specialism

Why don’t mad scientists run the world? After watching Neil Patrick Harris and reading Austin Grossman, you may be wondering the exact same thing. Scientists discover the secrets of nature, they are the explorers of ideas and the guardians of knowledge. Surely, they could have withheld the atomic bomb from the rest of mankind, or terrorized the governments of the world into submission with giant robots. Why didn’t Fermi and Einstein and Bohr form a secret cabal and hold the globe for ransom? That would have solved the problem of applying for government grants every few years to fund their grad student and publishing addiction.

But sadly, scientists are relegated to the sidelines, like Szilard wringing his hands and fretting right before the end of World War II, and Oppenheimer’s belated remorse. Or their efforts are frustrated by their backward times. In Scott Berkun’s excellent book, The Myths of Innovation, he gives many historical examples of scientists trying to end violent conflict through inventions which ironically led to increasingly destructive war machines. The Wright Brothers originally pitched the airplane to world governments as the final instrument of world peace: with enough long-range reconnaissance, democratic governments would supposedly be able to detect and neutralize any enemy movements well in advance. However, both the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings and 9/11 were due to aviation. To fix up the Wright Brothers’ mistake, Tesla dreamed up a peace beam that would shoot down enemy planes from afar, which of course no nation could possibly use as aggressors (face firmly planted in palm, Nikola…) You could argue that the Wright Brothers and Tesla were not really scientists, but in their inability to predict human nature, I grant them honorary status.

The well-known pacifism of academics definitely plays a role in the dearth of mad scientist supervillains currently at large. But I like to consider another long-term trend. This trend has become so ingrained in the pursuit of modern knowledge that it seems inseparable from science: specialism. Specialism is the idea that in order to make progress in any enterprise, one must concentrate on smaller and more sharply-defined categories of ideas and phenomena, ignoring and abstracting away other details as distracting and irrelevant. This is the idea behind division of labor, and the reason why we have a dizzying array of departments in most universities, scattered across disciplines and speaking incompatible jargon, as if punished for building the Tower of Babel (which I imagine looked a lot like a silo). Departments of Medicinal Chemistry which are separate from Pharmacy which is not the same as Pharmacology which is different still from Genome Science which is yet distinct from Molecular Biology. Or closer to my actual home, Human Centered Design & Engineering ≠ Information School ≠ Human-Computer Interaction.

The rhetoric of science claims only to follow the Scientific Method, which Francis Bacon brought down to us from heaven engraved on stone tablets. There is no mention of how or whether to divide up fields, this is a detail of management and human resources that has emerged as a consequence of our flawed implementation. But just as surely as the U.S. Constitution implies a two-party duopoly, science begets specialism.

Now don’t get me wrong, specialism has given us a lot of great things, but all of history is a paean to specialism. What about the limits of specialism? Limit the first, Not My Jurisdiction. (This is related to the phenomenon of Not Invented Here). Let us say that these slices of delicious citrus fruits represent our current domains of knowledge, our university departments, our “division of research labor,” such that machine learning experts do not have to worry about psychiatrists, who in turn do not have to trouble themselves with sociologists. This is all well and good if you are nestled safely, deep in the pithy heart of your field. If your problem is unquestionably about electrons or plants or human group behaviors, if you faithfully obey your Kuhnian paradigm, no harm can befall you.

What if you want to study an interesting problem that happens to lie in the white space in between the fruits? You might want to solve machine intelligence problems based on self-modifying human psychology or social interaction. Or you might be interested in how communities of science behave under forces of both collaboration and competition. These problems don’t fit neatly underneath the hardened, protective rinds of our departments, which protect us from intrusions by heathen areas of study. You will have to endure extra paperwork, or form your own laboratory for media, or resist the scorn and derision of well-established fields who compete for limited funding and publication space like corporations compete for capital and market share. It is nothing personal, weird interdisciplinary problems, we just have to look after our own. Especially in this recession.

But given the space of all possible problems, the amount of this interdisciplinary whitespace represents a significant long tail of worthwhile science. Inaccessible and fragmented, these “in-between” fields and the researchers interested in such pan-fruit collaboration might look to the example of e-commerce. In the same way Netflix and Amazon created new markets for distributed, niche tastes in products and entertainment, there are new hybrid fields like bioinformatics (computational biology), biophysics (physical biology?), and other fields formed by combining biology with some other existing field (biological weapons are the atomic weapons of the 21st century). But unlike rentals of obscure DVD cult classics and mountain-climbing books by Jon Krakauer, there is no easy way to automatically break down the barriers between academic departments. You cannot simply say “this problem is interesting” and judge it on its own merits. You must justify how relevant this problem is to this or that established field, or you must go it alone and start a new conference or publication.

Some of these interdisciplinary problems might be:

  • What is the best way to divert funds from a Swiss bank or Cayman Islands tax shelter in order to fund my research?
  • Should I conceal my lab in the crater of an active volcano, against the prying eyes of Google Maps?
  • Can ransom threat futures be securitized and traded on a public market?
  • How can I save on long-distance calls when delivering ultimatums to world leaders?

These problems cannot be conveniently labelled, except as mad. Kids interested in science have been defanged and sequestered such that tomorrow’s young Feynman and little von Neumann would never entertain a career in global domination. They are too busy justifying their Defense Department contracts to see the connection between currency manipulation and electronics manufacturing, and whether they can get in on that action. Or stop it. But if not mad scientists, then who? To be continued…

(As a tangent, note the resemblance of the citrus fruit slices above to Hamming balls covering the word space of error-correcting codes. The center of a ball represents a valid code word, and the error correcting code can uniquely decode errors which are within a certain radius of each code word. But what about errors which lie in the white space between Hamming balls? It turns out that by relaxing the constraint of a unique solution, we come up with list-decoding, which returns a list of probable code words for such an ambiguous error.)

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~ by Paul Pham on 29 March 2010.

2 Responses to “specialism”

  1. Very interesting insights. I am looking forward to the followup post. My favorite comment was about the Tower of Babel.

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