Science: generalism vs. specialization


Richard Moore

Bcc: FYI
rkm website


When a scientist does research, they typically keep a lab journal. A journal of their thinking, experiments, discoveries, etc. Indeed, journaling is an important part of their research, apart from providing a record, as it helps them clarify their thinking and see their current results in a broader perspective. 

Cyberjournal serves as my lab journal. When I started researching, back in ’94, I decided I might as well publish my journal as I go along, for any who might be interested, and in hopes that I might learn from those who respond. That turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, based on the value many say they’ve gotten from the material, and on all that I’ve learned through dialog with you readers. 

My research is aimed at finding answers to two questions: How does the world really work? … How can that process be transformed, to something more aligned with what we need and want?

This is a broad area of research, involving considerations in many specialized areas, including history, economics, political science, anthropology, propaganda, utopian thinking
, social movements
, revolutions, group dynamics, and others. I’ve found that a cursory understanding of these many fields of study is insufficient. In order to work effectively at the whole systems level, I found I needed to have a reasonable grasp of what is known in each area, enough, let’s say, to discuss points of controversy intelligently with someone specialized in the area.

This has forced me to develop methods for coming up to speed quickly in new subjects. One of these methods can be summarized as survey, hypothesize, and engage. I begin with a quick survey of the field, enough to form an initial hypothesis of what that field has to say regarding my broader line of inquiry. Then I look for knowledgeable people in the field to discuss the hypothesis with, and I take care to include some who have strong opinions contrary to the hypothesis.
With the contrarians, these discussions become argumentative, and that turns out to be very productive. In the heat of such an argument people tend to reveal their underlying assumptions, along with the line of reasoning they’ve built on top of those assumptions. I then focus in on the underlying assumptions, examining the evidence that is offered for them. I’ve been surprised at how flimsy those assumptions sometimes turn out to be, and if the assumptions fall, the reasoning comes down like a house of cards.
This approach works very well. I’ve always been able to refine my hypothesis this way, often shifting it considerably in the contrary direction, and I’ve always ended up with a well-grounded understanding of what I need to know about each area. And in the process I’ve typically gained a deeper understanding of each field than is relevant to my research. Hypothesis plus engagement is amazingly productive of insights. It works like one of those metal detectors, that can find where the treasures are buried beneath the sand, the sand being the standard discourse of the experts.
As I’ve been developing these techniques of generalist research, I’ve been learning about the limitations of specialist research. The typical specialist is in some sense sitting on the branch of a tree – the researcher’s specialty within the field. When the assumptions supporting the whole tree are challenged, the specialist tends to respond as if his very survival is at stake, which in a professional sense might be the case.  Root assumptions in scientific fields typically survive well past their sell-by date.
In addition, those who specialize tend to respect the specializations of others. The historian does not challenge the assumptions of the economist. Instead, the consensus view among economists will be taken as fact, if the historian is seeking an economic interpretation of an historical episode. A specialist, even one who is an iconoclast in their own field, tends to accept whatever the mainstream says, as regards everything outside their field. Thus flimsy assumptions in one field can, and do, infect other fields – one house of cards built on top of another. 
I’ve found that the specialization paradigm has seriously hampered the advancement of scientific knowledge generally. Almost everywhere I look I find dubious unquestioned assumptions, leading to absurdities such as ‘dark matter’, or ‘city-building hunter-gatherers’. Thus for many fields, in order to gain some understanding, I’ve had to look at the work of controversial independent researchers. This realm of ‘alternative science’ is littered with its own houses of cards, but among the litter there can sometimes be found gems of truth, often gems that aren’t available anywhere else.
In this alternative realm, the hypothesis+engagement paradigm isn’t appropriate. The goal here isn’t to deconstruct a belief system, rather it is to see if any promising results are on offer. Besides, alternative researchers are very explicit about their assumptions, evidence, and reasoning. They have to be; that’s their only way of achieving credibility.
I approach alternative science the way an archeologist approaches a dig site. I assume there will be lots of rubble to dig through before I’ll find anything of value, and I know that on many sites there will be only rubble. However, just as in archeology, devoting time to dig sites pays off. As I said above, there are gems that can’t be found any other way. I may disagree entirely with a researcher’s thesis, and their reasoning might be seriously flawed, but in their presentation of evidence I may find hard facts that are very useful in my broader line of inquiry. 
I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a reliable source, and no such thing as a worthless source. Those who trust in ‘reliable sources’ are in danger of swallowing tainted assumptions, and those who ignore ‘worthless sources’ miss out on a lot of important information. 
Unfortunately, most people do seem to gather their beliefs by trusting in certain sources and ignoring others. This tendency is well-known to the purveyors of propaganda, who exploit it as a simple means of mind control. By releasing certain information through right-wing channels, for example, they can be sure lefties will believe the opposite. The providing of information thus becomes a handy way of suppressing that information.
There’s a Sufi saying that for a long time didn’t make sense to me:
     If you want to gain knowledge,
     learn one thing every day.
     If you want to gain wisdom,
     forget one thing every day.
My research experience now makes the meaning clear. Knowledge is about the accumulation of beliefs, and wisdom is about the abandonment of unfounded assumptions.