Glad to be an Amateur:  The Better Science of an Amateur

Copyright  2014, John Manimas Medeiros


The advantage of being an amateur as compared to being an expert is simple.  We live in a culture that suffers from "expertism," meaning the cultural habit of assuming an expert is the best person to accomplish a task in his or her field of expertise.  It follows from this assumption that the expert knows the most, or has the best available knowledge in their field.  The problem that develops, the problem that leads to an amateur knowing better than an expert, is the common human behavior patterns that occur when any person makes their field of knowledge into their job or profession.  The professionals need and seek the support of other professionals in the same field.  They form a kind of club or guild, an organization of those who identify with authority or authoritative knowledge in the selected field.  This process is constructive to this point, and can continue to be constructive.  However, here is where the problem develops.  When there is an organization, or association or group by any name that is a group of those professing authoritative knowledge in an identified field, and this profession of authoritative knowledge, or claim to authoritative knowledge, is sustained in the context of professional work, standards of performance are adopted and the "standards of performance" become or are from their inception, doctrines.  Such professional doctrines are often referred to as orthodoxy.


The word "orthodoxy" means essentially the same as the familiar phrase "politically correct."  The word is defined as "that which is accepted as true or correct."  Thus, every professional field of knowledge has orthodoxy, and any field of work or technology can have "best practice."  This is both normal and logical.  We want to protect ourselves from bad practice and bad thinking.  The social purpose of orthodoxy and best practice, which mean almost the same thing as standards and doctrines, is so that we can be safe from avoidable mistakes.  The clearly practical purpose of orthodoxy and standards becomes obvious when we consider health care.  If we need to have brain surgery, or a broken bone set, or an infection treated, we want best practice, a skilled expert, because we do not want our body to be used for experimental or questionable procedures.  When we build airplanes and invest money, we want the best technology and the best economic science, respectively, to be applied, because we have not decided to fly in an experimental aircraft and we have not decided that it is okay for someone to experiment with our money.  This all makes sense, except for the fact that all of the orthodoxy and best practice, all of the standards and doctrines were developed by the activity that we call science and that means the experimental method.  Experiment is necessary in order to discover best practice.  And experiment is what amateurs do, and the true amateur is far more committed to experiment than the expert, because the professional expert uses their knowledge to make a living, and THEREFORE, the professional expert is far more committed to orthodoxy and doctrines than to the task of continuing to explore for new knowledge in the field.  What this means culturally and socially is that to the extent that a society adheres to the value that I call "expertism," to that extent the professionals and experts are stuck with their doctrines.  Still, even in a "expertist" society, there will be avenues for people to try alternatives to the "best practice" or "orthodox" viewpoints.  But this occurs in a controlled and public process.  The seeker of any alternative way must be informed, aware that the procedure or technology or practice that they are accepting is not orthodox.  The most authoritarian and "expertist" society would probably forbid any form of practices outside of the orthodox standards.  This is the hallmark of an authoritarian society.  Authoritative knowledge, the doctrines of the experts, including the experts in public policy, cannot be questioned at all in an authoritarian society.


Thus far, this discussion may seem to have descended from a careful analysis to a mundane and trivial observation, but the implied difference between an amateur and an expert is not trivial.  The amateur is still actively learning by their own efforts, questioning doctrines and diligently seeking new knowledge.  The professional expert is conservative but not necessarily closed.  Most professions in the United States of America provide for a necessary or recommended ongoing procedures for a professional to engage in re-training or getting "up-to-date" with new knowledge in their field.  Still, even the "new knowledge in the field" is subject to the forces of orthodoxy and doctrine.  I will conclude then, with a simple summary of the observations made here:  the amateur can be in possession of better science, can have better knowledge, that better knowledge not necessarily being the same thing as more knowledge, with regard to a particular problem or set of problems in a field.  The amateurs are not under public pressure to restrict themselves to the accepted doctrines in a field of knowledge or technology.  The amateur invades the field of knowledge with a spirit of questioning, exploration, experimentation, taking apart and re-examining everything or anything deemed to be known in the field.  This spirit of investigating a field of knowledge in order to break down rigid doctrines, is the better science of the amateur.  The work and viewpoint of the amateur is not always better science, but it can be, and this is precisely the point regarding the life and goals of the amateur.  This is what the amateur gambles for.  The amateur takes the risk of failure and rejection, exposes oneself to the potential ridicule and rejection of the general public, in exchange for the possibility of making the next important discovery, for the possibility of correcting or refining a rigid doctrine.  The history of science is like a story made up of a long series of ordinary sentences, with exclamatory phrases interspersed by the work of amateurs.  Before his work in physics was discovered, Albert Einstein could reasonably have been classified as an amateur. 


Possibly a better way to define the better science of the amateur is to tell a story of a rocket science amateur.  He built rockets and tried new, experimental technology, and the rockets failed one after another.  Explosions, loss of control, failure to launch, poor performance, until one day, the rocket flew higher and faster and in the most vertical path than any similar rocket had before.  Some doctrine had been challenged, and the challenger won against the doctrine.  Now there is a new "best practice" because of the dedication of the amateur.  Therefore, if you are an amateur, do not allow yourself to be burdened or paralyzed by your doubts.  Doubts are the tools of a scientist.  Be motivated by a level of determination that makes one's doubts the fine tool that one uses for minor adjustments.  Someday, the minor adjustments result in success.  On that day, the amateur knows why they persisted.


An expert is a scientist, engineer or technician who surrenders their freedom to search for the truth in exchange for membership in a prestigious organization, and other institutional benefits.

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