Interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity is one of the huge buzzwords of 21st century science but unlike most fads, this one actually serves something useful. Many of the active fields of science today have grown beyond any single discipline. Evolutionary biologists can’t be just biologists anymore, they need the working knowledge of low-level mathematicians. Ecologists that are worth their salt can double as completely decent statisticians. Some anatomists and morphologists are so acquainted with their microscopes that they can work as microscope technicians and engineers. For broader examples, consider something like environmental change. Anyone who wants to work with environmental change needs an understanding of the following subjects (list is not exhaustive): biology, chemistry, physics, geology, design, engineering, geography, political science, economics.

Of course, being a jack of all trades usually means you’re below-average at everything, rather than really good at something. Or maybe I’m projecting due to my exceedingly narrow interests. The point of interdisciplinarity, in my view, is not that every single scientist ought to be an expert at everything. In fact, I wager that if that generalisation becomes widespread, it would be destructive to science as whole. The point of having disciplines is that they discipline you into different ways of thinking about a problem. Thus, when you have people from many disciplines looking at the same problem, you get a great increase in the number of solutions. However, one person who has studied many disciplines will have a more than likely chance at just being a jumbled mess.

In other words, the current rush of interdisciplinarity in science is a good thing, as long as individual scientists continue specialising. Science is a social endeavour, with very few people really working alone. And this gives the advantage to individual scientists to specialise however they want, safe in the knowledge that they can always call on colleagues to assist in a solving a problem by offering a different line of thought. For example, when I look at a lake, my first thought is to collect samples of everything in it to get all the animals active in it right now, and do a standardised sampling every month to get seasonal critters, so we can have the biodiversity mapped out. An ecologist will want to first of all examine the structure of the ecosystem and interactions, something that would only come into my mind at the very end of a project. By collaborating interdisciplinarily, we get both things done, with a much stronger project at the end. That’S the value of interdisciplinarity.

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