May 22, 2005

The Structure and Strangeness of Interdisciplinary Research

Aaron Clauseta physicist working on complex networks in a computer science department — has responded to my ramblings on the dispute between physicists and sociologists over networks with a very good post of his own, which goes beyond the immediate subject to considerations of interdisciplinary research generally. Like Aaron's writings in general, it's strongly recommended.

Aaron's post, especially towards the end, touches on the question of why we have disciplines in the first place. Various deflating answers are possible — for instance, some combination of medieval university tradition and primate territoriality. But I think they do, in fact, have a useful function in the advancement of knowledge. Researchers face what are, in principle, insanely difficult decision-problems: what topics do I investigate? what methods do I use? what background knowledge do I need to have? to whom do I communicate my results, and how? which other investigations are most relevant to my work? The existence of a discipline — in the sense of both a body of knowledge and a community of inquirers — reduces the scope of these problems; so does that of more specialized sub-disciplinary fields, and so on all the way down to research communities of, perhaps, a few hundred people world-wide. It is at this point that things are sufficiently manageable that ordinary mortals can hope to make some progress, together, on learning about the world. Disciplines and smaller fields are never completely isolated from one another, but the interfaces are restricted — anything else would be self-defeating. As science expands, both intellectually and socially, the decision problems get harder, and so the pressure to specialize rises.

(The existence of disciplinary specialization is not a logical requirement of scientific investigation. The blessed and immortal gods who, as the poets both ancient and modern affirm, dwell in the untroubled spaces between the worlds, free of suffering and occupied in contemplation, intellects vast, cool, and unsympathetic (this follows, etymologically anyway, from their lack of suffering) — the gods have no need of disciplines. Had we but worlds enough and time, our minds, like theirs, might "grow vaster than empires, and more slow". Instead, we are all-too mortal and all-too dumb. Disciplinary specialization is a response to this, which makes use of our capacities for communication and coordinated attention.)

It is for these reasons that successful interdisciplinary movements turn into disciplines in their own right — if people involved really are doing important and productive work together, they don't have the time or attention to keep up with their home disciplines, but they are keeping up with each other. The outstanding examples from the last century are molecular biology and cognitive science, but at finer levels of resolution you'll find many other examples. Also many failures, interdisciplinary movements which never matured into disciplines (e.g., cybernetics, general systems theory), though one can argue about how many of them deserved to fail, and how many were victims of time and chance.

It is not obvious to me that the field of complex systems is going to follow a trajectory more like that of cognitive science than of general systems theory, nor that it deserves to.

Manual trackback: Crooked Timber

Complexity; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Learned Folly

Posted at May 22, 2005 13:58 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth