Lamenting the failure of human rationality at fulfilling that great Enlightenment promise of the unification of human knowledge, 80-year old E.O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning philosopher-scientist at Harvard, posited one possible obstacle: “The most productive scientists, installed in million-dollar laboratories, have no time to think about the big picture and see little profit in it,” he writes in his intellectual tour-de-force, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Random House, 1998). “It is therefore not surprising to find physicists who do not know what a gene is, and biologists who guess that string theory has something to do with violins.”
He goes on to accuse the social sciences and humanities of the same “professional atomization.” My experience thus far at university has revealed the understated truth of this claim: beyond non-communication, my experience has shown tangible cross-disciplinary contempt. History professors mock political scientists, indicting them for the cardinal sins of generalization, oversimplification of complex realities, and constructing wild theories without empirical grounding (some of the worst offenders include Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” theory which arbitrarily divides the world into 7 “civilizations” ranging from “Hindu,” to “Slavic-Orthodox,” to “Japan,” and Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” theory which proclaimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy over all other forms of government and thus the end of ideological development… hm.)
And the political scientists are no better. “God help you,” was the response I got from the last one I told about my potential plans to study philosophy and psychology. “Without political science, you’ll be lost trying to make sense of the world,” he said. Clear cross-discipline competition to get one’s voice heard prevents constructive communication and interdisciplinary collaboration, even when many of these feuding faculties work on the same issues.
The cause appears to lie in the increasing competitiveness of today’s world. “To be an original scholar,” writes Wilson, “is to be a highly specialized world authority in a polyglot Calcutta of similarly focused world authorities.” To get an academic job in the first place requires prodigious research output; to get funding for further research once you are there demands even more.
According to the political scientist and Director of the University of Toronto’s African Studies Program Thomas Tieku, the pressure to compete for government research dollars in the United States has been a driving factor in political science’s drift towards increasing quantification into their description of political phenomena, in an effort to appear more scientific and therefore (apparently) more worthy of funding. The noble pursuit of truth and altruistic problem solving I looked forward to encountering back in August is eclipsed by the pursuit of dollars. It seems that the societal bias towards quantification over qualification, science over arts, and material over immaterial is at work here (see Sir Ken Robinson’s infamous TED talk for an eloquently persuasive elaboration). Although perhaps well-intentioned, the divisive effects of this strategy suggest that some social self-reflection might be in order.