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Interdisciplinary Journeys Moti Nissani
Background Information You can’t capture this complex topic in 40 minutes. You can access this power point presentation or the longer paper supporting it (which contains references) at my webpage: drnissani. net/ If you’d like to turn this monologue into a dialogue, or if you wish to receive a copy of this slide show or its companion paper, please send an e-mail to: moti. [email protected] edu
Acknowledgments • SLAAS • Dr. & Mrs. Ranil Guneratne for a very warm welcome to Colombo. • Your president, Dr. Manjula Vidanapathirana, for many kindnesses and especially for stimulating discussions. At one point she wrote: “I just can't believe that I found a colleague who can create such an intellectual turbulence. ” – So put on your life vests and let’s begin our turbulent journey.
Main Take Away Moral of this Keynote Address Spend only a few hours understanding what Interdisciplinarity is—and then a lifetime practicing it.
Outline of Talk I. Why I have practiced interdisciplinarity all my life and how I began to ask questions about interdisciplinarity itself. II. Interdisciplinary Theory: – What is Interdisciplinarity? – Where do you find it? – How do you rank interdisciplinary endeavors?
Outline of Talk (cont. ) III: Advantages of Interdisciplinarity or: Why we should all become even more interdisciplinarian than we are already.
My personal journey The drive towards interdisciplinarity seems to be ingrained in a few people, even in a culture and environment that do everything to suppress holistic thinking. Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Bertrand Russell, come to mind, and there are many others. Isaac Asimov captures the strivings of such people:
“I found myself doing research on a biochemical topic. In that area of study I obtained my Ph. D. , and in no time at all I was teaching biochemistry at a medical school. But even that was too wide a subject. . To do research, I had to find myself a niche within biochemistry, so I began work on nucleic acids. . And at about that point, I rebelled!. . . I looked with horror, backward and forward across the years, at a horizon that was narrowing down and narrowing down to so petty a portion of the orchard. What I wanted was all the orchard, or as much of it as I could cover in a lifetime of running. . I have never been sorry for my stubborn advance toward generalization. To be sure, I can't wander in detail through all the orchard. . . But I can float over the orchard as in a balloon. ”
Asimov captures perfectly my sentiments and experiences as well. Like him, looking back, I’d certainly do it again, for reasons that will become clear shortly.
My Personal Journey towards Interdisciplinary Theory I’ve practiced interdisciplinarity all my life, without giving much thought to the subject of interdisciplinarity itself. I only became an interdisciplinary theorist because I was asked to give my department’s new flagship course in interdisciplinarity. The second part of my talk will capture the insights I gained from that experience.
Interdisciplinary Theory What is a discipline? A discipline can be conveniently defined as any comparatively self-contained and isolated domain of human experience which possesses its own community of experts, e. g. , music, physics. With time, such broad disciplines may be subdivided, e. g. , classical music, nuclear physics.
Definition of Interdisciplinarity is best seen as bringing together distinctive components of two or more disciplines.
Realms of IS In academic discourse, interdisciplinarity typically applies to four realms: 1. Knowledge 2. Cultural innovations (e. g. , scientific research, writing novels) 3. Education 4. Theory
Realm 1: Knowledge • Interdisciplinary knowledge involves familiarity with components of two or more disciplines. In that sense, you are an interdisciplinarian if you know that 2+2=4 (math) and that water is H 2 O (chemistry). • So: We are all interdisciplinarians.
Realm 2: Innovation Combine components of two or more disciplines in the search or creation of new knowledge, operations, or artistic expressions In creating the following, the artist combined Buddhist traditions (religion), aesthetic sensibilities, and craftsmanship:
Realm 3: IS Education Interdisciplinary education merges components of two or more disciplines in a single program of instruction; for instance, I once taught a course on science and religion.
Realm 4: Interdisciplinarity Theory This is what we are doing right now: Trying to understand the nature of interdisciplinarity itself.
How do you Rank the Richness of Interdisciplinary Undertakings? Although we are all interdisciplinarians, we need criteria to distinguish between, e. g. , : • An 8 -year-old who knows that Sri Lanka is an island (geography) and that water is a compound (chemistry), and • An Albert Einstein who made major contributions to both physics and politics.
Ranking (cont. ) The interdisciplinary richness of any two instances of knowledge, innovation, or education can be ranked by weighing four variables: • Number of disciplines involved • Distance among them • Novelty of any particular combination • Extent of integration
Ranking (cont. ) You can either eat mangos, or bananas, or papayas singly. Or you can eat 2 at the same time, or 3. You can add a tomato to the mixture (more distant). You can chop all 4 into a fruit salad, or you can blend them into a smoothie (a kind of a lassi). The same idea can be used to rank interdisciplinary undertakings.
Advantages of Interdisciplinarity There are many reasons why you should move in an interdisciplinary direction in your studies, research, and teaching—and there is, as well, a price to pay for taking this road. Here I’d just like to highlight a few reasons for moving in that direction yourself, or, at the very least, becoming part of a multidisciplinary team.
Advantage 1: Creativity often Requires Interdisciplinary Knowledge Example: Gregor Mendel relied on his knowledge of statistics to explain his path-breaking results with the garden pea. Mendel’s Garden Plot
Advantage 2. Immigrants often make Important Contributions to their New Field Example: In the 1950 s-1970 s molecular biology had been transformed by mass migration of physicists. Like so many of his generation, the brilliant geneticist Seymour Benzer had a Ph. D. in—physics.
Advantage 3. Disciplinarians often Commit Errors which can be Best Detected by People well-versed in two or more Disciplines For instance, the Hardy-Weinberg Law in genetics owes its origins, in part, to a mathematician, Hardy, noticing a mathematical error in a paper by a renowned but mathematically-naïve biologist, sent a correction to Nature.
Advantage 4. Interdisciplinarity Reminds us of the Unity-of-Knowledge Ideal There is something incongruous in a person resigning herself to knowing one thing very well and giving up on her efforts to understand reality as a whole.
Advantage 4 (cont. ) Ortega y Gassett says of the modern specialist that “he is a learned ignoramus. . . but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line. ”
Advantage 4 (cont. ) The reverse of this is the true practitioners of interdisciplinarity, including many of the most interesting minds of the previous century -- Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Karl Popper. Such people share one characteristic: They try to see the whole orchard, not just one leaf of one tree.
Advantage 5. Many Intellectual, Social, and Practical Problems Require Interdisciplinary Approaches One example: climate change can only be fully understood holistically: Climatology, oceanography, chemistry, forestry, ecology, to name just a few disciplines. Here are two more disciplines that most “petulant” specialists ignore.
Advantage 5 (cont. ) Engineering. We can make cars that are at least 4 times as efficient as contemporary cars, thereby saving our money, health, and future. Politics, e. g. , All countries of the world ban a 4 X improvement in petrol efficiencies because they are all ruled, behind the scenes, by bankers and oilmen. What will happen to the bottom line of British Petroleum if you could drive six times back and forth from Colombo to Kandy without once filling your petrol tank?
Advantage 5 (cont. ) Interdisciplinarity, and such holistic views, have personal implications too, e. g. , • Should you buy real estate in Colombo? According to one source, “It would actually take a sea level rise of 8 m for coastal Sri Lanka to be literally uderwater, but a projected range of 0. 2 – 0. 6 m would still wreak havoc. ”
Another personal implication. • We educate younger people, have our own children, because we believe humanity has a future. But it’s conceivable that our collision with the natural world portends the extinction of humanity. Have you reconciled yourself to this likely ultimate catastrophe?
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut: “And I remembered the Fourteenth Book. . . entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the History of the Past Million Years? ”. . The Fourteenth Book. . . consists of one word and a period. This is it: “Nothing. ”
Issac Cordal’s Sculpture (located in Berlin): Politicians Discussing Global Warming
Advantage 6: An Interdisciplinary Study of Complex Problems can Turn our Belief System Upside Down
Subversive Example 1: Real Democracy Are Sri Lanka, UK, or India democracies? No, they are oligarchies. If you study history, political science, the Greek language, and cultural anthropology, you will find that democracy means people power, a system where there are no professional politicians or judges. It’s the best system—but exists nowhere. (That is the topic of my next presentation).
Jimmy Carter: The U. S. is an “Oligarchy With Unlimited Political Bribery. ” "An Election is no more than a gratuitous Punch and Judy Show, offered by the Rulers to distract the attention of the Ruled. "--Aldous Huxley, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939), p. 195.
Subversive Example 2: Our View of the World Most people rely on the media for their worldview. They watch CNN, or Fox, or Bollywood, or Sirasa TV, never realizing that these outlets are not concerned with truth or art but with advancing the interests of a few trillionaires.
Example 2 (cont. ) In 1917, US Congressman Oscar Callaway explained how a few oligarchs colonized our minds: In March, 1915, the J. P. Morgan interests, the steel, shipbuilding, and powder interests. . . got together 12 men high up in the newspaper world and employed them to select the most influential newspapers in the United States and sufficient number of them to control, generally, the policy of the daily press. .
Subversive Example 3: Experts Interdisciplinarity upends our ingrained reverence for most experts. Here is philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Party interests are vehemently agitating the pens of so many pure lovers of wisdom. . Truth is certainly the last thing they have in mind. . Governments make of philosophy a means of serving their state interests, and scholars make of it a trade. ”
Subversive Example 4: Our view of ourselves Psychology, history, art, literature, show that we are not as kind or rational as we think we are. For instance, we obey malevolent authority when we shouldn’t, and we cling to our convictions even when there is overwhelming evidence against them. We can achieve the Buddhist ideal of compassion and rationality—but only through a constant, conscious, struggle.
Example 4 (cont. ): A painting of the Nanjing Massacre
Subversive Example 5: Climate Disruptions Revisited This crucial subject is surrounded by propaganda and disciplinary misconceptions. Let me point to just two: 1. It is a mistake to say that disruption would surely happen or surely won’t happen. The biosphere is too complex. We can probably say that there is something like a 95% chance of severe consequences—which is more than sufficient to require urgent actions.
Climate Disruptions (cont. ) Another disciplinary smokescreen says that a solution would involve enormous sacrifices. By early 1990, the U. S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that the USA could: • Minimize the greenhouse threat through conservation. • Save Americans alone between $56 and $200 billion ($trillions if the entire world followed) • Vastly improve the health and quality of life of every human being on the planet.
A Dilemma: • The future, health, wealth of humanity on one hand. • The wealth and power of a handful of bankers and oilmen on the other hand. They are waging war against us, and they are winning. • This could only happen in a world where specialization is king.
Subversive Example 6: The “War” on Drugs History shows that the biggest purveyors of drugs in the world have been the UK/US governments: • “The Chinese. . . will never forget their century of humiliation, 1840 -1949, when the UK and the US enslaved the Chinese people with opium. . As a result. . . by 1949, China was basically a 19 th century hellhole, with 100 million opium addicts, people on average died at age 35. ”
Political Science: According to a former high-level official in the Nixon Administration, the War on Drugs had two goals: “The Nixon. . . White House. . . had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. . . We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. ”
Law: The “war” on drugs is clearly a failure. The more you fight, the more drug addicts, corpses, and organized crime you have: See: Packer, Limits to the Criminal Sanction
Who’s Behind the “War” on Drugs?
Philosophy: J. S. Mill “There is a circle around every individual human being which no government, be it that of one, of a few, or of the many, ought to be permitted to overstep. ”
Conclusions 1. Interdisciplinary theory (talking about interdisciplinarity itself) is of limited interest and only deserves a cursory look aimed at understanding its basic principles. It emphatically does not merit a lifelong—nor even a semesterlong—study.
2. By contrast, interdisciplinary practice—the long search for a holistic perspective in classrooms, laboratories, concert halls, art studios, and our very brains—merits our lifelong dedication. If you choose to embark on this holistic journey, you’ll gain a far better understanding of our world. You will be able to cross-fertilize your thinking, teaching, and creative undertakings. You will improve your understanding of complex problems. And you will find it easier to think for yourself and to let go of popular illusions. I invite you to join us.
The road to holistic knowledge is like the pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak: Laboriously climbing thousands of steps in partial darkness. And yet the experience itself—and the view from the top—more than justify the effort.