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Saturday, May 06, 2006

What Would You Give Me?

I mentioned before I am studying for the GRE. I just finished a three hour session and I am going to post the essay and argument analysis I had to write. These get graded on a scale of 1-6 based on command of language, force of argument, clarity, use of examples, ability to use transitions, etc. So, what do you think? Anybody want to grade me?

"In our time, specialists of all kinds are highly overrated. We need more generalists -- people who can provide broad perspectives."

To say that specialists are overrated, or for that matter generalists, is a dangerous thing. In a time as complex as the one we live in now, society can not afford to overlook the specific skills one person can offer in a given situation.

To begin, it is important to look at what the terms "specialist," and "generalist" signify. For the purpose of this essay, the word specialist refers to a type of person with a deep understanding of one specific issue. One might also call a specialist an expert in his given field. The word generalist, on the other hand, refers to a type of person with a broad range of knowledge in many fields, but no one area where his level of knowledge could be considered expertise. With these terms now defined, it is necessary to look at why the given statement is wrong.
There are several scenarios in which the skills of a specialist would be required over those of a generalist - for example in medicine or in education. A brain surgeon would be a better choice for removing a brain tumor than a general practicioner, and a literature professor would be best suited for teaching Joyce's Ulysseus. On a grand scope, though, one need look no farther than the United States' intelligence agencies before and after September 11 to understand why specialists are so valuable.

During the Cold War, there were any number of specialists within the intelligence community - men and women trained as experts on the USSR. When the communist bloc collapsed, though, many of these skill sets became obsolete, and there was a need for people with a more generalized understanding of the world and foreign policies. A shift in education and training followed, the belief being that, as it is said in the given quote, specialists are overrated.
In 2001, after a group of Arab men flew planes into the World Trade Centers, it became apparent just how wrong that belief was. As the attack was researched and investigated, it became apparent that a lack of specialists in Arabic and the Middle East were a major factor in why the attacks were not prevented. Specialists in Middle East studies and languages became not just in demand, but necessary.

Now, if one looks on-line for scholarship opportunities for grad schools, he will see scholarships sponsored by the US government for those willing to study Arabic, Farsi, and a range of other languages in which there is a lack of specialists. There is also a rush to find Chinese speakers and experts in East Asian cultures and politics in an effort to be prepared for China's rising power.
This essay does not seek to undermine the value of generalists in a society. What it does do is try to show why an emphasis placed on the value of generalists at the expense of specialists in a given field is a very dangerous thing. In a world that is growing ever more interconnected, and in a world of complex relationships and conflicts, it is essential that there always be specialists to help guide the way.

Hospital statistics regarding people who go to the emergency room after roller-skating accidents indicate the need for more protective equipment. Within this group of people, 75 percent of those who had accidents in streets or parking lots were not wearing any protective clothing (helmets, knee pads, etc.) or any light-reflecting material (clip-on lights, glow-in-the-dark wrist pads, etc.). Clearly, these statistics indicate that by investing in high-quality protective gear and reflective equipment, roller skaters will greatly reduce their risk of being severely injured in an accident.

In the given statistic, it is said that when looking at a certain number of roller skaters visiting the hospital emergency room, and the percentage of those who were not wearing protective equipment, it is apparent that more skaters should invest in high-quality protective gear in an effort to reduce their risk of serious injury. Upon quick examination, and without considering the given argument, one might agree that, yes, roller skaters should protect themselves. However, when one considers the argument itself, it is just as easy to see that there are a number of weak points which seriously undermine the case the statistic hopes to make.
Let us start at the beginning, then. The statistic refers to the seventy-five percent of people visiting the emergency room after skating accidents who do not wear protective equipment. What it does not offer is a specific number of skaters visiting the emergency room. To say that four people visited the emergency room and three of them had not been wearing equipment is very different from saying that 4,000 skaters visited the emergency room and 3,000 of them had not been wearing equipment.

The statistic is further weakened when one considers other numbers that are not included. There is no reference to the overall percentage of skaters who injure themselves or a reference to the percentage of skaters who wear protective clothes in relation to those who are injured. As example, let's pretend there are 1,000 skaters. Of these 1,000 skaters, 100 visit the emergency room and 75 of them were not wearing gear. If the reader knows that of those 1,000 skaters, 800 were wearing protective gear (meaning that of the 200 who were not, 75 were injured), he or she would be much more likely to invest in protective clothing than if, say only 200 of those 1,000 skaters were wearing protective clothes.

Another faulty aspect of the given argument is that it focuses on those having accidents in streets and parking lots. Whether or not it is right to do so, the reader might assume, as I have done, that a skater making use of a street or a parking lot, where one envisions traffic and a bustle of activity, faces a higher chance of not just being injured, but of being injured seriously enough to go to the emergency room. What is more, such a skater is far more likely to engage in high-risk behavior. Those engaging in high-risk behavior, it is assumed, are far less likely to use protection (for example, the term high-risk sex refers to sex without condoms or other forms of protection).

The third weak point of the given statistic is that it does not clarify what type of protective equipment might be more likely to prevent serious injury. As I am of a generation that saw a rise in the popularity of skating and other "extreme sports" I know firsthand the promotion of "safety first" that followed. And while knee pads, elbow pads, and light reflective material were always mentioned, the one thing everyone made sure to stress was the need for a helmet. I would ask the person offering the statistic what percent of those in the emergency room came with injuries that might have been prevented if only they were wearing helmets, as opposed to all of the other types of gear. Also, what percentage of those coming in were riding on cloudy days or in the evening when light reflecting gear would be needed? Would it be possible, especially for those who might be on a tight budget, that investing in a quality helmet would be enough to seriously reduce the risk of injury?

If I were a parent, and my child wanted to take up skateboarding, I would want my son or daughter to be as safe as possible. The given statistic would be enough to make me, as a parent, stop and think. However, instead of making me rush out to buy an array of high-protective gear, the argument leaves me wanting, and needing to ask questions. It is not well-reasoned, and it does not sell me.


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