Opinion: Learning from Each Other

Professional dialogue between scientists and non-scientists is not easy, but when successful, it can create powerful insights and relationships.

By Myra H. Strober | September 7, 2012

buddawiggi" > Flickr, buddawiggi

In the last decade or so, many research universities, government agencies, and private foundations have issued clarion calls for more interdisciplinary research and teaching. The reason for all of this activity is that cross-disciplinary work improves our collective ability to solve real-world problems, which usually don’t respect disciplinary boundaries, and enhances scholars’ and researchers’ creativity by exposing them to different ways of thinking and new information.  Efforts to foster cross-disciplinary research within science has led to a considerable literature on “team science,” but there is little work on fostering interdisciplinary efforts between scientists and scholars in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

Discussions between scientists and non-scientists are even more difficult than conversations within science.  After attending interdisciplinary seminars where disciplines were quite diverse, I interviewed a sample of the faculty in attendance and concluded that cross-disciplinary conversations are particularly challenging for academics. The different disciplinary habits of mind cultivated over years of training and practice, and the disparate disciplinary languages and cultures adopted make communication between these scholars as difficult as that of diplomats from dissimilar nation-states. (I published my findings in my book, Interdisciplinary Conversations: Challenging Habits of Thought, Stanford University Press, 2010.)

However, in two of the seminars I studied, scientists and non-scientists communicated quite effectively.  The two seminars took C.P. Snow’s observation that there is a cultural divide between scientists and what Snow called “literary intellectuals,” and successfully used year-long faculty conversations to begin to bridge it.  Thanks to careful selection of faculty, experienced leadership, and a tight seminar structure, participants felt they made a good start in improving communication and understanding between scientists and their non-science colleagues.

The leaders of the two seminars (both at the same research university) purposefully chose participants who had an interest in spanning the science/non-science divide—scientists who were interested in teaching science to non-scientists, and artists, humanists, and social scientists who wanted to better understand the ways in which science is carried out.  And they did not begin by asking participants to sequentially discuss their disciplines, a tactic which led to early misunderstanding and chaos in some of the other seminars I studied.  Rather, the leaders themselves chose the readings for the first several months and carefully crafted discussions about them, emphasizing the advantages of focusing on potential commonalities and connections across disciplines.

Participants from both the sciences and the non-sciences told me they had learned a great deal.   A biochemist said the seminar was a key factor in his decision to move away from highly theoretical research that had not “the slightest practical significance whatsoever” to research on neurodegenerative diseases.  “I might have gotten there anyway, but I suspect I sure got there faster because of the seminar,” he told me.  “And maybe I would have never gotten there at all.”

Both a chemist and a physicist said that their teaching was subtly changed for the better.  The physicist said: “I don’t want to fall into this rut of saying that scientists think in one way, non-scientists think in other ways, but I think that different people have different ways of thinking—and I think I got a much better flavor of that through this seminar.  So when I’m teaching, I think I do keep constantly reminding myself…that the way I’m thinking about the problem is not necessarily the way the students are thinking about it.”

Faculty in the humanities said they learned that they had much more in common with scientists than they originally suspected.  A scholar from religious studies realized that evidence presented by scientists is not entirely objective in the way she had supposed, but that, like humanists, “the kind of example you select, the words that you select…the table you use, the colors that you use in the table also depend on perspective and affect how the evidence is presented.”

But perhaps most importantly, humanists gained the confidence to ask questions of scientists.  Fostering this kind of communication among scientists and non-scientists will not only help keep highly educated non-scientists informed, but also may assist scientists in gaining influential public support for the funding of scientific research.

Since 1959 when C.P. Snow first made his observations, the gap in non-scientists’ knowledge of science has become even more problematic, for not only has science become ever more central to unraveling the problems that beset us—climate change, dwindling energy sources, disease, and even normal aging—but solutions to these problems increasingly require collaboration with those in the humanities, social sciences, and arts.  It is my hope that academics will be inspired by the success of the faculty seminars described in my book and will work to bridge the divide between scientists and non-scientists on their own campuses.

Myra H. Strober is a labor economist at Stanford University where she is Emerita Professor of Education and Emerita Professor of Economics at the Graduate School of Business.  She was the founding director of the interdisciplinary Center for Research on Women at Stanford (now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research).

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Avatar of: corrigible


Posts: 42

September 10, 2012

The very same techniques that enable and enrich discussions between advocates of one set of two differing schools of thought, enable and enrich discussions between any other set of two differing schools of thought.
The attitude of either side that a person or a group of persons of the other is so totally wrong that the only way to deal with them is adversarially, guarantees no learning will adher by either. Condescension, and the exchange of insults, further assures no learning can occur.
Some of the most book-educated individuals on Earth are at least as blockheaded as some of the least informed.
Successful explorers, in earlier centuries, tended to be those who were eager and open to learning from aboriginals.
If, at any level of learning, one becomes convinced he can learn nothing from those he considers inferior to himself, he gravitates toward an attitude that all others are inferior to himself. He may go on seeking to critique and teach, but he does not go on learning.

September 12, 2012

Thanks for this article!

"Learning from each other" - only with an open mind we can do that!

I am not the scientist, I am just an ordinary engineer involved in business.

Fostering interdisciplinary efforts in the total management knowledge between biology, biophysics, mathematics, electronic communication, arts and social legends and mythology I discovery that Adam mtDNA reappears at the puberty only in the seminal liquid of the naturally born boys, not in vitro made.

I do not want to talk about the insults addressed to me at the beginning.

I absolved them, because they do not know what they talk.

Now is a total silence for this subject!

Because five years ago, I discovered the big mistake produced by genetics using only Eve mtDNA inheritance theory and because in the entire world I did not find any
scientific support to my new discovered theory, Adam mtDNA inheritance - which scientifically certifies the Genesis, I ask a political support for The Romanian Parliament
and now my theory is analyzed in a specialized commission.

Anybody can contact me on clepsydra@clicknet.ro


Stephen Hawking - A Brief History of Time, From Big Bang to Black Holes - "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? ... Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take
part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would know the mind of God."

Henry Schaefer - "The significance and joy in my science comes in the occasional moments of discovering something new and saying to myself, 'So that's how God did it!' My goal is to understand a little corner of God's plan." (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 23, 1991)

Proverbs 25.2 - “We honour God for what He conceals; we honour kings for what they explain!â€쳌

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