Scientists are those who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing. —John Ziman
Much like the eusocial insects, human beings know that cooperation is the key to success. It is also natural to reduce problems down to their simplest level. The worry here is that the more we do specialise on our solutions, the less we can cooperate outside of our own specialisms.
“By the end of the 18th century, it had become impossible for one person to keep up with all the new scientific publications” the author says, going on to suggest Thomas Young (1773–1829) was the last person to know everything we knew.”
It was at this time that no person could keep up reading and researching and hence cross-pollination of ideas was not easy. Plus the structure of academia now praises deep understand to break new levels. No one wants a researcher who is broadly good at everything. In the world of work we often hear about the T shape of skills that everyone possess.
With this focus on compartmentalising groups, language changes to help them associate better but that in turn builds barriers which prohibit the ability to be global. This extra jargon can result in communication errors, barriers to entry and at worst complete rejection of research.
“…scientists, like the lay public, find it generally impossible to read (let alone judge the worth of) papers at the cutting edge of a different field…”
Types of academic papers
Gavin Schmidt goes on to suggest there are 3 types of academic papers:
These papers focus on huge topics and cause real change, but they aren’t always helpful in inviting and growing the fields, he suggests.
An example here is “the paper of Luis and Walter Alvarez about the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous”.
Broad but Data Rich
These papers are typically broad and focus on giving data that will be useful in other studies. These are useful to reference and support, but typically can be difficult to be good evidence as its focus is too broad.
What is more, communication problems due to the specialisation of research can cause problems that make the research seem applicable but is ultimate not.
The author gives and example of a paper that gives El Niño weather patterns for a huge number of years.
Synthesising Literature Reviews
These are papers which “boil down” many individual studies and are more accessible than the papers themselves. These papers are more global in their look but are incredibly valuable to the larger community. They encourage further development, the increase a field as it is more accessible and their accessibility is incredibly valuable when they become high profile and easy to interpret.
Despite all their benefits, the science community will be unlikely to praise the 3rd type as the research has done now research. They have quoted others, they have read others but they have not ‘contributed’ and as such will not get high praise.
It is also said that synthesis is a reduction of the research and hence of poor quality missing key elements.
Ultimately, the author provides no solution. It is more a rally call for others to have confidence in sharing, of making things simpler to understand, and to call for a duty of communication and understanding.
I am aligned to this totally. I studied Mechanical Engineering and know when language falls further away from sense than it should. Ultimately engineering is just forces, which is a concept even 5 year olds can get. There should be some way to break them down to be at least conceptually understood.
This call to arms is why I enjoy writing these articles, watching documentaries and more. If you do too, I suggest you check these out:
Inspired by Gavin Schmidt’s “Why hasn’t specialization led to the balkanisation of science” from “What’s next? Dispatches on the future of science” 2009
Recently I began reading this book of science essays that were meant to assess the future. Seeming it is 10 years since the book was published, I thought it may be interesting to revisit these.