Overweening Generalist

Friday, May 27, 2011

On Scientific Specialization, and How It's Like Cholesterol, With Rant Sandwiched

When I started this blog, in a whimsical mood three or so weeks ago, my first blatherings riffed off of Robert A. Heinlein's oft-repeated line, "Specialization is for insects," which my staff and I (total: 1 person) tracked back to Heinlein's novel Time Enough For Love. For Generalists, it's a line that functions as a rhetorical battle cry, and, while it seems pretty damned argumentative, it's also pithy, eh? Yea, verily, it's got great pith, and has survived in the memetic fitness struggles, with its seeming hermetic dynamics, and I'll leave it at that.

The plea for less specialization has been made countless times (or rather, in my limited scope, I have lost count) in the 20th century and on into the 21st. Two of my favorite Generalists, Robert Anton Wilson and Buckminster Fuller, were talking (RAW interviewing Fuller):

"The problem with Fuller's talk, as well as his books, is that he has always been a comprehensivist. 'If nature wanted us to be specialists,' he likes to say, 'we'd be born with one eye and a jeweler's lens attached.' He refuses to discuss any one subject without relating it to other subjects. When asked in an interview in 1980 if he had one most important idea, he snapped, 'Absolutely not. There is no 'one most important thing,' since every system in Universe is plural and at minimum six. No, I have never found one most important thing. I deal in Universe always and only.'" - from pp.109-110 of Robert Anton Wilson's Right Where You Are Sitting Now

Maybe the main "problem" with thinkers like this is: you need to put in a big initial effort to grock their comprehensivist, unified field ideas. It takes "time," that seemingly increasingly tricky taskmaster.
A Quick Rant Sandwich With a Side of Aside?

My circumambient peripheralizations and non-definitions of just what I mean by "Generalist" will be fleshed out more explicitly over time (wot?); however, I would think a reader's gestalting faculty would have given them a sufficient purchase over three weeks of my blogposts, dancing around the idea. Or: if half of all the Humanities students who graduate in 2011 end up with jobs that don't require a degree at all, why do we even teach that stuff any more? Oh, because in a democracy we want well-rounded people, blah, blah, blah? Hey, that sounds great, but what about the $75,000 in student loans they have to pay off? (And the Dubya admin put an end to filing for bankruptcy regarding student loans...)

I smell a Racket. A lot like the Housing Bubble. Not good. The previous paragraph seems overweening (it was), a big non-sequitur (think again), and now I revert to the generalistic:

I recall my college days, talking with fellow students about courses we'd taken, and often hearing something like this formulation: "I've already had Astronomy and American History till 1876; I still need it up to 1976. Have you had Humanities yet?"

As if these fields are innoculations. Have you had your booster of Statistics? (Good. Then you'll never need it again! You're safe!?) Best to take Plato to Spinoza now, so you can stop worrying about getting that in the future. (What about medical students who take a class in Immunology? What if the professor's humor is infectious? Now I'm being flippant.)

To quote 50% of Simon and Garfunkel, "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school...," it was tacitly implied that Shakespeare had nothing at all to do with Current Events (the class was actually called that); 20th Century History had nothing to do with what you'd be studying 15 minutes later: Biology. Und so weiter...

It was only when I took some time off from school that I learned all that was bullshit; there were no Iron Curtains between anything I studied, and all it took was a little bit of imagination to see how everything impinged upon everything else, seemingly disparate "areas" of thought suddenly were seen as suffusing another branch (grafting?) of knowledge, and it was too easy to mix metaphors because of all of this.

I will say: this feeling one gets when one suddenly sees how the boundaries are artificial, for whatever socially constructed and bureaucratic reasons? For me, it was dizzying-unto-vertigo. And then: fantastic and liberating-unto-euphoria. I realize now that this feeling is not as common as I would have thought. Anyway, I've been stuck "there" ever since...
Did I mention cholesterol? Okay, I'll get on with it:

Not long ago I enjoyed a short essay by a climatologist named Gavin Schmidt called "Why Hasn't Specialization Led To The Balkanization of Science?," as collected in What's Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science, edited by Mr. Third Culture John Brockman's son Max. 

Schmidt says that, like cholesterol, specialization in the hard sciences has a good version and a bad one, and in a minute I'll go over his notion of studies that are "centrifugal" and ones that are "centripetal." But first let me say that Schmidt writes engagingly and gives excellent specific examples in his short essay, based on his area of expertise, climate science, which anyone could imagine, involves quite of lot of knowledge of General Systems as they pertain to the dynamics, chemistry, and composition of the atmosphere, the land, the oceans, and ice fields...and how they all interact.

Now, just within this broad discipline, there are specialists who study sea level changes from satellite data. Others spend years studying El Nino effects in the Pacific and its variability. Ice-core samples taken from sophisticated deep drilling in Antarctica, measuring gases trapped 800,000 years ago? That's another sub-speciality. Others take massive data sets and build models to gain a firmer grasp of various situations.

Schmidt begins his essay by quoting John Ziman: "Scientists are those who know more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing." Catchy, and maybe at one time (circa 1900-1950?), sorta "true," but not now. And why? Why hasn't science kept specializing until most scientists can't understand what any other scientist is talking about?

First off, reductionism has worked marvelously well in the history or science, but there will be periods of diminishing returns, and the way out of the problem is interdisciplinary studies. As for centrifugal and centripetal?

Centrifugal forces in science, Schmidt says, drive increasing divergence, deeper knowledge about narrower and narrower phenomena. Centripetal forces counter the trends of the centrifugal studies. It's easy to see why centrifugal studies are needed, but Schmidt says they can go on too long for reasons that are "institutional, avoidable, and to be deplored."

(When I read this essay I couldn't help but think that Kuhn's period of "normal science" involved a lot of centrifugal-like endeavors.)

The exponential growth of scientific data and specialist publications with their occult-like impenetrable jargon (available only to a select few initiates) creates isolated sub-fields and sub-sub-sub disciplines, and a sad resultant is that no one can stay "on top"of all of "the latest" in the general fields. So what do specialists do to avert a Platonic Cave vision imposed by their specialist everyday realities?

Answer: popularizations, ambassadors and publication in the specialist literature. Edward N. Lorenz wrote some of the seminal papers in Chaos Theory, but more scientists know about it via James Gleick's book. O! The value of a good popularizer of science who really understand the stuff and can write for a large, intelligent lay audience! (Gleick's masterful, difficult-to-put-down work on chaos theory Amazon link is here. It's a thrilling read, and highly recommended for most Generalists. Take it to the bank!)

The Ambassadors are specialists who like to talk with scientists in other fields; they tend to bring about more collaborations. They would be a species of "Connector" in the Malcolm Gladwell sense of the term.

Specialist publications are usually impenetrable, not only to the lay public but to scientists outside of that discipline. But every now and then some specialist article is so interesting because it's about something "really big," like the Alvarez's 1978 finding about the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous. Another type of specialist paper that arrests Balkanization is something that appears with data that could potentially impact a variety of subdisciplines, like "the possible human role in the extinction of large mammals at the end of the last ice age."

The third and most important specialist article that moves this Centrifugal-Centripetal Dialectic forward is the kind of robust, meta-analysis study of new large-scale models. These are works of intricate synthesis and encourage new cross-disciplinary research.

Schmidt's fascinating article ends with this:

"Fundamentally, the drivers of interdisciplinary science lie in our desire to explain what we see and in recognizing that the answers we seek are not tied to individual scientific disciplines or specific tools or methodologies. Those are human constructs, and they are simply no match for the forces of nature."

And I will sum up thus: bureaucratic excessive specialization = "bad" LDL cholesterol; synthetic centripetal, productive interdisciplinary work = HDL or "good" cholesterol. Errr..something like that.

At any rate, as of this date: Balkanization in science: staved off!
This has been a stab at an article about specialization within the physical sciences for a reader who's interested in being a Generalist, if not an overweening one. We must say, when we look at the role of specialization in the physical sciences, that, if indeed specialization is for insects, we appreciate the insect-work! A colony of digger-ants and their Hive Mind architecture and division of labor is truly a marvelous thing to behold. And insects don't do synthesizing, centripetal work. (That we know of?) We appreciate (almost) ALL ways of employing the grey matter. Hat's off to the not-insect and quite-human specialists (and synthesists) in the physical sciences! Huzzah!

I hope my attempt to enlighten about a species of non-Generalist didn't bore you to tears, and thanks for reading! I see my prolixity got the better of me and will try to write more pithily subsequently, but hey, blog posts are cheap.


ARW23 said...

"Balkanization of science"? (I did not read the book.) How do you translate the word "balkanization" here?

michael said...

After WWI (1918) the old Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires were divided up into new nation-states; there Gavin Schmidt was talking about sciences and how they didn't end up Us versus Them, they are totally different than us. The Bosnians/Serbs/Croats fighting: largely a result of Balkanization.

Schmidt was using the term in a metaphorical sense.

Eric Wagner said...

God, I loved Heinlein from the ages of 14 to 20 (when I discovered Bob Wilson). I continued to love Heinlein, and he continued to have a huge influence on me, but the influence has waned.

I fear I have let my attention and energy spread to too many areas over the decades. If I had focused more, I might have had more success.

Bob Wilson seems a tremendous example of what you call an Ambassador.

It might prove interesting if I asked you to direct my reading for two years, and I might write a book about it. Perhaps I will ask you in a few years. Please stay healthy.