Dispatches from the Creation Wars

On the Virtues of Amateurism

Jim Babka has a great post at Positive Liberty about blogging and the virtues of amateurism that I agree with entirely. He offers this great quote from Robert Proctor:

Something is lost when people specialize. I like to see things like an amateur. The word amateur is literally “lover,” it’s from amore. Professionalism is often the death of intellectual inquiry. So I think there’s a kind of virtue in systematic amateurism that really needs to be rekindled. If you don’t love and hate and play and joke with your objects of study, then you’re really not treating them properly. I tell my students if you’re not angry and excited and enthralled by your topic, you should choose a different one.

I could not agree more. One of the things that I love about blogging is that it allows me to talk about the issues that I really care about. I get excited about church and state issues, about free speech and defending liberty, about equality for everyone. These are issues that animate me and incite my passions as well as my intellect.

But I’m also a generalist. I don’t have a degree showing my specialization in one subject, I have a wide-ranging interest in a number of areas, about which I’ve spent most of my adult life studying on my own – and often with the help of specialists, so this is not at all a critique of professionals in any field. I think Jim goes a little too far in his critiques of professionals, though his characterization of their work certainly does have plenty of examples to support it.

I would only add, as Jon Rowe did in the comments, that one of the coolest things about blogging is the mixture of amateur voices with credentialed ones. I have benefited enormously, as have my readers I think, from my interaction with innumerable legal scholars and law professors over the last few years. They have taught me much and I have, I hope, been able to synthesize their work successfully for a lay audience (which is simply a function of being part of that audience and working toward a sophisticated understanding of the issues myself).

The same is true of science, where I am a rank amateur who has been fortunate enough to know a lot of real scientists who have helped me to understand various subjects in which I have no formal training.

I like being a generalist. It suits me perfectly in a way that being a specialist probably never could. I am reminded of HL Mencken’s famous essay about himself where he explained why he chose to be a literary critic:

The plain truth is – and how could it be plainer? – that I practice criticism for precisely the same reason that every other critic practices it: because I am a vain fellow, and have a great many ideas on all sorts of subjects, and like to put them into words and harass the human race with them. If I could confine this flow of ideas to one subject I’d be a professor and get some respect. If I could reduce it, say, to one idea a year, I’d be a novelist, a dramatist, or a newspaper editorial writer. But being unable to staunch the flux, and having, as I say, a vast and exigent vanity, I am a critic of books, and through books of Homo sapiens, and through Homo sapiens of God.

And as Babka points out, the history of human intellectual inquiry contains a great many advances made by amateur generalists rather than by credentialed specialists. Gregor Mendel is one obvious example, as is Charles Darwin. But I like his mention of Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Priestley, who he calls the “ultimate dabbler.” I like that description. That is precisely what I am, a dabbler. And that’s exactly what I like being.

On the subject of amateurism vs professionalism, though, I have been asked in the last couple of years whether making a living through my writing has diminished my love for it. The answer is no. And probably the biggest reason the answer is no is because I still get to write about the things I really care about. If I had to write boring articles about subjects that don’t interest me all the time, I would surely burn out on it fast.

But rather than making me jaded about it or diminishing my passion for it, having the opportunity to make a living by doing what I was already doing for free just because I enjoyed it strikes me as pretty damn cool. I am extraordinarily fortunate and I am entirely aware of that good fortune and very grateful for it. That is, perhaps, the best thing about what has happened with blogging – it has allowed people like me to make a living doing what we love to do.

And by the way, that Mencken essay contained a description of the core belief that animated him and it is the same core belief that animates me. It is my primary axiom, expressed so perfectly by a man who died before I was ever born. When I first read it, it seemed as though he was reading my mind. I’ve quoted it before but here it is:

So much for the motive. What, now, of the substance? What is the fundamental faith beneath all the spurting and coruscating of ideas that I have just mentioned? What do I primarily and immovably believe in, as a Puritan believes in hell? I believe in liberty. And when I say liberty, I mean the thing in its widest imaginable sense – liberty up to the extreme limits of the feasible and tolerable. I am against forbidding anybody to do anything, or say anything, or think anything so long as it is at all possible to imagine a habitable world in which he would be free to do, say, and think it. The burden of proof, as I see it, is always upon the policeman, which is to say, upon the lawmaker, the theologian, the right-thinker. He must prove his case doubly, triply, quadruply, and then he must start all over and prove it again. The eye through which I view him is watery and jaundiced. I do not pretend to be “just” to him – any more than a Christian pretends to be just to the devil. He is the enemy of everything I admire and respect in this world – of everything that makes it various and amusing and charming. He impedes every honest search for the truth. He stands against every sort of good-will and common decency. His ideal is that of an animal trainer, an archbishop, a major general in the army. I am against him until the last galoot’s ashore.

I only wish I could have said that half as well as Mencken did.