A long time since the last post. Well, it’s been more than a year now since I started my PhD, and things have started to get interesting, and a little hectic as well. Hence, the neglected blog. Yes, against popular opinion, PhD work can also get hectic. Something I thought was not possible when I opted for a doctorate. Sigh. Anyway, on the positive side, this ‘PhD experience‘ has made me confront a very humbling fact.
A fact that though clearly evident is conveniently ignored by most of us to get on with our lives. Ignored, perhaps because it is largely inconsequential to our day-to-day survival. The coarse necessities of our lives, dominated by economic strife and gain, don’t allow us the time to reflect over this fact. I think a gentle reminder can do no harm; so let me underline the fact here – our collective human knowledge has become unmanageably and unimaginably vast.
This threshold was actually crossed long ago. It is said that Erasmus was the last person in Europe to have read everything. It was around the same time that printing was invented after which our documentation of knowledge increased many folds. It was no longer possible for anyone to have read everything. Our response to the situation was to break the bulk-of-knowledge down into categories and assign specialists to tackle them. A straightforward case of division of labor – to achieve perfection and efficiency. Thus, we have today a multitude of physical sciences, social sciences, and arts – each with its own specialists. A perfectly fine strategy to manage complexity and volume. Or so I thought.
“The expert knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.”
During the past one year of my PhD research, I have noticed that doctoral researchers, being specialists by definition, are woefully unaware of anything outside their field of research. And I am not just talking about scientists not knowing about stuff from arts and humanities. The split of intellectual life into sciences and arts/humanities has been extensively commented upon, and is in line with what I wish to say here. Besides a very clear insulation between arts and science, things are actually much worse.
A couple of months ago, I attended a physics conference where professors and PhD’s, of mechanical and chemical engineering, were sitting in solid-state-physics (and theoretical physics, and cosmology) sessions like some 10-year-olds being taught calculus. Completely oblivious to the content on the slides. I mean, they are the doctors of philosophy of science, no less. A general idea of all fields of science is the least one can expect from them. And to make things worse, nobody was even the least bit concerned about the state of their ignorance.
I can safely extrapolate the anecdotal data, from my experience at the conference, to say that this problem is not just limited to science, but is also present in branches of economics, arts, and humanities. It seems as if we have wilfully put on blinders to shut our eyes from all that is out there, and focused our vision on one little spot. We have divided the knowledge into very small isolated fragments and, it is my opinion, that in the process, lost perspective.
The world is simply too complex to be understood with narrow expertise. In an attempt to manage the vastness of knowledge, we have perhaps destroyed its very essence. The ability of critical thinking, that converts data into information and information into wisdom, has been lost. The result is the proliferation of popular ignorance. As the inimitable Carl Sagan put it, very aptly, for popular scientific ignorance –
“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
Now, popular ignorance, per se, is not the issue. The whole idea of division of labor is to do things efficiently. In a well functioning market, we can do things we are good at and still play our part in running the machinery of capitalism. It’s not necessary to be a scientist, or an inventor, to contribute to the society. Everybody can add value, although to a different degree, irrespective of their educational qualification.
In any case, this ignorance doesn’t seem to affect us during the decision making in our daily lives. And for the most part that is true. But there are ample occurrences of events where a basic knowledge of sciences (physical or social) is essential. It is during such events that we turn towards experts for information, so as to make a decision. This vulnerability towards expert opinions is what I am bit concerned about.
Mind it, here I am just arguing for a minimum knowledge required to assess the veracity of an expert opinion. I am skeptical that even this minimum requirement is being met for a large part of the population. Too often, we are ready to defer to the claims of experts. It’s a fact that, by being conscious of the limits of our lay knowledge, we have given too much in the hands of experts. We have effectively outsourced our decision making in many critical areas of our lives. Today’s experts shape the popular opinion.
Expert opinion can not, and should not, be a substitute for personal intellectual reflection. Blind belief in someone else’s opinion – even a scientific opinion – is not that different from a religious belief. In Asimov’s Foundation series, he even postulates a religion of Scientism, that is essentially based on the scientific ignorance in public. And as in the novels, such situations almost always lead to exploitation. Exploitation by experts who, being human, are susceptible to politics and the general human tendencies of greed and self-interest. We see forms of this exploitation and manipulations all around us. Be it lawyers charging exorbitant fees, or bankers amassing huge wealth – all are the telltale signs of experts exploiting the ignorant population.
These forms of ‘unfairness’ are the end results of the asymmetry of information between experts and public (which essentially comprises other experts). And all this because of the Echo chambers. The absence of dialogue across the fields of knowledge has made the fields highly insulated. Each field has evolved its own terminology that is only intelligible to its exclusive members. I would concede that this might have been an unintended consequence of our system of managing the knowledge. So, a little course correction is in order.
What we need now is not more experts, but commentators and writers who can interpret the field-specific knowledge for the general public. These commentators should include school and college teachers. The role of teachers in our society needs to be redefined. Moreover, popular science and economics writing should be encouraged. The expert community needs to let go of its general disdain of popular writing.
Being a part of the scientific community, I can vouch for the fact that academic writing is excruciatingly boring. It’s is possibly the worst forms of communication I have come across. Accuracy should not always come at the expense of making the writing dull. I would go to the extent of saying that it is intentionally made uninteresting. Loaded with technical terminology, hard-to-read, hard-to-understand, and entirely bland. Popular writing, on the other hand, can communicate complexities to a larger audience in a more accessible way. Of course, to gain more acceptability among the expert community, both journalists and popular writers should avoid mis-representation and unnecessary dumbing-down of details.
Another good idea might be to include popular non-fiction books in school/college curriculum. If works of Dickens can be used to teach English literature, then why not of Dawkins to teach biology? The Selfish Gene taught me much more biology than all those years of school. Only because it was interesting and easy to understand. The popular non-fiction books offer a much better, and broader, perspective of ‘why’ we study something, while standard text-books focus more on ‘what’ part of the domain. An answer to a ‘why’ is by default a good motivation for people to get engaged in something.
Fortunately, a correction has already started. Market is now rewarding people with multiple skills instead of ones with narrow expertise. Organisations now demand the ‘T-shaped’ skills in individuals. We already have market innovators like facebook that is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology”. The age of disciplinary research in academia is over and inter-disciplinary projects are the new norm. But still, there is a long way to go in this direction. I just hope that we won’t slip into a new age of faith, where experts are the new priests.
PS: As this post has already set a context, here is a short list of some documentaries and books that, to me, are the best of popular science communication.
- The Ascent of Man – Jacob Bronowski
- Cosmos: A Personal Voyage – Carl Sagan
- Planet Earth – David Attenborough
- Life on Earth – David Attenborough
- The Blue Planet – David Attenborough
Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’ is a masterpiece. Something everyone should watch once in their lifetime. Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ is the next best thing. Highly recommended. And ‘Planet Earth’ is the best that HDTV can offer. There is also the new reboot of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson as the host. It is good as well but nowhere near the original.
- A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
- Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond
- Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
- The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene
- Cosmos – Carl Sagan
This list is obviously neither sufficient nor complete. However, this could be a very good starting point for someone interested in popular science.