July 13, 2005

I been there before

After the adventure is over, Huck Finn tell us that

... I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.

One of the things that I like best about the Enlightenment is the sense of intellectual exploration without strong disciplinary boundaries. Although 18th- and 19th-educational and social structures were harsher and more rigid than ours, individual thinkers found it relatively easy to light out for the intellectual territories, whose forests and prairies of thought were not yet divided and subdivided into the townships and neighborhoods of today's academic disciplines.

This work was not so much interdisciplinary as antedisciplinary, and in the inaugural issue of PLoS Computational Biology, Sean Eddy argues that ante- is still better than inter-.

He starts by quoting an NIH Roadmap on the need for interdisciplinary science:

"The scale and complexity of today's biomedical research problems demand that scientists move beyond the confines of their individual disciplines and explore new organizational models for team science. Advances in molecular imaging, for example, require collaborations among diverse groups — radiologists, cell biologists, physicists, and computer programmers."

and comments that

Reading this made me a little depressed. For starters, the phrase “organizational models for team science” makes me imagine a factory floor of scientists toiling away on their next 100-author paper under the watchful gaze of their National Institutes of Health program officers, like some scene from Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil. It's also depressing to read that the National Institutes of Health thinks that science has become too hard for individual humans to cope with, and that it will take the hive mind of an interdisciplinary “research team of the future” to make progress. But what's most depressing comes from purely selfish reasons: if groundbreaking science really requires assembling teams of people with proper credentials from different disciplines, then I have made some very bad career moves.

I've been a computational biologist for about 15 years now. We're still not quite sure what “computational biology” means, but we seem to agree that it's an interdisciplinary field, requiring skills in computer science, molecular biology, statistics, mathematics, and more. I'm not qualified in any of these fields. I'm certainly not a card-carrying software developer, computer scientist, or mathematician, though I spend most of my time writing software, developing algorithms, and deriving equations. I do have formal training in molecular biology, but that was 15 years ago, and I'm sure my union card has expired. For one thing, they all seem to be using these clever, expensive kits now in my wet lab, whereas I made most of my own buffers (after walking to the lab six miles in the snow, barefoot).

Uphill. Both ways. Right.

Sean makes the frontier analogy explicit:

Perhaps the whole idea of interdisciplinary science is the wrong way to look at what we want to encourage. What we really mean is “antedisciplinary” science—the science that precedes the organization of new disciplines, the Wild West frontier stage that comes before the law arrives. It's apropos that antedisciplinary sounds like “anti-disciplinary.” People who gravitate to the unexplored frontiers tend to be self-selected as people who don't like disciplines—or discipline, for that matter.

Thomas Kuhn wrote that "Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like." And also that we know how to divide problems up and assign the pieces to different departments and subdepartmental specializations.

This kind of normal, disciplinary science should not be scorned. Industrial production is much more efficient than handicrafts, and (stereotypes aside) it also usually produces better-quality goods. And some people prefer stabler, safer and more predictable social contexts. The Territory held no charms at all for Aunt Sally, and probably not for Tom Sawyer either, once he grew up a little. But for others, the antedisciplinary frontier is a lot more fun. And I think Sean is right that the most effective exploration of new areas is usually done by individuals who learn what they need to know in order to find their way.

[Link to Sean Eddy's essay via Ernie's 3D Pancakes]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 13, 2005 10:28 AM