Notes on Effective Interdisciplinary Work
Doing interdisciplinary work presents challenges that are not necessarily transparent. As Professor Steven Benner points out, scientific disciplines carry their own unique cultures, theoretical frameworks, and languages; it is not always easy to express one specialization’s findings effectively in the terms of another scientific field.
If we keep some cautionary notes in mind, we can increase the likelihood of effective communication between disciplines and avoid misrepresentations and misinterpretations of specialized information. By being careful with our language, noticing our biases, and questioning our assumptions as we unpack specialized ideas we can avoid some potential pitfalls of interdisciplinary work.
Interdisciplinary studies use specialized language from different fields, and in many cases specialized fields attach their own connotations to terms. We should recognize that because of this, misunderstandings arise easily. What a biologist attaches to the term “life” might be quite different than what, for example, a philosopher does. For this reason, we need to be careful with our language. Specialized terms should be clearly defined and understood by all parties.
We need also to be careful with what we pack into our language, so that we do not say more than what we mean to. A biologist, when speaking of functions, might be heard by a philosopher as an advocate of some specific (and maybe objectionable) theoretical framework– one that the biologist might never actively endorse. This problem arises from cultural differences between fields; differences in training, literature, histories, etc. The problem is well avoided when interdisciplinary researchers are familiar with the practices and norms of many fields, or when there is effective dialogue between interdisciplinary workers, with carefully chosen words and well explicated ideas.
We can elucidate the point by expanding our example of the biologist and philosopher discussing function. Suppose the biologist, when asked to explain why a plant grows towards sunlight, says “so that it can convert the sunlight into energy.” Our philosopher might take her colleague to mean that the plant is acting with agency, actively seeking the sunlight because of some beliefs about its need to undergo photosynthesis. Our biologist, a rather sensible fellow who leaves his beliefs about plant consciousness at home, did not mean to imply that the plant in question possessed anything resembling agency. He simply believes that there is some causal relationship between the plant’s photosynthetic survival strategy, the location of the sunlight, and the growth pattern currently under investigation. The philosopher with whom he speaks, however, has been groomed in such a way as to treat claims that appeal to purposes as indicative of agency. Her discipline’s culture informs her interpretation of the biologist’s explanation, and the biologist has unwittingly expressed an idea that he would not claim to hold. The problematic situation might be resolved by dialogue if the philosopher asks the biologist whether he means to ascribe the plant agency. It might have been avoided altogether if the biologist had happened to know about the philosopher’s teleological hang-ups, and taken care to avoid passively loading his claim with what might be misinterpreted as mentalistic and vitalistic notions.
Specialization can often come with biases. As we are trained in our disciplines, we develop affinities for certain ways of thinking. Biases can also come from our personal beliefs (a scientist’s pet theories may turn up in his/ her work fairly regularly) and from such influential factors as the interests of our benefactors, peers, supervisors, etc. We may or may not be aware of our biases, but should admit that they dilute the objectivity of our intellectual endeavors, and that when specialists export their findings during interdisciplinary work, so too might they export their biases. Because of this, the objectivity and perspective of interdisciplinary work can be limited. This presents two kinds of problems: a problem of principle and problem of effectiveness.
The problem of principle arises with the subjectivity inherent to bias. When making claims about subjects like the origin and complexity of life, we want to be objective and unbiased. The problem of effectiveness comes with the limits placed on our perspectives by our biases, when we wear the blinders of our backgrounds and training. The biologist who has been trained to endorse the “RNA world” theory of the origins of life might not place much weight on the criticisms of the model presented by the chemist who argues for the unlikelihood of RNA arising from pre-biotic conditions. The criticism comes from outside of the biologist’s arena, goes against his long held beliefs, and hinges on language and observations that are not as convincing to the biologist as they are to the chemist.
While it is unlikely that we will be able to remove all biases from our interdisciplinary projects, we begin to address the problem of biases just by recognizing it. By being aware of our biases and the idea that they might limit our effectiveness, we are better prepared to broaden our perspectives, and wean ourselves from the norms of our cultures, the interests of those providing our grants, and the tenants of our favorite theories.
When making claims about subjects such as the origin of life, whether with interdisciplinary or specialized arguments, we often rely on assumptions. These assumptions are unjustified. This is not to say that they are necessarily untrue, it is simply to point out that we do not make arguments for them– we assume their truth without asking for evidence of it, and move forward.
If we make untrue assumptions, it is possible that we end up with untrue conclusions– even in cases when our arguments are valid. Take the following argument for example:
If John has legs, then John is alive.
John has legs.
Therefore, John is alive.
The argument about John and his legs is valid- if its premises are true, then its conclusion must be as well. But consider the sentence “If John has legs, then John is alive.” It is an assumption– we do not have an argument to support it. And, as it turns out, it is not true. Consider the case where John is a mannequin, or the case when he is recently deceased. He could very well have legs without being alive. Our conclusion, then, might be false.
The lesson to be learned from this is that we should be careful of what we assume to be true. This may seem elementary, but is worth mentioning when making cautionary notes about interdisciplinary work. When we borrow ideas from fields we are not familiar with, we are often asked to take things on faith– to assume the truth of some claims. By approaching interdisciplinary work with a critical eye and questioning assumptions, we might avoid ending up with bogus conclusions.