, or “science.” How large is the role of “common sense” in your way of thinking about the world? Should we wish that policymakers would have more professionalism, or more common sense?

Amateurism is splendid when amateurs actually can make contributions.  A lot of the Industrial Revolution was driven by the inventions of so-called amateurs.  One of the most revolutionary economic sectors today — social networking — has been led by amateurs.  Maybe it is stretching the concept, but you can interpret Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as amateurs too.

Amateurs are associated with free entry and a lot of experimentation.  Barbecue quality is very often driven by amateurs, and in general amateurs still make contributions to food and cooking.   The difficulty of maintaining productive amateurs is one of the reasons why scientific progress periodically slows down.  Specialization, however necessary it may be, can make big breakthroughs harder at some margin.  (There is a good recent paper on this.)  This is one aspect of the division of labor which Adam Smith did not fully grasp, though he hinted at it.

Through computers, and the internet, the notion of amateurs working together is becoming more important.  This includes astronomical searches and theorem-proving, plus collection and collation of data, and Wikipedia; this is Shirky’s “cognitive surplus.”

On the latter part of the question, what is “common sense”?  Most common sense, if one can call it that, is a highly refined product of a lot of trial and error.  The real question is how to refine one’s common sense.

Policymakers need more of a sheer willingness to do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing reelection.  Selection mechanisms, however, do not much favor that bravery.  For a sane, well-adjusted person, the job is neither fun nor well-paying, so the job attracts people who love being in office and thus who fail to do the right thing.

When specialization proceeds very, very far, the difference between a professional and an amateur is sometimes no longer well-defined.


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