Dead ends of specialisation

Among scholars and knowledge makers in history, one can identify a large number of intellectuals whose interests lay in seemingly disparate spheres. A poet and philosopher could also be an astronomer, technical innovator and mathematician. A traveller and writer could be a linguist and painter. Consider for instance Al Khwārizmī, Ziryab, Leon Battista Alberti, or Leonardo da Vinci. Each person’s many spheres of knowledge created a syncretic world view that contributed to a broad perspective, an easy ability to see connectedness among multiple domains of knowledge of the natural world and human interaction.

One might today refer to these as non-partisan points of view, neither left nor right, or generalised independent scholarship — indeed there seem to be few words to describe such people. While there still are some scholars interested in more than one domain, such as Noam Chomsky or Ramachandra Guha, polymaths are rare in the 21st century. With greater and deeper development of various fields of science, technology and even the social sciences, specialisation is inevitable and even necessary in the contemporary world. This has no doubt yielded many important, even life-saving results. But, the fetishising of “expertism” and its blinding righteousness contributes to a host of problems that are being called the Anthropocene.

Distinct worlds

While polymaths are not in high demand, I suspect that the increasing call for cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge is a recognition of this shortcoming without quite being able to label it. The tragedy of specialisation is that it leads members of the knowledge industry to see little beyond their bulwarks. And indeed, the world views of highly specialised domains are often so distinct that they have created not only disparate paradigms but distinct worlds. It, therefore, becomes difficult or impossible for an economist to appreciate the importance and value of biodiversity or why its loss is a major casualty (unless he or she tries to monetise it), or for an engineer to understand why decentralised solar power that allows greater democratisation among local communities is an opportunity to be grabbed instead of installing large solar parks by mega-corporations. It also makes it near impossible for a molecular biologist to understand that more targeted and improved ways to cut and paste DNA is not the point being made by those concerned about genetically modified organisms. It is about ownership, biodiversity, science and soils — cross-cutting domains that super-specialists will not be able to see.

Never mind that corporate interests, personal promotion, careerism and pandering to their own vested interests create elite networks of corruption in different academic spheres. And these may of course confound arguments regarding specialisation and intellectual generalists. In a recent article in The New York Times Pankaj Mishra writes, “in their lust for power [Alfred Kazin] could see how intellectuals as accomplices of political elites were prone to confuse their private interest with public interest.”

With increasing specialisation, what one gets are experts who do not understand the connections between knowledge systems and ways of knowing. Instead of treating an approach to knowledge or a paradigm as simply a heuristic or a framework, they begin to regard it as fixed, offering specific solutions that cannot be argued against and carrying all truth. The limits of each knowledge system are not part of the training and their own blinkers are not apparent to them. Instead, one’s own paradigm of analyses turns into the sole framework for study and its outputs the only possible truths.

Current challenges

The principal challenges of the Anthropocene are the breakdown of the planetary boundaries. In fact, when this system was represented and described by scientists as the planetary boundaries of the natural world, there was opposition from social scientists. Upon their insistence, social structures have also been incorporated now into the system. This obvious necessity only points to the fact that there is so much fragmentation that specialists have painted themselves into dead ends.

So, while geoengineers say that we need to seed the upper atmosphere with exotic chemicals to cool the planet, there is rightly a hue and cry from many quarters; when renewable energy experts call for more biomass plantations, others worry about the displacement of farmers, the reduction of food production and the loss of biodiversity. Of course, still other specialists insist that they have the right technology to produce food for the entire world in factory farms.

The academic system of rewarding greater specialisation has fed the knowledge industry and universities too prepare students in precisely this manner. Policy makers are listening to the experts seeking their guidance, thus coming full circle and promoting further fragmentation. The assault on nature from the ramparts of specialisation creates narrow reductionist viewpoints that are fiercely defended by specialists who seem to have a lot at stake in terms of careers and reputations. Those at the short end are (ironically) the most vulnerable creatures and humans on earth making up the vast connected webs of life. As Max Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilisation never before achieved.”

Sujatha Byravan is a scientist who studies science, technology and policy

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2021 2:46:43 AM |

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