04 April, 2009

Thinking Out Loud About Thinking

My father recently came to visit me at my university. Dad is a semi-retired psychologist that moved a few years back from his clinical practice to teaching at a university of his own. He was in town for what he calls "a guild conference" of the APA. The topics of the conference were fresh in his mind and so chatting over gyros became a lengthy conversation about inter-discipline exchange.

Dad's outside-in perspective of academia met with my never-been-out naivete in some interesting ways. We both agreed that it was a problem that so little dialogue occurs between related disciplines - a problem for the rapid advancement of the fields, and a barrier in forming concerted efforts to combat contemporary problems that require input from multiple disciplines.

After this, however, our opinions diverged. Dad felt, on the one hand, that the major hurdle contributing to the exclusionary structure of the ivory tower(s) is stubbornness. Individual scholars and experts are unwilling to explore professional relationships outside of their immediate field that would allow them access to up-to-date research and discoveries in other fields. This is perhaps the result of protectiveness or perhaps laziness.

I, on the other hand, felt that the more significant problem is a more natural one. As each academic discipline gets more and more complex, being an expert in the basic understanding, not to mention working at the frontiers of the field, is a life-time commitment. Specialization makes it increasingly difficult for "Renaissance men" to bridge the gap from discipline to discipline.

Which seems like the more problematic contributor to the lack of inter-discipline dialogue in academia? Though I remain as yet still convinced by my view as outlined above, I harbor hope that specialization is not the bigger culprit because I think it will promise to be the harder problem to fix.


higgy said...

Whether it is stubbornness, over-specialization, or something else that is to blame for a general lack of inter-disciplinary dialogue depends entirely on what field you're concerned with.

Because I know it best, take physics as an example. I happen to know first-hand that there is a great deal of overlap between modern "solid state" physics, medical physics, and organic/physical chemistry research. There does exist cross-disciplinary collaboration - but there could be more. There are two main reasons why there isn't. First, each field has its own jargon for discussing the same set of concepts, hindering the exchange of ideas. Second, each researcher likes to publish in the journals of his/her field.

In some cases, it simply hasn't occurred to very many people that communicating with academics from other fields would be useful. This seems to be the case for economics and physics. Aside from the thousands of "quants" on Wall Street, I've read very little in the physics periodicals concerning the application of modern methods in statistical mechanics, stochastic processes, etc, to economic models. There might be a reason for this, but if there is, I'm not aware of it.

Without blathering on too much more, I've noticed yet another attitude towards dialogue between physicists and philosophers. In many physics circles, it seems to be a bit taboo to bring up anything "philosophical." (What ARE strings, you ask? Who cares!) It's as though many physicists are driven by the desire to answer some of philosophy's greatest questions, but dare not turn to philosophy's methods, or else risk losing face as a scientist. (Here, I'm thinking conservation laws/symmetry/nature of the universe, wave mechanics/epistomology, as well as others.) Hence, there would have to be a change in attitude in the physics community things to change.

Eremita said...

Yes, I agree, sometimes feelings of pride about "purity" motivate stubbornness about using methods from other disciplines. Black-humorously, philosophers also sometimes fear losing face over adopting the methods of science too thoroughly - I think for the very same reason that scientists hesitate to use the "imprecise" methods of philosophy.

It has been clear since the rejection of positivism that proofs based on induction (any scientific claim that involves observation (predictive claims that 'always x,' claims involving causality)) cannot have the SAME KIND of certainty that proofs of deductive logic can have. Because of this, the scientific method is given and honored but limited place in the field of philosophy.

spencer said...

This is an interesting question and I don't think it admits an easy explanation like "people in X field are stubborn or lazy". If academics could benefit from interdisciplinary study, they'd do it. But I think that the incentives of academia preclude this for two reasons which have already been mentioned as well as a third.

First, as Kelly mentioned, specialization is a powerful force. It takes a very long time to become acquainted with just one field. And when the tenure clock is ticking, it's just too time-consuming and risky to learn another field on top of that. You might produce something truly ground-breaking, but will probably run out of time and lose the opportunity to advance in your field.

Second, as Don mentioned, academics like to publish in journals in their own field. This is mostly because, for the purposes of the job market or tenure, you only get "credit" for papers published in own-field journals. Since time is limited, academics who want good jobs pursue only work in their own field. Related to this is that most conferences are field-specific and are not set up to handle much in the way of interdisciplinary work.

Third, there is a problem of who to talk to. Academics typically have a wide variety of people to bounce ideas off of and check math with: their department, friends from grad school, conference participants, etc. But interdisciplinary wanderers don't have these networks and so their ideas are likely to be not as well-formed as ideas within disciplines.

Okay, so these are some reasons why there's not much interdisciplinary work. And of course these incentives vary by field, so there will be different outcomes in different fields.

Another question is, would truly interdisciplinary work be productive in terms of advancing human knowledge? I am skeptical that this is the case for a few reasons. First of all, I think about fields divided not by their subject of study but by their methods of abstraction. Sociologists and economists think about many of the same things (how people organize themselves), but their methods of abstraction are radically different. They, in effect, have developed two entirely different languages for talking about the same phenomenon. (The constructivist point here is that the "thing" the two disciplines are talking about is entirely constructed by the language they use to talk about it. So there are, in reality, two different objects of study. I might agree with this, but I don't think it matters for my point.)

So broadly-defined interdisciplinary work can proceed in a number of ways. An economist can read some psychology and adopt results used by psychologists in her own work, taking the conclusion of the psychological work as a premise in economic work (i.e. "stealing"). Or, an economist can read some political science and decide that the subject of interest would be better studied with methods from economics (i.e. "imperialism"). But both of these involve interpreting something from another discipline in the language of one's own discipline. Truly interdisciplinary work would actually get the two languages to talk to each other somehow. But it is hard for me to think of examples where this happens.

Eremita said...

I think it's clear that inter-disciplinary dialogue WOULD be fruitful in terms of the advancement for human knowledge if there are any parts of knowledge that cannot be studied by a certain field. Let's say that there is an important part (1) of a particular topic that economists can study/explain/develop and a part (2) of this same topic that is better suited to exploration by political science.

Now if part (2) CAN be studied by economists but this study is clumsy, say because of the difficulty but not impossibility of applying economic language to the subject, then it is possible that overcoming the clumsiness is less problematic then attempting inter-disciplinary dialogue. Imagine, alternatively, that part (2) CANNOT be studied by economists and part (1) cannot be fruitfully studied by political scientists. In this case, inter-disciplinary dialogue is not just helpful, it is necessary for the advancement of human knowledge.

I think there are such cases, where the particular boundaries of different fields overlap in a kind of Ven Diagram.

An instance that comes to mind easily for me, for obvious reasons, is the issue of the superiority of the scientific method. Scientists can show us that the scientific method is EFFECTIVE, but can they show it is logically superior to other methods of gathering information? No, no experiment could be designed to show that experiments yield the best/only kind of knowledge. Only philosophy can answer this question. Another case discussed often in philosophy - has there been/is it possible to define "falsifiability?"

spencer said...

I am not sure I understand your example. Scientists don't study the scientific method--they use the scientific method to study other objects. Philosophy, in a sense, takes science as its object of study. Philosophy and science are not on equal footing here. So I don't think this is truly interdisciplinary.

I guess my claim is that interdisciplinary work is not possible because different disciplines use languages that are incommensurable. It always ends up taking the form of "poaching" (i.e. translating something from your language to mine) or "imperialism" (i.e. describing something in my language that you have also described in yours).

Two disciplines have different methods, different standards of evidence, different sets of "puzzles" that they find interesting, and ultimately, wildly different assumptions about the world. (I'm taking a Kuhnian view of normal science and expanding it to even non-scientific fields.) I'm not sure it even makes sense to think about what it would be like if two disciplines talked to each other.

Eremita said...

My example was supposed to show that the areas where interdisciplinary dialogue can be the MOST fruitful are areas where they are NOT on equal footing. So the point is that it is important for science to be able to back up the scientific method or to discuss falsifiability, but it is not (as) possible for scientists alone to approach these problems. Dialogue with philosophy, rather than attempts to make scientific language encompass these areas, is what will help to solve the problems.

I admit that Spence's discussion of different languages does seem to explain a lot of the frustrating failure to create fruitful dialogue. I don't think that explanation is relevant to the examples I was talking about, but it is relevant to a lot of examples. I am not sure I am as convinced as Spence that it isn't worth it to try to bridge the language gaps, but even if it isn't, it seems like there is still something to be said about cases where the language of one discipline is not capable of discussing a problem that is nevertheless of interest to that discipline.