You may have read that several of my University of Texas at Austin colleagues—including Jerry Tang and Alex Huth—recently fulfilled one of my boyhood dreams: decoding and translating brain activity into text without using brain implants. Yet I think it’s unlikely that I will ever meet these colleagues.
Nor have I ever bumped into the psychologist and behavior geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden, who was featured recently in The New Yorker. I have spoken with Robert Metcalfe, an inventor of Ethernet, but not with John B. Goodenough, a recent Nobel Prize winner who is credited with the initial development of the lithium-ion battery. And to my great disappointment, I never encountered Steven Weinberg, whom an MIT authority recently called the most important theoretical physicist since Einstein.
My campus, perhaps like yours, consists of disciplinary silos, each isolated and insular.
Given my own department’s makeup, you might think that we’d have more interaction with the campus’s scientists and technologists. The UT history department recently had nine historians of science and technology—making up fully a sixth of its faculty. Yet, I’m afraid, that hasn’t resulted in the kinds of close interchange with the STEM faculty that one might expect. Nor do we offer many courses to appeal to UT’s rapidly growing number of computer science, data science, engineering and neuroscience majors.
At UT, hyperspecialization rules. Our departments are discipline-focused, and despite a campuswide Bridging Disciplines initiative and funding for cross-discipline projects, academic segregation reigns supreme.
I am profoundly grateful to Jeffrey I. Seeman—a noted experimental organic chemist, a historian of chemistry and currently a senior research scholar in the chemistry department at the University of Richmond—for sharing a number of scholarly articles that point to the challenges that the academy faces in convincing historians, philosophers and sociologists of science to break free from their silos and interact more closely with their STEM counterparts. This strikes me and Seeman as one of the academy’s most pressing and unfulfilled missions.
Within the contemporary university, I fear, the history, philosophy and sociology of science are hanging on with a thread. This is both ironic and dangerous as science’s role in the academy and society increases. As a humanist myself, I believe that it is the responsibility of historians, philosophers and sociologists of science to reach out and interact with biologists, chemists, physicists and neuroscientists and to closely read and reflect upon their scholarship. If this exchange fails to take place, the scholarly and scientific cost will be high.
The unambiguous message that I want to convey as loudly and vociferously as I can is that historians, philosophers and sociologists of science not only have a real opportunity to better meet the needs of society, but an obligation to communicate to the much, much larger audiences of scientists. But that will require them to write in a language that scientists can understand, to publish in journals that scientists read and to never feel that reaching out to scientists is beneath their dignity.
The articles that Seeman shared with me provide striking examples of the contributions that history, philosophy and sociology can make to STEM scholarship if—and it’s a big if—they can demonstrate a deep understanding of the most recent STEM scholarship and address the issues that cutting-edge researchers study.
One of those articles, entitled “Why science needs philosophy,” co-authored by Lucie Laplane, Paolo Mantovani, Ralph Adolphs, Hasok Chang, Alberto Mantovani, Margaret McFall-Ngai, Carlo Rovelli, Elliott Sober and Thomas Pradeu, begins with an extract from a 1944 letter by Albert Einstein:
“A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”
Yet as the article’s authors note, “present-day scientists often perceive philosophy as completely different from and even antagonistic to, science.” They cite three ways that philosophers of science can “have an important and productive impact on science.”
- Conceptual clarification. As the authors show, stem cell research has benefited enormously from the kind of conceptual rigor offered by philosophers of science. Currently, they note, stem cell research tends to conflate four different modes of thought—stemness as a categorical, dispositional property, relational and systemic property. By recognizing these semantic and conceptual differences, cancer oncology research and drug development has been significantly enhanced. If humanists are to dispel conceptual confusions and contribute to conceptual clarification, however, these scholars must understand biology and chemistry at a deep level.
- Critiquing scientific assumptions. Philosophers of science, the authors also demonstrate, can be “proactive in formulating novel, testable and predictive theories that help set new paths for empirical research.” They cite as an example how philosophical critique of the immune self-nonself framework led to the formulation of a new theoretical framework, the discontinuity theory of immunity, which has shed “light on many important immunological phenomena, including autoimmune disease, immune responses to tumors and immunological tolerance to chronically expressed ligands.” The authors also explain how “philosophical critique contributed … to the notion that every organism, far from being a genetically homogenous self, is a symbiotic community harboring and tolerating multiple foreign elements (including bacteria and viruses), which are recognized but not eliminated by its immune system.” Far from irrelevant to serious scientific inquiry, philosophy has helped inform research and theorizing.
- Contributing to paradigm shifts. Philosophers of science, the authors make plain, played a crucial “part in the move [in cognitive science and neuroscience] from behaviorism to cognitivism and computationalism in the 1960s,” and to the development by the philosopher Jerry Fodor of the theory of the modularity of mind. It was Fodor who “theorized that human cognition is structured in a set of lower-level, domain-specific, informationally encapsulated specialized modules and a higher-level, domain-general central system for abductive reasoning with information only flowing upward vertically, not downward or horizontally (i.e., between modules).” The authors also look at the impact of philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, on theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states to others and critiquing, clarifying and redefining the concepts of consciousness, emotion, intelligence and mind.
Why have philosophers of science had an outsize impact on cognitive science and oncology—and such topics as evolutionary altruism, the construction of a “tree of life,” the predominance of microbes in the biosphere, the definition of the gene and the critical examination of the concept of innateness? Here’s the authors’ explanation:
“Philosophy and science share the tools of logic, conceptual analysis and rigorous argumentation. Yet philosophers can operate these tools with degrees of thoroughness, freedom and theoretical abstraction that practicing researchers often cannot afford in their daily activities.”
The authors suggest a number of readily implementable ways to bridge the divide between the scientific and humanistic divide: invite knowledgeable humanists to relevant scientific conferences. Host philosophers and historians of science within labs and departments. Co-supervise doctoral students. Create a more integrated, synergistic curriculum. Encourage humanists to contribute to scientific journals.
As the microbiologist Carl Woese reminds us,
“a society that permits biology to become an engineering discipline, that allows science to slip into the role of changing the living world without trying to understand it, is a danger to itself.”
In a must-read essay entitled “Moving beyond insularity in the history, philosophy and sociology of chemistry,” Seeman goes even further in calling for disciplinary interaction among chemists and historians, philosophers and sociologists of chemistry, despite these specialists’ differences “in culture, perspective, style and language”—and even tenure standards. No single discipline has “special epistemological status.”
As Seeman points out, “there is much evidence and discussion that entire new areas of science that require interdisciplinary collaborations are the next horizon in science.”
He cites, as an example, the argument of George Whitesides, a university professor at Harvard and a leading authority on physical and organic chemistry, materials science, and biophysics, that “Chemistry is no longer just about atoms and molecules, but about what it, as a field with unique capabilities in manipulating molecules and matter, can do to understand manipulate and control complex systems composed (in part) of atoms and molecules: its future extends from living cells to megacities and from harvesting sunlight to improving healthcare. To deal efficiently with these problems, academic chemistry will need to integrate ‘solving problems’ and ‘generating understanding’ better.”
As Whitesides and John Deutch of MIT observed, “To solve new problems, chemistry must be braver in its research choices and in how it organizes them. As it grew, academic chemistry splintered into many specialized subdisciplines such as organic synthesis, coordination chemistry and laser spectroscopy. This structure worked adequately for the relatively simple problems of the past century, but it will not work for the more complex problems of the next, such as global stewardship of natural resources. The field requires and is undergoing, a fundamental change.” Defining these new directions and strategies will benefit enormously from cross-disciplinary cooperation that extends beyond the field of chemistry.
Yet, as Seeman readily acknowledges, the barriers to cross-disciplinary exchange remain high. Scholars write for specialists in their own niche. Researchers largely confine their reading to papers in their field. Journal editors worry about “dumbing down science” were they to publish articles that might appeal (and be intelligible) to a broader readership.
But there are promising strategies to overcome disciplinary isolation. Seeman has proposed five strategies that hold promise and that I wholeheartedly endorse.
- Follow the example of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science and feature “Highlights,” three- to five-bulleted statements, that sum up an article’s broader significance.
- Create bridge-building societies along the lines of the International Society for History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology.
- Encourage professional organizations to make sustained efforts to encourage interdisciplinary collaborations and to take steps to make their membership more inclusive.
- Urge individual scholars to “draw on relevant techniques and literature from adjacent disciplines,” participate in joint symposia, and publish outside their “home” journals.
- Establish interdisciplinary research programs (for example, in biomedical engineering and environmental science) that bring diverse teams of scholars together.
In his essay, Seeman cites a revealing 2015 article entitled “The Superiority of Economists.” A survey of economists, finance professors, historians, political scientists, psychologists and sociologists found that economists were by far the least willing to view interdisciplinarity as better than work solely within a single discipline—no doubt reflecting “their reliance on mathematical analytical tools.”
I think it’s fair to say that economics’ insularity has not served the discipline or public policy well, since it has tended to slight the cultural, historical, political, sociological and other contextual factors that shape economic decision-making.
Disciplinary specialization offers many benefits, but it shouldn’t be the sole path forward. I wholeheartedly endorse Seeman’s call to arms: “The protection of disciplinarity, as important and valid as it can be, must not be blindly executed. Simultaneously, diversity of scholarship should not be discouraged solely on the basis of discipline-specific stylistic or cultural norms.”
I should not conclude without acknowledging my own need to do more to advance cross-disciplinary collaboration. My Digital History website, which is used by about 150,000 distinct IP addresses each week during the school year, contains a section on science and technology that is, I must confess, unpopulated. I and Sara McNeil, my partner in this enterprise, have been working with John Lienhard, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston, a member of the National Academy of Engineers and creator of the Engines of Our Ingenuity broadcasts that appear on many public radio stations, to fill this void, but we clearly have much more to do to.
I believe that—however unfair it may seem—the onus is on historians, philosophers and sociologists of science to reach out to scientists and demonstrate, again and again, that what they have to offer is worth scientists’ time and attention. Right now, few scientists recognize the contributions that the history, philosophy and sociology of science have made and can make in the future. But I believe scientists will want to engage in dialogue once they see the value of such interaction.
The negative impacts of segregation are not restricted to education, health or opportunity. Academic insularity is also destructive, but in ways that are often invisible: in assumptions uncontested, in experiments untried, criticisms unacknowledged and paradigms unchallenged. It’s high time to bring this form of segregation to an end, just as we must challenge other forms of bias, narrow-mindedness and parochialism.