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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 3 2012: I personally regard this as more complicated than it seems. It's likely that a team of generalists may have a better understanding and more flexible thinking. Yet I cannot deny specialists could often provide more positive contributions within the field they are expert.

    This could be illustrated for example by the difference between a journalist and an historian. The former has a well-rounded background in many fields (say economics, history, art, and so forth), which could result in them being more skillful at connecting different disciplines in an over-confident fashion. In turn, over-confidence could lead to superficiality and/or inaccuracy while setting forth their views. By contrast, a more thorough and exhaustive study will bring about a more valuable contribution indeed.

    The point is, an expert finds himself forced to cope with weighing up pros and cons (or taking divergent opinions into account anyway) more often than a generalist/non-expert does for a whole host of reasons. I must admit i often run across obnoxious know-it-all generalists and I can't take whatever they say as gospel truth. In such cases, I feel experts' opinions are way more reliable than others'.

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