Excessive specialization is often overrated
Czechia currently has 1+2+2 Olympic medals which places us at the 13th spot right now – second among the countries with 1 gold after Japan and ahead of Slovak brothers with 1+2+0 who got their gold from Russian-born biathlete Nasťa Kuzminová. A 20 times lower population of Czechoslovakia is enough to earn the same eight medals as the Unistatians. ;-)
We got a silver medal from Ms Martina Sáblíková, a speed skater: it's her 6th Olympic medal. She's also competing in bicycle competitions – another example of the versatility I will discuss. Because of her imperfect health in the recent year (and because of her 4th spot in the first Korean race), her traditional Dutch foes have argued that she would win no medal in 2018 so this insult has made her (and her coach) motivated and she scooped at least this silver.
Ms Eva Samková took bronze in snowboard cross. She uses the nickname "samice" related to her surname – a "female individual" – but to emphasize that "samice" is actually derived from "samec", a "male individual", she often sports a fake mustache. (In Western Europe and the U.S., the feminists could attack her even for this cute piece of fashion.) She also turns her jacket inside out during the ceremonies – that ritual has worked for her so far and she did it day ago, too.
Some of the first medals were won by Ms Veronika Vítková and Mr Michal Krčmář, the only Czech male medal from Korea so far. You could immediately conclude that due to this 4-to-1 score, Czech men physically suck relatively to the rather attractive and athletic Czech women. And your hypothesis would have a little toad of the truth in it but there are also ways to present the history that look less skewed. Hours ago, Czech ice-hockey men defeated Canada (2-to-3 on penalty shootouts) so of course we always believe that a return to the 1998 Nagano gold place is possible in that Czechia's favorite sport, too.
OK, our first gold medal was just won by Ms Ester Ledecká, in women's super-G race. That would be unspectacular from the global perspective of TRF readers – just another gold medal going to one of the šitholes in Europe. And after all, lots of people did expect a gold from Ms Ledecká.
There's a catch, however. For years, Ms Ester Ledecká has been winning medals in snowboarding. This is a gold medal from skiing! She borrowed the skis from Mikaela Shiffrin (the American eliminated these skis a year ago) and won. It's that simple.
And it makes sense. If someone had told me that bookmakers give me 100 to 1 on her gold, I would have bet thousands of dollars. Really.
These disciplines could look very similar but, as fans of former Czech president Klaus know, they couldn't be further apart. Why? Because skiing is a nice, conservative, right-wing sport while snowboarding is one of the left-wing sports!
Journalist: “Why are you wearing goggles?” Ester Ledecká: “I was not as prepared as the other girls to be on the podium, so I don't have no makeup!” Aside from the commercial for her teacher of English, it sounds like a good prank but I actually believe that it was the genuine reason and she's been frank about it. She genuinely didn't believe in her medal much. After she completed the race by the stunning acceleration finish, she clearly needed much more time to figure out what the time on the scoreboard meant. ;-) Shortly afterwards, she came to her favorite KFC – KFC is what saved me from Hunger in Santa Cruz, too. Northern California is otherwise a hungry šithole for Czechs like me.
Klaus has never given me a fully satisfactory explanation of this legendary statement of his so I mostly view it as a joke. But if I understand well, snowboarding is a left-wing sport (like floorball and others) because of some combination of reasons:
- It's a relatively recent modification derived from the old, well-established sports, so it's not equally conservative
- Snowboarders are often getting in the way of skier Klaus on the slopes. Because he's right-wing and they're annoying, they're probably left-wing
- Snowboarding needs a somewhat cheaper, and therefore left-wing, equipment, while successful and therefore right-wing people like Klaus may afford skis ;-)
There's another left-vs-right issue that makes me feel particularly satisfied because of this gold medal. As a kid, in the 1980s, I could follow some contests in Alpine skiing. That has been a bunch of disciplines that were almost completely dominated by the "Alpine capitalist countries" – Switzerland, Austria, Germany, perhaps Scandinavia. The communist (and then post-communist) countries seemingly had no chance. One obvious reason is that not too many people could afford holidays in the Alps. Times have changed. Lots of Czechs are spending their vacation in the Alps and similar "Western European mountains" and this "new wind" in the results of the Alpine races is compatible with the increased wealth of the Czech tourists, if not a sign of it. But don't overstate the previous sentences: Ledecká often trains in Špindler's Mill, a famous North Bohemian "Sudeten" resort! But not only there. Indeed, with her U.S. coach, her training in Colorado is probably more important.
I liked her professional approach. She – using the nickname STR robot for herself – was getting ready for the race in a perfectionist way and solitude, refusing to meet other members of the Olympic team, Czech and foreign journalists. (One of her explanations is actually as solid as Sheldon Cooper's: she views all these people primarily as potential carriers of viral infections!) This is the right way to switch to a right-wing heroine. Some of her colleagues bragged how collectivist they have been and they sort of partied – and brought us no medals. Two days ago, a Czech Public Radio reporter Mr Miroslav Bureš ran a diatribe against Ledecká because she didn't want to talk to him. So she was the worst one among the Czech athletes, ever, and behaved like if she were one of the athletes who have actually achieved something. Soon afterwards, Ester Ledecká sent this obnoxious troll to the aßhole, exactly where ethical athletes should send such jerks – and Bureš compared her to President Zeman on Twitter (which was supposed to be an insult). Now, two days later, the troll's recommended trip to the aßhole should be considered much more seriously!
Mr Janek Ledecký: "I will be anything you will wish". I embedded the song for two reasons: Ms Ester Ledecká can also be anything we wish and bring diverse Olympic medals. Second, Mr Janek Ledecký is Ms Ester Ledecká's proud father (who has paid some half a million dollars for the beginnings of his daughter's career; she bought her dad a Mustang some two years ago, nice). Fans of a U.S. swimmer should know: Surnames Ledecký/Ledecká are masculine/feminine adjectives meaning "from Ledce". There are 5 villages plus 2 village parts with this name (which actually isn't derived from "ice" i.e. "led" but from "lado" i.e. for soil "not to be ploughed") in Czechia; the "largest" one (814 inhabitants) and probably the "right one" behind the name is a village less than 10 miles North of Pilsen. Only 146+143 people in Czechia are named Ledecký+Ledecká. Because of these tiny numbers, I feel 99% certain that Ester, Katie Ledecký had a common patrilineal ancestor in recent 300 years, which I told Katie. Ester's maternal grandfather was Jan Klapáč, a two-time Olympic ice-hockey medalist.
But let me return to the main point. Some athletes – but also people in the intellectual world that I care much more about – are often rather versatile. Ledecká is obviously world-class both in snowboarding and skiing. Incidentally, her first sport was hockey. But we have other examples. As I mentioned, another chronic Olympic medal winner, Ms Martina Sáblíková, competes both in speed skating and... bicycle races. (I know that North American readers have similar examples of this versatility.)
Specialization has been a part of the progress. And to some extent, it's unavoidable. Especially in sciences, people have acquired a huge amount of knowledge and skills and if one wants to be really world-class scientist or something, he should know "everything" in some group of insights and skills. But there are so many insights and skills that "everything" may mean at most "everything in a rather limited discipline".
And because the competition strengthens and the body of insights grows, the specialization is arguably getting increasingly more extreme.
I think that some of this process really is inevitable but people err on both sides. Some people try to completely deny – or demonize – the process of specialization and pretend that we're still in ancient Greece where great people could have been polymaths that knew – and could do – everything that was possible. We're clearly not in ancient Greece anymore. This is clearly misunderstood by many. If you're a theoretical physicist and people expect you to be a star in multiplying large integers in your head, well, they probably misunderstood your specialization. A theoretical physicist isn't quite the same thing as an idiot savant although most physicists are much better at multiplication than the average people (and maybe even than average mathematicians).
However, some people also err on the other side. They believe that the extreme specialization is a miraculous cure for everything and basically every successful person is and has to be an extreme Fachidiot, an overspecialized person. That's also how some coaches are preparing their athletes. And that's how sports fans sometimes look at the athletes, too. You know, I love this outsider story as well but I believe that if many more top athletes tried to be great in adjacent sports, many of them would be great. They don't try because the very narrow focus is considered a commercially safer way for them to remain serial medal winning engines (so the athletes are effectively stripped of their freedom to try various other things) – but I think that this widespread "safe" belief is mostly unjustified.
Sometimes the belief in the narrow skills is ludicrous. At the end, almost every sport like that uses pretty much the same muscles to similar extent – and it uses the neural networks that are important for similar kinds of movements. So it is totally obvious that there exists a huge positive correlation in a person's (or athlete's) potential to be good at sport A; and her or his ability to be good at sport B, especially if A and B are sufficiently close in some relevant respects. Not only the biological aptitudes are correlated; even what the athletes had to learn was similar. Ledecká was asked how it was possible that she could do both and she said: "Both a going down a hill, that's the basics." Sounds like another joke but again, I think that her answer conveys a deep truth.
It's obvious in sports and I think that the real reason for increasing specialization is much weaker in sports than it is in sciences.
But more importantly, it's also true in sciences and similar disciplines. The body of scientists in the world isn't or shouldn't be some random set of totally isolated overspecialized Fachidiots. In reality, there may be "different kinds of IQ" but the number of "kinds of IQ" that may be meaningfully considered is vastly smaller than the number of scientific disciplines that have been named or that have earned a department or a sub-department somewhere. Scientists' areas unavoidably overlap with each other and to one extent or another, every scientist also knows some things outside his narrowest area.
Lots of theoretical physicists are or could be leading mathematicians or they may do some other things. Those aren't complete coincidences. It's obvious that one's abilities to do related things are positively correlated and a person often ended up doing a certain things that partially depended on random events in his or her life. And indeed, lots of us have always been extremely interested in related fields and lots of other things. One should know almost everything about his narrow field, a smaller number of things about a broader collection of adjacent fields, and at least something about everything, if you get my point.
I am making this point because throughout the years as well as very recently, people like me were accused of not being experts specialized in some very narrow specialization that we're interested in – atmospheric physics, teaching of mathematics etc. – which was quoted as the reason why our views on these things should be considered equivalent to those of an interested layman.
Well, I beg to differ. This overspecialized understanding of people's skills and competence is clearly excessive. To be concrete so that you may have some particular questions in mind, but I am not writing it because of myself, I am almost sure that I am a better climate scientist than the average person who is employed as a scientist in climate-change-related institutes of the contemporary, somewhat corrupt, world of climate science. I obviously realize that there are real climate scientists and I admire some of them – even some of those on the alarmist side – who are real top experts, unlike me, but that can't strip me of the ability to see that a majority of people acting like climate scientists are scientifically illiterate charlatans.
Similar comments apply to teaching of mathematics and other things. People who claim to be stars because of some alleged skills and knowledge that are excessively specialized usually know nothing – and their star status is bogus. These excessively specialized (and often "interdisciplinary") disciplines are often fraudulent as wholes (especially when "interdisciplinary" means that the interdisciplinary "expert" doesn't have to know any of the parent disciplines well). A really good atmospheric physicist simply cannot be "really bad in the rest of physics". A really good mathematics teacher cannot be "bad at mathematics in general", and so on. You can't really compensate for these serious holes by claims of some super-expertise in the overspecialized, narrow field.
To summarize, while specialization and its inevitability that the progress brings is unreasonably denied by some people, it is also heavily overrated by others.
And that's the memo.
Bonus 1, experts found naked:
When the Czech public TV station aired it, a female "expert" (Ms Lucie Hrstková, a former Alpine skier) commented (11:30 or so in the video) about on 3 "mistakes" by Ledecká, as if they were almost fatal, and mocked Ledecká by laughing and saying that "she's still struggling, anyway". Suddenly her time showed gold and the reporters quickly changed their tune and began to laugh happily and hysterically. You can't really trust experts too much – most of the expert comments are just tricks to sound important that no one actually verifies too reliably and rigorously.
Incidentally, sometime in the past, Ledecká complained that the Czech Public TV generally doesn't broadcast her races. To spectacularly prove the accuracy of her words, the Czech Public TV didn't air her legendary race today live, either! Ledecká has some support, don't worry. Her brother, cartoonist Jonáš Novotný, wrote on social networks: "I would love to meet the c*nt that has played the ice-hockey instead of this race. Death to the Czech Television!" ;-)
Bonus 2, musical:
Janek Ledecký (her father) wrote the music for Hamlet, a 2005 musical, and it just happens that this piece has made it to South Korea and was very successful there.