A Specialist Knows More and More About Less and Less

William J. Mayo? Nicholas Murray Butler? William Warde Fowler? Patrick Geddes? Mabel M. Barker? Y. Srinivasa Rao? Arthur Bugs Baer? Robert E. Swain? Anonymous Scotchman?

Dear Quote Investigator: The modern explosion of knowledge has led to an age of specialization with this concomitant quip:

A specialist knows more and more about less and less.

A more elaborate version includes a funny addendum:

An expert knows more and more about less and less until he or she knows everything about nothing.

A related joke cleverly twists this saying:

A generalist knows less and less about more and more until he or she knows nothing about everything.

Would you please explore the history of these statements?

Quote Investigator: These complex expressions evolved over time from simpler fragments. In 1911 the “Review of Theology & Philosophy” based in Edinburgh, Scotland published an article by William Warde Fowler who was a scholar at the University of Oxford. Fowler used a phrase from the first expression while reviewing a book that was focused on an overly narrow topic: 1

“We are getting to know more and more about less and less.” This dictum, reported to me as that of a distinguished Scotchman, aptly expresses the character of this little work. A young German scholar has been able to fill more than a hundred pages with matter relating to what seems to be the survival, in the religious systems of Greece and Italy, of a single practice belonging to a primitive magico-religious age.

In 1915 a periodical from the University of Liverpool called “The Town Planning Review” printed an article by Professor Patrick Abercrombie who credited Patrick Geddes with a precursor. Geddes was a prominent sociologist and influential town planner: 2

Professor Geddes has somewhere said that the modern aim is to learn more and more about less and less. . .

In 1916 an article in “The Museums Journal: The Organ of the Museums Association” by Mabel M. Barker also ascribed a precursor to Geddes: 3

. . . the deadly peril of over-specialism against which Professor Geddes warns us, the peril of “knowing more and more about less and less”. . .

In 1922 an article by Y. Srinivasa Rao in “The Herald of the Star” based in London included a strong match for the first statement above with an ascription to an unnamed professor: 4

Thus there is specialisation not only in the study and practice of medicine, but also in the sale of drugs. A professor once defined specialisation as knowing more and more about less and less.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In March 1926 the popular humorist Arthur Bugs Baer employed a compressed variant. To parse the statement properly one should pause after the first occurrence of “less”: 5

He knows more about less and less about more than any man in the cabinet.

In June 1926 the physician Irene Sand penned an opinion piece that appeared in several U.S. newspapers, and he included definitions for an expert and a superficial person: 6

We are in need of social engineers who can combine harmoniously the findings of specialized knowledge. This is particularly true of the field of medicine.

“The expert who concentrates on a limited field is useful, but if he loses sight of the interdependence of things he becomes a man who knows more and more about less and less. Of course we do not prefer the other extreme, the superficial person who every day knows less and less about more and more.

In July 1926 the “Boston Daily Globe” discussed the difference between an expert and a dilettante: 7

Comparing the specialist of any field of endeavor to a mole who is sometimes too liable to follow his own burrowing nose, he said: “A specialist may be defined as one who grows to know more and more about less and less.” Prof Copeland has said that a dilettante is one who knows less and less about more and more.

In December 1926 a pastor in Rockford, Illinois who previously has served as an officer in the British military delivered a speech containing a definition of expert that combined two expressions: 8

While common schools have existed for 50 years there they have not made headway against the great private schools in which the leaders of English thought have been trained. That has led to rule by experts and he defined an expert as “one who knows more and more about less and less, and less about more and more.”

In October 1927 the “Democrat and Chronicle” in Rochester, New York ascribed an instance to “Dr. Mayo”. The name was ambiguous, but it might refer to William J. Mayo, one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic: 9

The famous Dr. Mayo has described a specialist as “a man who knows more and more about less and less.” A few things in a limited field are all he pretends to know, nor is he sure that he knows them. It is always ignorance which makes the big and boastful claims

Nicholas Murray Butler who was the President of Columbia University used the expression in the “Annual Report” for 1927. Butler criticized the training that teachers were typically receiving, and he employed the definition of “specialist” that was already in circulation: 10

The elaborate training which they have so often received is a sorry substitute for education. They are high-minded, eager and devoted specialists and illustrate to the full the definition, marked as much by truth as by wit, that the specialist is one who knows more and more about less and less. For whatever other purposes this trait may be useful, it is quite futile as an instrument of education

In 1928 the Associated Press reported on humorous remarks made by Robert E. Swain who was a Stanford University chemist. Swain explained the difference between a scientist and a philosopher: 11

“Some people regard the former as one who knows a great deal about a very little, and who keeps on knowing more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. Then he is a scientist.

“Then there are the latter specimen, who knows a little about very much, and he continues to know less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything. Then he is a philosopher.”

In 1933 “The Richwood Gazette” printed a short piece illustrating the distinction between a clerk and a manager: 12

A continental correspondent endeavors to describe the difference in title as follows:

“A clerk is a man who knows a great deal about very little and who goes on knowing more and more about less and less, until finally he knows everything about practically nothing.”

“A manager is a man who knows very little about a great deal and who goes on knowing less and less about more and more until finally he knows nothing about practically everything.”

In conclusion, an early fragment was attributed to an unnamed distinguished Scotchman in 1911. Patrick Geddes received credit by 1915 and 1916 for presenting a warning about over specialization. More elaborate statements evolved during the ensuing decades.

Image Notes: An image of the Mandelbrot set at four different zoom levels. Made by Nadim Ghaznavi using XAOS 3.1 and Microsoft Paint 5.1; licensed under version 2 of the GNU General Public License; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Special thanks to Barry Popik and Fred Shapiro for their pioneering research on this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1911 June, Review of Theology & Philosophy, Volume 6, Number 12, (Book Review by W. Warde Fowler (Oxford) of “De Nuditate Sacra Sacrisque Vinculis” by Josephus Heckenbach) Start Page 730, Quote Page 730, Otto Schulze & Company, Edinburgh, Scotland. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1915 October, The Town Planning Review, Volume 6, Number 2, Town Planning Literature by Patrick Abercrombie, Start Page 77, Quote Page 97, The Journal of the Department of Civic Design at the School of Architecture of the University of Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, England. (Reprinted in 1965 by Kraus Reprint Ltd., Vaduz) (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1916 November, The Museums Journal: The Organ of the Museums Association, Volume 16, Number 5, Editor W. R. Butterfield (Brassey Institute, Hastings), The Outlook Tower, Edinburgh by Mabel M. Barker, Start Page 103, Quote Page 106, Dulau and Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1922 August 1, The Herald of the Star, Volume 11, Number 8, Practical Idealism: Louis Kuhne and his New Science of Healing — II. by Y. Srinivasa Rao, Star Page 310, Quote Page 312, Column 1, Available through Officers of the Order of the Star in the East, Publishing Office: Tavistock Square, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1926 March 13, The Palm Beach Post, Bug-A-Boos by Bugs Baer, Quote Page 16, Column 2, West Palm Beach, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1926 June 11, Moline Daily Dispatch, Pull Down the Partitions: Interview with Dr. Irene Sand, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Moline, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1926 July 29, Boston Daily Globe, Groups Roosevelt, Caesar and Eliot: Dr Bingham Finds Striking Similarity, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  8. 1926 December 15, The Rockford Morning Star, Anglo-Saxon Allies Would Prevent War, Quote Page 9, Column 4,Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1927 October 16, Democrat and Chronicle, Refreshing Candor, Section 3, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1928, Annual Report of the President and Treasurer to the Trustees with Accompanying Documents for the Year Ending June 30, 1927, Section: Annual Report of the President of Columbia University, Signature: Nicholas Murray Butler, Date: November 7, 1927, Start Page 1, Quote Page 18, Columbia University, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  11. 1928 April 7, The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Knows Much About Little: That Is One Definition Given of Scientist By Chemist (Associated Press), Quote Page 1, Column 4, Ogden, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1933 June 29, The Richwood Gazette, Clerks and Managers, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Richwood, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)