Being empathetic for better interdisciplinarity


Source: taazatadka.comScientists appear to have mixed feelings when it comes to interdisciplinarity in science — the reaction spans from genuine enthusiasm right through to pure disdain.

I myself have crossed many research fields since my Masters project, but despite the support of my supervisors, I have already had to face some tough gatekeeping from science specialists in conferences and in front of other panels. Several times I was taken aback by some reactions, so I have started to become interested in the topic from a more analytical perspective. How are these fields’ boundaries defined in science?

Although each field’s specific methodology, jargon, and tendency to interpret results could represent communication barriers among them, this can be easily overcome by spending time learning the language of other groups, in the company of specialist collaborators, or by attending workshops.

But what about ideology — a philosophy of science inherent to a specific group of individuals? This is one of the things making us human. It definitely affects our society, and even if it is never assumed, it also affects the generation of scientific knowledge from its production to its transmission. Scientists have that connection to their field, its history, its identity, and its compromises.

For example, historians or philosophers use different ways of thinking than do physicists or biologists. The first group aims to clarify and analyse the reconstruction of past events, while the second group strives for conceptual understanding. While useful withina field, these specific ways of seeing science can generate roadblocks when two fields need to start a conversation.

I will tell you a story based on my own experience.

Shua Kisilevitz | Israel Antiquities Authority
Imagine that you are an archaeologist studying human migrations. Knees in the dirt, you just excavated a ceramic vase made thousands of years ago sporting some fingerprints. You are instantaneously connected with the history of the object, imagining the process of making it, what the person who made it looked like, and even the society that lived there.

While analysing the object, it is almost impossible to dehumanise the people who made it. Because every detail about it is important, you prefer pursuing a rigorous empirical analysis of the object by reading the relevant literature (sometimes driving more than two hours to a small library that had the book you are after!), rather than a larger-scale (hence, less-detailed) description that you consider too vague and too speculative for your data.

Now as an ecologist, you employ different tools, and thus, different approaches. You look at humans as part of the ecosystem in which they are embedded. After a lot of hard work amassing the relevant data, you feel excited to investigate how past human migrations actually occurred, and the potential factors that drove such-and-such a group of people to move to particular areas. You find this way more useful, and you reject what you consider as anthropocentrism. Small details are now irrelevant, because only the general trend matters to your research question. start the conversation between specialists. Both contrasting approaches are natural for each participant in the conversation, so it is difficult to figure out at least at first that a different viewpoint and methodology exist. As an ecologist reading a paper written by an archaeologist, you are overwhelmed by the huge amount of information that prevents you appreciating the big picture. Conversely, as an archaeologist, you face the lack of an historical or cultural context to the data, and the mathematical background required to pick apart most ecological analyses.

Interdisciplinarity first and foremost means having an open mind and to be able to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes, even if it challenges your own proscribed point of view. One obviously cannot become an expert in hundreds of topics, but it is possible at least to start speaking the same ‘language’ and overcome ideological impediments to understanding. This link came naturally to me, as I suppose it does for most people who venture into the murky waters of interdisciplinarity.

That said, it would be presumptuous of me to state that interdisciplinary is the answer to every question in science, mainly because we always have and will need specialist knowledge to build new approaches, test new hypotheses, and establish new paradigms. So, why is interdisciplinarity apparently so popular, and what are the consequences?

Some of the earliest scientists in history were required by necessity to practice interdisciplinarity, mainly because in most cases they had to start from scratch — it was typically their successors that established what we now call ‘fields’ of science. But as the wealth of human knowledge has expanded exponentially and shared among these fields, we now find ourselves needing to go back to the interdisciplinary drawing board to reach another level of knowledge.

While interdisciplinarity is now hugely important for innovation, it requires new conventions for the scientists to be on the same page. Grant applications boldly claiming to engage in interdisciplinarity are becoming more competitive because of the broader spectrum of topics that they tackle, even though being successful with funding such funding applications remains a challenge. Given the economic return on investment, universities and diverse scientific bodies tend to push toward more interdisciplinary research.

However, this trend of interdisciplinary being the ‘new big thing’ sometimes downplays the critical role of specialists for whom it is more difficult to reach broad audiences. The truth is that specialists create the scientific foundation of their own enduring fields on which true interdisciplinarity utterly depends.

XKCD.comThe flip side is that term ‘interdisciplinary’ tends to be overused, becoming just a box to be ticked to match expectations of ‘innovation’ and ‘novelty’ in funding applications and manuscript submissions. Simply borrowing a technique from another field, or collaborating among sub-fields does not technically qualify as true ‘interdisciplinarity’.

The bottom line is that true interdisciplinary researchers are also specialists, because I argue that it takes some specific skills to produce robust interdisciplinary science. In my experience, I have been immersed into two very different fields — archaeology and ecology/evolution (in terms of methods and ideologies) — that I have been able to merge to address a novel research question.

However, merging those two fields is not straightforward, it requires time and commitment — in my specific case, several months of internships, a double Masters degree, and leading and being part of different research projects. But rest assured, it pays off in the end. Nothing is impossible!

Fiona Laviano