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.

Sep 7, 2012
Myra H. Strober

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).