Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Synthesists Wanted

New Economist pointed the way to an interesting article by Richard Reeves in the RSA journal titled “The New Intellectual”. The long and the short of it is that there’s no room in media for reasonable intellectual debate. John Stewart would likely agree. But after his initial point, Mr Reeves generalizes the point and heads down a disappointing path. A measured opinion on television is a rarity these days–that much of Mr. Reeves opinion I can agree with. But then he goes on to quote T.S. Eliot: “It is perhaps too much to expect of any man to possess both specialised scientific power and wisdom.” And he goes on to say: “In fact, it is too much to expect anyone to possess wisdom at all, especially with regard to some of our most intractable public issues. Climate change is an area of public concern requiring specialist knowledge in international law, business, macroeconomics, microeconomics, anthropology, psychology, meteorology and oceanography.” Really? Are there no polymaths among us anymore? Too bad if that’s true, because we need them more than ever.

Mr. Reeves is right about the complexity of modern day issues like climate change and intellectual property but I would go further than he and include even seemingly “mundane” intellectual pursuits like economics and engineering. More and more, the day and age of the specialist is coming to a close. (I started writing about the death of the specialist a while ago–makes me realize I should get back to that one.) What we need are synthesists; scientists who have enough familiarity with numerous disciplines that they can navigate the corridors of the specialists’ libraries and knit together new areas of overlap.

Take economics, for instance. Several articles in prominent journals have now appeared discussing the importance of understanding human behavior in economics. I couldn’t agree more. But to do an exceptional study of such a topic would require at least a working familiarity with psychology and cognitive science. To understand the latest theories of evolutionary psychology, it would also help to be familiar with evolutionary biology. Tie this in with information in economics and its effects on markets and new disciplines dealing with how humans use information to make decisions and you are dealing with a lot of disciplines. This is why I say that if Mr. Reeves is right then we’ve got a problem.

I, however, think the computer and the Internet are essentially making polymaths of us all. And I mean that there’s more going on than that we can all do Google searches. The scientific process was once a matter collecting a lot of data from experiments and then writing up the theory. With computers collecting such immense amounts of data these days the scientific process is becoming more like coming up with a hypothesis and seeing if you can find the proof in a database somewhere. Astronomers have already had success with this model of science.

With data as a ubiquitous cataloged record of the world, I can only think that sceintists will be forced to reckon with multiple disciplines. And that process will be made simpler by the data sorting tools available to everyone like Google Scholar. Moreover, there is a movement afoot to get all of this academic writing and research out to the public. The more open the whole process, the better. I think age of the synthesist is upon us.

I also think that there will be plenty of room for measured debate thanks to the comptuer and the internet. Do you know what my mother said to me this morning? “Mainstream media is passé.” Seriously! She said that. And if she gets it, then we’re further along then I thought. I think everyone knows that the jig is up and that the mainstream media has no space for honest thoughtful discussion. The thoughtful discussion had moved to the internet and the internet is becoming the mainstream.

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