Interdisciplinary work

Solipsism is so easy in research. We so easily become absorbed in our own thoughts that we leave humanity (and becomes the impersonation of the subject of our study :-() That’s why talking about research to any audience other than someone else in the field is so difficult… Recently, however, I had a discussion where Luke and I thrashed heartily, and Ria tried to come in, then left out of fear – in short, a discussion that was so tumultuous I want to put down some lessons learned.

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The setting was a lab seminar where I was supposed to “moderate” (but “inflame” would be more accurate). The topic was “complexity“. We began by vulturing around three questions:

1) What do we mean when we say something is “complex”?

2) What do we think other people mean when they say something is “complex”, for example in a journal article?

3) Can complexity be measured in a meaningful way?

Then we went on a smörgåsbord (“Scandinavian meal served buffet-style with multiple dishes of various foods on a table” – I never knew!) of Free Association that would have made Freud proud. The whiteboard I was using quickly became a research-oriented-stream-of-consciousness masterpiece (a new genre?). I won’t discuss the tangents here, but one direction we took really bothered me, and I’ll try to explain the tension.

You have to know that we’re an extremely diverse lab, I’m trained as a mathematical biologist who’s afflicted with a pathological case of physics envy. On the other hand, I’m talking to a group of archeologists and anthropologists, including Luke, who’s a geographer, but definitely more on the humanities side than the science side. Conclusion:

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Anyhow. The objection my most esteemed audience made is that it’s all a matter of scale and context, that one cannot measure complexity, or understand it, outside of the context it was in. That is, any measure of complexity is dependent on the external influences the system is undergoing, as well as the time and spatial scale of the measurement. Complexity is nothing without knowing these things.

It was only later that I learned that a humanities student is trained not to ignore “complexities” (irony!) of the situation. In fact, my reflexive scientific impulse to strip away every layer that could possibly be ignored, to arrive at the most perfectly naked model (only naked models make sexy theories) possible about the situation, is entire alien to them. Just as their approach – to read vociferously, to sit and talk with people, experience things, and inductively arrive at narratives about situations is completely alien to me.

As a scientist-in-training I was tempted to to tell them that this humanities enterprise is hopeless, confused, and reveals a heck of a lot more about the writer and her society than about the system under study.

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Except that I’ve spent a lot of time profitably studying Spencer (where all these ideas about complexity came from in the first place) and other humanities scholars,  so I really can’t in good faith call that entire method of knowledge worthless 😦 (I wanted to though, darn it I did).

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(See how he glances mockingly at me? I swear it’s not a delusion of reference. Merely the insecurity of a weak scientist when faced with a great mind).

But I wasn’t about to back off on my approach either – they can call me willfully blind, that I’ve inflicted my own blindness on myself, and I’d agree, but I’d reply that I blinded myself in order to gain a new sight (to see demons, obviously).

====> Metamorphosis - [ultimate]
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So my “moderation” hit into a crunching bone wall of different assumptions, and my esteemed audience seemed to pick up every trivial and inconsequential detail of every thought experiment I tested them with. Basically it was a severe case of “you’re #@$%^@&*(*&^ NOT seeing the point” from both sides.

Is agreement impossible? Is growth across that magnificent gulf something for idealistic undergrads to experience? Am I getting too old for this?

But we’re also scholars, so we’re stubborn by nature – that’s one thing the sciences and humanities have in common, at any rate. We bash and argued and roared at each other for over an hour. And guess what, as a group, we agreed on nothing at the end.

But my labmate of mine, Colin – an archeologist, whose work by nature gaps science and humanities – came and told me something this morning that struck me with a great deal of force.

I still believe the same sort of things I did before we had the seminar, in fact I believe it even more strongly now. Actually, now I know why I believe what I do.

And that is awesome. We can’t convince each other of our viewpoints, but we sure as heck can challenge the living hell out of each other (and we did). As long as we stay intelligent and don’t resort to ad hominem cheap shots, we can at least clarify exactly what the difference is. We can see exactly what the other person believes and why they think the way they do, even when we desperately disagree, and disagree all the more because we have understood the other camp fully. The challenges we set each other illuminates our own beliefs and forces us to give them rational content, rather than being a nebulous cloud of untested assumptions and emotions.

So that’s that. Still no agreed on measure of complexity. *Takes deep breath* 🙂

9 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary work

  1. Peter’s point about respect works two ways. We can’t just blindly ignore the worth of scientific principles. Like most things, I think the problem was largely caused by different understandings of what the point of the discussion was.

    Also, as I said this morning, most of us are doing social science, not humanities, and yet we still have to consider many contexts to get any kind of accurate knowledge. Understanding that, and us understanding what you do, is also part of respect. I don’t think your work is irrelevant to reality because your data comes from models. I used to. I hope you don’t think mine is not relevant or only reflects my own perspective because I don’t have an elegant theory to test. We all have our krakens.


  2. Well, as someone who was raised by scientists (okay, applied mathematicians, same difference) and taught from birth how to think like one, but has since drifted over to the social sciences (and perhaps even the humanities), I feel that the two (or more) perspectives are not so difficult to reconcile. The key is that you want to understand how the other person thinks: not necessarily adopt that way of thinking, just understand it. And I think once you become bicultural, it becomes obvious that certain situations call for one kind of thinking, and others for another.

    See, I agree with what Jessica was saying: Diversity is *important*–Maybe more important than anything. But the problem with diversity, real diversity, is that it requires a special kind of respect. It requires that when you encounter people who see the world in a fundamentally different way, you repress the urge to pull back or laugh or shake your head like an indulgent mother. And then it requires that you make the effort to understand where they’re coming from.

    Hmm. Looking back at what I just wrote, I guess it’s no surprise I ended up in Anthropology.

    But I think I “how do we acquire knowledge” talk is a great idea. We should do that sometime soon. I don’t believe that we’re too set in our ways, not just yet.


    1. It’s certainly not too late for you, Peter 🙂 but for us oldies? I feel like quoting Darth Vader… hahaha…

      I do, I think, understand the humanities side of thought. I spend a large amount of time reading (and occasionally even producing very poor bits of) philosophy, history, literature, anthropology, all of that. I have the highest respect for this sort of work done well. However when I’m doing science, and someone from the humanities cautions me that my problem is probably intractable using these methods, the frustration that rises from the pit of my stomach is like a giant kraken emerging from the sea. Massive, multi-armed, and hard-beaked.

      Of course, the whole point of the seminar is for others to tell me what they think about complexity, and people were quite honest in telling me that they think it depends on an enormous amount of context, except my entire job as a scientist is to remove, reduce, and equalize context, so the problem becomes tractable. So the question I’m interested in is not “what context must I consider”, but rather “what context can I safely ignore”, and when the group focuses on the first rather than the second (as a result of our trainings), I end up writing this blog post 🙂


  3. I think what Jen and Jess were trying to get at was that the targets scientists are trying to hit are not chosen objectively, but because of a long history of previous targets and various subjective, historically particularist reasons.

    As I said to Julian, these kinds of discussions do tend to lead to entrenchment of your prior ideas, rather than the learning of something new. I like to think that I’m open to switching if presented with convincing evidence, but I have noticed that in our diverse group even the type of evidence we each find convincing is dependent on our backgrounds.

    So how shall we all come together? Can we productively discuss how knowledge is created? Or are we too far gone already?


  4. This seminar clarified something for me as well. I’ve lately been rather concerned about my tendency to resort to history whenever I face a problem of theory. I worry that I am becoming a historian, not an archaeologist; however I never seem to be able to understand theoretical conflicts without heading back 200 years. So it was somewhat reassuring to realize that our conflicts on Monday had mostly to do with our backgrounds as researchers, not our various abilities to reason.

    The longer I look at different knowledge systems, the more I realize how important the contexts in which they were generated are. This is relevant to what Jessica was saying yesterday: Native TEK might never put a man on the moon, but nor is science or technology able to manage the ecology and environments of the subarctic without massive negative repercussions. I think that Jess is really on to something when she points out the necessity of variation in knowledge production, and this becomes interesting also because of what Julian showed about modelling evolution. Which means the sexy models and the inductive ‘humanities’ approach could be really interesting when combined.

    Here’s the thing, though. In order to combine them, we need to know where we come from, and where each other is coming from. Science can be arrogantly blind to the fact that it is a historically produced technique of knowledge-generation. Humanities can be lazy about understanding why scientists work the way they do, and dismiss their work as ‘oversimplified’ without understanding the process scientists go through and why.

    I had hoped that we could each come at the topics of these discussions from the perspectives of our own work in these discussion groups. But I think that might actually need a session entirely of its own on how each of us understands the creation of knowledge, hopefully followed by a session on how those can work together. I feel like as social scientists, and especially archaeologists working with a paucity of data, we have no choice but to use all the information we can; however many departments have split over conflicts like the one we had on Monday, and frankly it is easier to entrench in a position than think another one through. We’re obsessed with having a ‘clear theoretical position’ which is re-enforced by the peer-review system, where ‘clear’ often means one the reviewers agree with. In the end, each question needs its own theoretical position, and we need to work towards methods of combining these to generate something meaningful rather than allowing disciplines to continue fracturing in the name of clarity.

    Scientists should know that the questions they ask and the ways they answer them are almost as reflective of the researchers as the inductive humanities approach. Humanities researchers should know that whatever they find and write is oversimplified by their perspective almost as much as scientific theories and explanations. Those of us grubbing around in social sciences should stop looking for the universal explanation for all things human and start looking for a more effective methodology that allows us to discuss and compare that which we observe more effectively.

    And I should stop writing this blog and go and work on my third essay.


    1. Thanks enormously Jen, Luke, Andre 🙂

      Jen, although I agree with Jess’s view that diversity is necessary, I still have a great deal of trouble digesting the Cree elder TEK, because that line of thought actually forbids science as a valid way of knowing 😦 we need diversity, but some elements of that diversity are less friendly to the idea of diversity than others. While we might like diversity, it’s unclear if diversity is “stable”.

      There is no doubt science is reflective of the researcher, and there’s no doubt the humanities have produced knowledge as “valuable” as science has, however we measure these things. On the other hand, science is accumulative in a manner I don’t usually see humanities doing; that is, there are scientific theories that are better than others, while humanities theories are, I feel, merely different. Take the field of semiotics, for example. It’s unclear (at least to me) that modern semiotics is any better, more accurate in any sense, than Plato’s. It’s undoubtedly true that modern physics is a lot better than Aristotelian physics. I guess my intuition is that science is trying to hit a standing target, while humanities is trying to hit a moving one. In the former, there are objective standards of success, in the latter, there isn’t.

      Now, a lot of human questions necessarily concern moving targets, we care about beauty and wisdom and stuff like that even when they’re totally jittery targets. Actually, I feel like they are like the carrot hanging from a stick tied to a donkey’s head (Oh cruel carrot!). And we run and run nevertheless… but then again, I’m no philosopher of science, so everything I’m saying here is probably uber-naive.

      I think a session on how we think knowledge is created would be sweet. Should I come with flip-flops and oranges to throw at each other?


  5. The two approaches are far from mutually exclusive. The great scientists are usually great humanists as well. Even J Robert Oppenheimer. Go figure.


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