The word "sophomore" comes from two Greek words meaning "wisdom" and "folly". It describes somebody who thinks he knows more than he really does. We apply it to second-year students because, having had a full year of schooling, they think that they have learned all there is to know. They know just enough to be dangerous, and not enough to realize how ignorant they really are.
I’m an insatiably curious fellow. I love to read, and my interests are wide. My library has over 600 titles. That may not sound like much, but at one book per week that’s nearly 12 years’ worth of reading. It leans heavily towards history, especially military history, but there’s also a lot of physics and astrophysics, a goodly amount of public affairs, a smattering of linguistics and biology, a little computer science, three whole science fiction titles, a bunch of stuff on the Arthurian legends, some economics, a little philosophy, a pile on Erasmus, and a small collection of classics of Western literature. All in all, a truly catholic library. But the impact of all this learning has been to impress upon the size of the intellectual universe that we humans have created.
This was most forcefully driven home to me about a year ago, when I suffered my first outright intellectual defeat. I had developed a kick for Erasmus, and was eagerly devouring everything I could about him. At an antiquarian book show, I came across an ancient and weighty volume of Erasmus’ letters in their original Latin. This was too much to pass by the true wisdom of the great master, expressed in his own words. I dug deep into my pockets and bought the tome. There was only one problem: I couldn’t read Latin. No problem, I told myself; I would learn it. And so I set to work with a Latin grammar, studying diligently every night, laboring over dual-language versions of Caesar and Cicero. Within a few months I was able to stumble through Caesar with only occasional recourse to the translation on the opposite page.
I decided it was time to try my hand at Erasmus. I rolled up my sleeves and plunged in. After a week of mighty struggles, I was utterly routed, retreating with my tail between my legs. Erasmus was the greatest master of Latin to write in the language. His use of the language was deep and profound. His vocabulary often stumps experts. An ignorant whippersnapper such as myself had no hope of understanding the avalanche of obscure terminology.
But there was a deeper reason for my defeat. Erasmus breathed the spirit of his times. Every sentence was steeped in the culture of Renaissance humanism; his paragraphs teemed with allusions to Greek and Roman literature; his theology bristled with elliptical references to fine points of medieval theology. I found myself thrown into the deep water of a world I didn’t understand, and treading water wasn’t enough when the waves were ten feet high.
The world in which we live is an immensely complicated place, and we can never understand even a fraction of its complexity. That complexity arises from the combined efforts of millions of human beings, all adding their bits of negentropy to the mix. My ability to comprehend negentropy is finite and equal to one human mind’s worth of negentropy. But our intellectual heritage is the product of millions of human minds’ worth of negentropy. How can one person comprehend anything so big?
Intellectual humility is absolutely necessary if we are to understand anything about our world. The very first thing we must admit to ourselves is that we really don’t know very much. And this, I think, is difficult for most programmers to admit. Sophomorism is a more common disease among programmers than AIDS is among drug addicts. I have never encountered a group of people with so much intellectual chutzpah as game programmers.
There are two reasons for this, I think. The first is the fact that game programmers are necessarily pioneers. Success in game programming relies on mastering new technologies and making those new technologies perform new tricks that have never been done before. It takes a lot of self-confidence to approach a new machine and promise that you’ll make it do things that will knock people’s socks off. Pioneers are always self-assured people.
The second reason for sophomorism among game programmers arises from the meritocracy of programmer culture. Like all cultures, programmers have their pecking order, a hierarchy determined by conflict. Cats use claws and teeth to establish their hierarchy; programmers use acronyms. In other fields, they say, "It’s not what you know, but who you know." The programmer retorts, "It’s not who you know, or how you dress, or what you drive, or how handsome you look, or how often you bathe, but what you know." Knowledge is the sole determinant of respect in programmer culture.
The natural response of individuals to these cultural expectations is to project an image of vast expertise. Just as a cat will arch his back and bush his tail to make himself appear larger, the programmer will assert his knowledge on just about any subject to make his expertise appear larger than it really is.
But here is where the similarity between cats and programmers ends. Most cats are smart enough, after all the hissing and spitting and arching, to turn tail and run. The boneheaded ones lunge into a fight, clawing and kicking, and they get torn up for their efforts and often contract fatal diseases. But these are the minority; most cats really do have the good sense to bug out when things get nasty.
There are damn few game programmers with the good sense that most cats have. How many times have you heard a programmer admit, "Gosh, I never heard of that; how does it work?" Instead, they arch their backs and fluff their tails and spit acronyms at each other like tomcats.
This is bad thinking. You can’t learn if you don’t recognize your own ignorance. Be on guard against the disease of sophomorism; it’s all around you, and it’s easy to pick it up by casual contact. And when you talk with a game programmer, be sure to wear a condom over your brain.