On Professionalism Versus Dilettantism

How likely is it that a prominent academic journal will publish an article by someone who is unknown? If you don’t agree with me, and you are yourself relatively unknown in your field, I kindly challenge you to submit an article and report back to me the response you get. There is a reason most people will not be published, no matter how brilliant their content or research is. That reason is because, in our society, who is providing us information is often more important than the quality of the information being provided. Since I’m someone who is interested in truth and knowledge, I’m extremely troubled by this.

Is the aim of science to get at truth? If so, then, there are indeed some instances in which we should trust professionals. Professionals sort through, screen out, and provide us valid information that should theoretically expand our knowledge base that helps us get at truth. Professionals also generally have expertise that others lack; this helps them get at truth. What does it mean to be a professional when it comes to knowledge though?

If you’re like me, I suspect that you often value information that comes from professionals more so than information that comes from dilettantes. Many of us frequently object to dilettantish influence by making derogatory remarks about those who pursue art or science for love of it. People often assume that because the dilettante is not being paid his or her ability to get a truth must be jaded. In other words, dilettantes, due to their supposed lack of expertise, have limited ability to get at truth. In reality, some dilettantes, however, are much more interested in getting at truth than are professionals.

There are times we shouldn’t trust professionals precisely because they are professionals. The reason is rather simple: the fact that professionals get paid for their supposed unbiased expertise is often detrimental to their ability to be objective. If the purpose of the professional scientist’s writing is to get at truth, then, there is clearly an obstruction in the way, i.e., their salary. As the American novelist, Upton Sinclair, once famously wrote, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary is dependent upon him not understanding it.”

What should make us skeptical of professionals isn’t always what they say, but what they can’t say. Why professionals can’t say certain things is of great interest if our aim is to get at truth. Do you think a pastor at a church is more interested in getting at truth or is he more interested in making sure that he can make a living? Oftentimes, in order to ensure that he can continue to make a living, he must shun any evidence, no matter how compelling, that weakens the power his institution coddles.

Also, consider how scientific studies work. Who is funding a study is in many situations going to affect the result of the study. Oftentimes, giant corporations are funding scientific studies and this is clearly problematic because they aren’t necessarily interested in getting at truth. How many companies pay to have scientific research done that demonizes their product and, thus, threatens their very existence?

The dilettante, however, is not constricted in the same way as a professional. As such, I’m more trusting of an intelligent dilettante whose interest in truth is not abated by ulterior incentives.

The American essayist and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, once wrote: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” I, too, share this sentiment and I realize that there are both pleasant and unpleasant truths to be known in this world. It’s only natural to be skeptical of who is providing us information. Dilettantes who lack expertise aren’t likely to get us closer to truth, but nor are professionals who are limited in what they can say.

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3 Comments on “On Professionalism Versus Dilettantism”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I like this train of thought. I’m at a point where I’m transitioning from writing on my own blog to writing for a major publishing company. I can sense the added pressure, but have been re-assured by editors to do honest journalism. The  underlying current, whether professional or not, is reputation. That’s something I can’t ignore or escape no matter who I’m writing for. 

    On the other side of the table, the amount of trust I have for a source is based on their reputation. I think the web is leveling the playing field for building a reputation, which is great. I also think it holds a closer microscope to an individuals work, which plays into reputation. Bottom line: guard your reputation with your life. 

    • Greg Linster says:

      @davidtlang:disqus Reputation is definitely important and, yes, the Web is indeed a wonderful tool that levels the playing field.  I’m still a bit skeptical of trusting someone just because they have a good reputation, although, I agree, it’s at least a good initial filter.

      Someone who is critical of a certain issue might garner a bad reputation precisely because they are critical; however, they might still have something very important to say.  I think professional scientists are quick to bash dilettantes’ reputations because they see them as a threat.  In this way, reputation can be problematic as well.


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