Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Truth: Interdisciplinary?

A peculiarity of the truth in academia is that it seems to be discipline-specific. One of the more uncanny experiences arising from any lengthy interdisciplinary sojourn is the repeated necessity for exchanging one's epistemological currency nearly every time one crosses an academic border. It is a bit as if knowledge in university departments were still mostly a feudal affair, with each tiny duchy self-authorized to issue its own coin of the realm and raise its own taxes on any intellectual traffic passing through its territory.

This peculiarity obtains not only across the infamous chasm between the "two cultures" of the sciences and humanities, but also across many of the sciences themselves. Even within closely related disciplines, such as the experimental social sciences, the truth-value of data often bears a certifying stamp specific to a particular, local tradition. Which are more reliable, for instance, data acquired from experimental subjects who did not know what the experiment was actually about (as is typical in social and cognitive psychology), or data acquired from fully informed experimental subjects motivated by immediate cash reward (as is de rigeur in behavioral economics)? The conundrum lies not so much in any profound metaphysical differences as in the different traditions of assuming that certain kinds of information are better than others, when such traditions often define each discipline's sense of its own unique mission.

Is it any wonder then, that it becomes difficult to measure how much research is interdisciplinary at all? The thought crossed my mind after reading the previous post (see below), on the curious contradiction between the assertion of policymakers as "an article of faith" that interdisciplinary research will be crucial to tomorrow's world and the "fuzzy definition of an interdisciplinary program" that confounds the measurement of interdisciplinary activity.

It also led me back to the questions raised in earlier posts (just a little further below) about whether and how the data and theory of the evolutionary neurosciences would revolutionize literary criticism. Until and unless literary critics and neuroscientists forge a common currency as to what counts as true--or at least as importantly true--the disciplines may poach information or ideas from each other but remain more or less locked up behind their castle walls.

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