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Steven Nikolidakis

Student, The Cooper Union For The Advancement of Science and Art


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Does society need more interdisciplinary work? Or more well-rounded individuals working together?

This week in my Bioelectricity class there was an emphasis on learning about muscle physiology. One facet of the musculoskeletal system which I find especially interesting is the notion of having specialized muscle tissue for certain actions or scenarios in life. Muscle is composed of individual fibers called myocytes, each containing protein strands which grab and pull on each other to induce muscle contractions. Muscle fibers can further be broken down into two types, namely Slow Twitch (Type 1) and Fast Twitch (Type 2). The Slow Twitch fibers are extremely efficient at converting oxygen into usable energy and allowing athletes to perform tasks for extended periods before they fatigue, such as running a marathon. The Fast Twitch fibers, on the other hand, don't use oxygen to create fuel and can recruit motor neurons for a short but powerful burst, which can be useful in a sprint. Each muscle may contain any combination of each of these fibers in order to perform an activity.

In this case, specialization proves to be an imperative characteristic to the completion of a task. In today's world, people immerse themselves in a vast array of fields in order to help the society advance. So I ask the TED community: Is it more beneficial to society to consist of people who are experts in one field, or those who have a well-rounded background in many fields?


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    Apr 2 2012: My uneducated opine is that the main thing is to be able to apply whatever you are doing in other words if it has no application then it is not knowledge.

    To do this means that you understand something conceptually to understand something conceptually means you can explain the idea simply and apply it.

    Example we had an network problem with our macs we had a dozen different people look at the problem without any luck. Finally my bookkeeper got a hold of someone way up the chain and he said well there are only 3 things that can cause that problem you have eliminated 2 of them so do this, bingo it completely fixed the problem.

    The rate of change of technology is speeding up so much that you won't even be able finish school before what you are learning is obsolete. The trick will be to get complete conceptual understanding of what you do know so that you will quickly be able to determine what you don't know about something else and wrap your wits around it quickly.
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      Apr 3 2012: I agree that it is absolutely critical to have a concrete foundation in the basics because then one can approach and delve deeper in other areas. As many people have pointed out, I also think that specialization comes around not only because it follows the curiosity inherent in human nature but also as a product of the times. In medicine, the issue that is constantly discussed is the fact that most doctors choose to specialize instead of pursuing a career as a primary physician, leading to a shortage of general practitioners. While many might be truly suited to their specialization and genuinely be completely attracted to that specific part of the field, there is no doubt that there is a very real incentive for others to specialize due to the monetary gain. Procedures are paid more than cognitive functions. However, the need for an increase in interdisciplinary work is becoming more and more necessary as our knowledge base increases. One needs to have a well-rounded education as mentioned above in order to even be able to interact with an interdisciplinary team. The only problem with this is the fact that this requires even more schooling (this comes attached with its own red flags: the educational system, the price tag, longer time until one is financially able to start a family, etc).
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        Apr 3 2012: Maria

        My point is that all GPs may become obsolete by technology better trained nurses and Dr. Assistants in other word those cognitive functions may be replaced with technology. Look at the Peter Diamandis talk about abundance and particularly about the future of medicine.

        Learning is part of life, embrace it besides it is fun?

        But as to the high cost of a college education avoid the debt as much as possible.
        As with the housing bubble where government made money available for housing that would not otherwise exist so to has it reeked havoc with students futures. It is just supply and demand where more money is made available the price goes up as it did in the days of the 49er's where a shovel cost a fortune.
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      Apr 3 2012: Pat,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I really enjoyed your thoughts; especially the last paragraph. By being interdisciplinary, you allow yourself to quickly adapt to the changing world around you, including technologically, as you mentioned. Once you are too deep in a subject, if for some reason it turns out to be obsolete, it will be much more difficult to adapt to the changing conditions than if you have a wide background. You also share this philosophy with American theorist Karl Weick:

      "Generalists, people with moderately strong attachments to many ideas, should be hard to interrupt, and once interrupted, should have weaker, shorter negative reactions since they have alternative paths to realize their plans. Specialists, people with stronger attachments to fewer ideas, should be easier to interrupt, and once interrupted, should have stronger, more sustained negative reactions because they have fewer alternative pathways to realize their plans. Generalists should be the upbeat, positive people in the profession while specialists should be their grouchy, negative counterparts."
      -Karl Weick

      As you can see, he states that it is harder for specialists to adapt once "interrupted." This idea can also be applied to other species. There exist what are call specialist and generalist species. For example, one well-known specialist species is the koala, which relies primarily on eucalyptus leaves for nourishment. Here is a link to the Wikipedia page if you are interested in other examples of specialist and generalist species.

      Thanks again!
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        Apr 3 2012: Steven

        It is all about application. General or specialized it is about conceptual understanding how do you know you have this conceptual understanding? If you can apply it you got it, if you can't you don't. Use this as your true north it will serve you well.
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          Apr 3 2012: Steven,

          Wow! The quote you share above was very interesting!

          What definitely made me think about your question the most was the part "Generalists should be the upbeat, positive people in the profession while specialists should be their grouchy, negative counterparts." This is an interesting thought, but I don't particularly believe in this idea.

          Great conversation topic!

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