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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    Mar 30 2012: To my mind, this isn't an either/or proposition.

    Subject matter experts advance the leading edge of thought in their individual fields while well-rounded interdisciplinary thinkers discover new and unexpected connections between disparate areas of inquiry.

    The two have an inherently symbiotic relationship, for which we're all better off.
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    Mar 30 2012: Hi Steve! Thats a great quote and sums up my thoughts perfectly!! Thank you ... I might have to use that sometime soon :)
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    Mar 30 2012: Hi Steven. Great question! As a scientist i find that some people tend to over-specialise and don't make an effort to get a holistic understanding of a situation. I don't think that is healthy. I.e. if you specialise in a particular field you should still have an open enough mind to be well read about the entire field atleast so you know your role in the bigger picture. That said I don't think the world will benefit from everyone being a Jack of All Trades, Master of None. We would get nowhere. Collaboration is the key and in order to collaborate we need to communicate. In the case of the muscles, while each type is specialised for different activities there is a control mechanism that sends signals depending on the activity being undertaken - it is in essence, collaboration. Everyone has a role to play in the bigger picture.
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      Mar 30 2012: Asha,

      Thank you very much for your reply, and I'm glad you enjoyed the question. I completely agree with you on the fact that we need both in society. Being too specialized and closed-minded will not allow you to experience where you fit in, or as you call it "see the big picture," bringing about stagnation. However, if everyone was just full of general knowledge, then individual fields would have trouble advancing without these "experts" to push them forwards. This is a quote by the economist and philosopher Henry Hazlitt which I thought agrees with your position that there is a problem to both if examined individually:

      "The dilemma is this. In the modern world knowledge has been growing so fast and so enormously, in almost every field, that the probabilities are immensely against anybody, no matter how innately clever, being able to make a contribution in any one field unless he devotes all his time to it for years. If he tries to be the Rounded Universal Man, like Leonardo da Vinci, or to take all knowledge for his province, like Francis Bacon, he is most likely to become a mere dilettante and dabbler. But if he becomes too specialized, he is apt to become narrow and lopsided, ignorant on every subject but his own, and perhaps dull and sterile even on that because he lacks perspective and vision and has missed the cross-fertilization of ideas that can come from knowing something of other subjects."
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      Mar 30 2012: Asha! Thank you so much for finding an even deeper analogy here between the idea of cooperation/collaboration and muscle contractions in the context of coordination!

      I suppose in whales, given their size coordination is even more important?
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    Mar 30 2012: Yes, society obviously needs more interdisciplinary work. Art and science go hand and hand to create magnificent feats of architecture, design, machinery, and innovation. Schools often put subjects in silos. This needs to be changed immediately.

    I am a student at Syosset High School in Long Island, New York. I am writing a book on education reform — Time to Think Different: Why America Needs a Learning Revolution.
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      Mar 30 2012: Nikhil,

      Thank you for your comment. Being an engineering student, I definitely see the importance and necessity of interdisciplinary work and using different fields to compliment each other. I am also interested on your thoughts as to why you think schools put subjects in silos, or even how that affects society. Fritzie Reisner, in her comment on this thread, seems to think that it is the individuals who yearn for this specialization in one field, while you think it is more because of the education system. However, both of you do agree that interdisciplinary work is what society needs. I would love to hear your thoughts, and would also appreciate if you would let me know when you're done with your book. Here is a quote by R. Buckminster Fuller on the problem of society operating on the theory of specialization which you could think about including in your book, or just enjoy for yourself.

      Of course, our failures are a consequence of many factors, but possibly one of the most important is the fact that society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking. - R. Buckminster Fuller (1895 - 1983), Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1963
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        Apr 3 2012: For me personally, the question of specializing in one field versus focusing on a lot of diverse areas has an important temporal aspect. Often, it seems important to learn one subject really well. Before a test, trying to get a job, training for a job, or even just studying a specific area for pleasure. I think that in the long-run, however, it is important both to have experiences in specific areas as well as a broad interdisciplinary base.

        This has some interesting analogs to human health and biology: I liken focusing on a specific area to a sprint, working those fast-twitch muscle analogs in the brain, working to all but exhaust your curiosity. Interdisciplinary learning is more like running a marathon--It is really a life-long journey, and it exercises your mind in a different way. Ultimately, you need to practice both to have a healthy background, but it is clear why certain situations require one style of learning or the other.
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    Apr 1 2012: Hey Nina -- No worries. I enjoy the questions your students pose. They always set the scene really well and give context to their thinking. Nice structured thought! I agree, whales are a bigger story of collaboration -- and think about whales that breach! imagine how much more collaboration is required to haul an extremely large animal full out of the water and help it land gracefully back?
  • Apr 3 2012: I think we need both specialists and generalists in our society, and i also think there are not enough generalists. Also a group of generalists has better problem solving power than a group of specialists in diverse fields, simply because they can communicate and understand each other more easily.

    In my opinion a generalist also has a better understanding of the world he lives in and probably a more flexible thinking.
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      Apr 3 2012: Moving forward with this line of thinking, I feel that it is a matter of finding a balance between the two. I feel that now, as we become more specialized, we become less aware of anything outside this specialty. This really is a shame. To me, it is very gratifying to be able to discuss various topics outside of a chosen, specific field. Although it is great that people are becoming more specialized and more cutting-edge work is done, it is very difficult for me to entertain the idea that our world becomes so specialized that we lose the ability to understand the world from various perspectives. This is why what we need is balance, so that we can blend together the specialists and the generalists.
    • Apr 4 2012: I definitely agree with your opinion that there has to be a balance between specialists and generalists. While specialists are immensely important to our society in their function as experts in a given field, generalists are necessary to synthesize the specialists' expertise. I firmly believe, however, that even specialists should have a wide range of experience outside of their chosen industry if only to be well-informed citizens.
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    Apr 2 2012: My grandfather used to joke 'we are becoming more and more specialized. It used to be that everyone had to know a little bit of everything. Then people began to know more and more about narrower and narrower fields. Soon people will know everything about nothing.' not sure where he got that, but I like it :)
    I like the interdisciplinary. I have never understood why specialists stay around specialists who are like them. Making new ideas from old ones works like evolution. It happens faster when you have diversity in the gene pool! That's my opinion. Woo!
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      Apr 3 2012: Hi, Sarina,
      I think the reason specialists stay around specialists is because the advancement technology has progressed. in most of the fields. A simple topic can lead to a deeper and bigger field for people to dive in. For example, in my bioelectricity class, we talked about different aspects of the electricity that is in our body such as hearts, muscles, brain and more. Every week we tackles different topics. I feel for each of there topic we went through, we were merely tapping the surface. There is so much more to learn to be an expert on one of those subjects! That is the reason why I think specialization has its place.
      But I also agree that diversity can bring in inspirations. And also from swimming in the diversity pool, we can always realize the field we want to dive deep into later on.
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    Mar 30 2012: As numerous contemporary philosophers have recently observed our society is moving towards two directions. On the one hand divergence through specialization and on the other hand convergence due to the inherent connectedness of our knowledge fields.It is not so much of an issue, as it is an observable phenomenon. To explain this we need to understand that we've arrived at a junction where our knowledge increases at exponential rates both on the collective and personal levels and at the same time the links between knowledge, mostly due to the improvement of communications technology, are also being recognized at a much higher pace than before. Based on the above, specialization as a term is redefined. Today the specialist emerges as not the solver, but the holder of a piece of a wider puzzle. And it is through the creative and collective contributions of all specialists that mankind strides towards the future.
  • Mar 30 2012: Need both, PLUS language/models/expertise in the "specialized" function of brokering and synthesis. It's been so long since I got my interdisciplinary Masters (and I haven't kept up with the academic side), I'm not up to speed on the mind-tech of cooperation ... but found the Rheingold TED talk (linked above) fascinating on this point (it was from 2005, so has likely been superceded by others who saw the genius in it). If I were to look again, now, I'd probably inquire at the Santa Fe Institute too -- which is now generating thrilling new interactions with writers and other artists, leavening the computational dimensions of complexity. My own bias is to focus on "shared aim," as a starting point -- which aligns all disciplines in certain ways from the get-go. It can be the hardest and most important part of a project.
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    Mar 30 2012: What a great conversation to start my day! I run a transdisciplinary Masters programme in the UK, across technology, e-sciences, digital arts and the humanities, and for the students on my course the ability to work across and beyond discipline boundaries is extremely exciting (and challenging!) and leads to really innovative products/processes/ideas. (If you're interested, you can see the kind of work that this kind of transdisciplinary approach leads to at www.ioct.dmu.ac.uk/masters). It's not just having the specialist knowledge from different disciplines that is beneficial but also the practical understanding of the different working practices and processes of different disciplines. Being able to communicate and across disciplines is the key, leading to a deeper understanding of connections, which can result in groundbreaking work. Having people in the workforce who can work in this way, with a understanding of the value of different disciplines and how they work together can surely only be beneficial for society.
  • Mar 30 2012: I think the blunt answer is you need both. And I offer as a very terrible example some dialogue from the SCI-fi film: the fly


    VERONICA
    How could you do this alone?

    BRUNDLE
    Well, I don't work alone. There's a lot of stuff in there I
    don't even understand. I'm really,uh... a systems management
    man. I farm... bits and pieces, uh, out to guys who are much
    more brilliant than I am. I say... "Build me a laser this,
    design me a molecular analyzer that," and they do, and I
    just stick'em together. But, uh, none of them knows what the
    project really is. So...

    I hope this illustrates the point. At the moment there is literally too much, for one human to ever learn. So, you need to have abstraction layers. Your deep dive specialists learn everything there is to know about something, and your higher level guys have an understanding of those fields, but pull the principles together into larger designs.
  • Mar 30 2012: The answer to the question depends what the task is.

    Neither is superior than the other.

    Regardless of which method, individual competency is crucial to make things happen.
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      Mar 30 2012: Great reply. Context is very important and our solutions should always be able to adjust to the context, or give way to new solutions, when the context changes.

      And it all begins within.
  • Mar 30 2012: Both.... one needs to know more but be in contact with more well-rounded individuals working together on regular basis...
  • Mar 30 2012: I don't know exactly what the right balance between the two would be...
    But in this society the standard, the default, is to be a specialist.
    That's why I believe interdisciplinary work is needed... just because the world is full of specialists.

    Also, there are more limitations on specific topics when studied in isolation from other disciplines... once you start getting interdisciplinary, you can move past those barriers, but there is always a need for specialized individuals.

    If you want to be a leader or have an important role in life, I guess it's better to be inerdisciplinary and well rounded. As well as for just enjoying life.
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      Mar 30 2012: Thank you for your comment.

      I agree that there would have to be a balance between the two, and doubt there is a "right" balance for today's society. There is definitely an importance in being open-minded to many subjects and being able to find similarities and common ground between them. I also see why you would say that the default in today is to be a specialist. Why do you think that is? Is there an innate drive in humans to want to focus and hone in on just one field, or is that guided by society/education system?
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        Mar 30 2012: I believe that many individuals enjoy the feeling of becoming excellent or highly competent at something and understanding it well. This would be consistent with Martin Seligman's ideas in positive psychology of what factors lead people to happiness or content. Not everyone, but many people, have a taste for depth.Often in the absense of depth, understanding of the interconnections among fields remains superficial. Deep understanding is usually necessary but not sufficient for advancing a field. Interdisciplinary understandings enhance ones prospects for advancing the field through associative thinking.
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        Apr 1 2012: Hey Steve,

        I think both, the humans' innate drive and the structure of the education system, push us towards specialization. As Fritzie said, we tend to have a "taste for depth," but usually for only a couple of subjects. Through life we experience a lot of things but, for me at least, not everything catches my attention. When things do interest me, I try to learn more about them; and when they don't interest me, they just drift out of sight. The point here is that specialization does for me seems to be innate.

        The education system seems to foster this innate tendency towards specialization. Perhaps this is why we must declare majors upon entering college. We can't just go to school, learn a little bit about everything, and then get a degree in general knowledge; it has to be something specific. Even If the innate tendency towards specialization was not already there, school forces it in that direction. The top of the education hierarchy (PhD) does not promote an increase of knowledge in all subjects, but rather an extreme specialization in one topic. It is tough for people just looking to learn about everything because as one climbs the educational hierarchy, the focus seems to get more and more narrow.
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          Apr 2 2012: Andrew,

          I completely agree with you here. I also tend to indulge deeper into subjects that I find interesting and that catch my attention, leaving out the ones I am not as interested in. Over time this causes a specialization in a general area and that is only bolstered by our education system as you point out. You make an interesting point comparing the education system to a hierarchy where a PhD is considered to be the top. Seems as if we are led to believe that by specializing deeply in one topic, we have attained the most "knowledge possible." I have found a quote from 1948 by American scholar Richard Weaver showing exactly that we just alluded to:


          The former distrust of specialization has been supplanted by its opposite, a distrust of generalization. Not only has man become a specialist in practice, he is being taught that special facts represent the highest form of knowledge.
          Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: 1948), p. 59
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          Apr 3 2012: Hi Andrew,

          I agree with you, our educational institutions push us towards increasing degrees of specialization; just reading the title of a PhD thesis is proof of that. I guess when climbing the educational hierarchy the focus gets "more and more narrow" because we realistically don't have all the time in the world and, as an earlier comment by Yu-An Chen noted, fields are ever-expanding and simply keeping up-to-date with the advancements in one field can be difficult. The more in-depth you go, the larger the field seems to be; I've decided to call this the "law of specialization" (it applies to all specializations, for example lizard contest behaviour, which is a huge field depending on who you talk to). However I think the approach of solely trying to keep abreast of developments in your specialization, with little awareness of other fields, can actually make things more difficult. Inter-disciplinary collaboration is only possible if one is generally aware of the capabilities of other disciplines. At the same time, whilst a generalist is capable of linking together many specialists, they might suffer from not being able to sufficiently understand the needs of a particular discipline- because they're not specialists. I think a great way to get around this is for specialists to also generalize, and spend some procrastination time learning about something completely different (which is why TED is great). Despite the old adage I believe it's very possible to be a jack of all trades and a master of one.
      • Apr 1 2012: I believe this has a lot to do with society but also human psychology. I guess it's the easiest choice. It's tough to get out of your confort zone... start doing something that you're again, not the best at.
        If you were the best football player in your country (or school), you'd feel as if playing hockey is not worth it because you're out of your confort zone, NOT BEING THE BEST.

        Hard as you may work, decisions are usually the hardest part of life, and constantly starting something new, tolerating starting from the bottom of the chain, is not as rewarding as staying in the confort zone, for most people.
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    Apr 3 2012: The first thing that comes to mind is the saying "jack of all trades, master of none". This is the chief opponent to the interdisciplinary worker. If ones education is to broad, one risks not going deep enough into any topic to know it with any real substance. However, especially in today's day and age where the lines between disciplines are blurring, in order to be an educated individual, one must be exposed to a wide range of disciplines so that at least the topic of conversation is familiar and everyone can participate in the conversation.
  • 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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    Apr 3 2012: Hey Steve

    Interdisciplinary work, I feel is crucial to solving the current major problems and to the progress of many fields. Efforts should be made such that issues should be tackled by diverse groups of both specialists and well-rounded individuals. Problems require more than one set of knowledge to develop solutions because of the interconnections between everything. I do not think that there should be either more specialists or more well-rounded individuals because each person has developed to be one or the other and forcing someone to do something beyond their interests or capabilities would stun growth and problem solving. I think E.F. Schumacher describes my thoughts best in his “Small is Beautiful”, “What is at fault is not specialisation, but the lack of depth with which the subjects are usually presented, and the absence of meta- physical awareness. The sciences are being taught without any awareness of the presuppositions of science, of the meaning and significance of scientific laws, and of the place occupied by the natural sciences within the whole cosmos of human thought.” Each individual should have a specialization but the depth at which he or she knows other subjects must be greater than a few facts and gut inclinations. Each person has their own college major or specialization but the core curriculum must be more heavily emphasized and must be more rigorous to build a stronger foundation for specialization. All engineering specializations would mean nothing without a deep understanding of the math, science, history, ethics, and motivations for them. An engineer does not only speak in numbers but must be able to communicate through speech and writing.
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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.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generalist_and_specialist_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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    Apr 2 2012: I think that while well roundedness and interdisciplinary work are admirable, for much of how our society functions, specialists are vitally needed. For instance, if one were to need a specific medical procedure done, they would want a doctor who knows that one procedure inside and out and has done it hundreds of times. Obviously, if you're considering a team working on a large project, you hope that the members of the team know the context of what they're doing, but you also hope that each of them is a specialist in the work they're responsible for.

    Also, while interdisciplinary fields are important for advances in new science, after a while, they stop really being considered interdisciplinary. Take for instance Biomedical engineering. It used to be considered a cross between chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering, but is now just considered a specialized field.
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      Apr 3 2012: Nicolette,

      I think this quote by the philosopher and economist Bernard Mandeville really captures what you are saying:

      "But if one will wholly apply himself to the making of Bows and Arrows, whilst another provides Food, a third builds Huts, a fourth makes Garments, and a fifth Utensils, they not only become useful to one another, but the Callings and Employments themselves will in the same Number of Years receive much greater Improvements, than if all had been promiscuously followed by every one of the Five."

      He, along with yourself, seems to indicate that specialization in fields is definitely needed (and preferred), not only for the society, but also to advance the field in isolation. His Hut-builder can easily be compared to your doctor who knows a certain procedure "inside and out." I find both of your ideas of having the person who is an expert in a certain field conduct that specific task very interesting, although I seem to believe a mix between the two is needed. Thank you for your comment!
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    Apr 2 2012: I think we need to ask ourselves what is the goal of making the decision between specialization versus being interdisciplinary. What sort of benefits do we want for society? Specialization can be seen as a huge benefit to society as it allows for mass production. We no longer need artisans to craft a single product, rather, we have people who specialize in one very specific skill. Specialization also allows us to ignore the need to learn a lot or do a lot to give ourselves more time to focus on other things which can benefit society (like the use of dishwashers, etc versus doing it ourselves)

    Of course, this also introduces a problem. People are free to ignore some knowledge to obtain other knowledge; but people are also free to not learn at all. I believe a person's choice not to do anything beneficial to society is the crux of the problem. We cannot all specialize, we need people who are like systems engineers, who can see how all the piece fit together. The issue is that society lacks trust and the sense of duty. If one were to specialize, that one has to trust that systems engineers are around to piece things together. And there has to be a sense to duty for others to become systems engineers. This is analogous to one who is missing a limb. Phantom limb syndrome occurs and we think a limb is there, but the limb (specialized components) are missing.

    To sum up, we definitely need both. I'd like to emphasize "working together". I think regardless of whether we're specialized or not, we need to have engrained in ourselves that our intentions should be to benefit society, else we become the malignant parts of society and instead of continuing to benefit society, society needs to waste time and effort to fix the malignant parts.
  • Apr 1 2012: In my opinion specialist gain a much deeper understanding when taking a multidiaplenary approach. Seeing the connections that link disaplens together. For a basic example, to have deep understanding movement in animals biology, chemistry and physics needs to be taken into account, for the phenomima could not happen unless all these areas of specialized science worked together. Nature dose not spealize when it comes to its fundermentals, even when the species that it evolves is to occupy a specialized nech in an ecosystem.
    In high school biology we look at cells and their specialized organelles that perform certain biochemical processes that are required for the cell to function and how these processes have a interdependence with other organelles. How the cells have a interdependence with other cells to creat specialized tissues, that have a interdependence with other tissues to make specialized organs that have a interdependence with other organ to make organ systems. How all the organ systems are interdependent on each other to make an organism and how the organism has a interdependence on other organisms to creat a ecosystem that is needed for them all to survive.

    The short answer is that speclisation is fine when it works with other speclisation as they are all connected. Like all the specialized commtonents of the computer I'm using to write this are interconnected and working together to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This amazing piece of tech allows me as indervidual to connect and share with others in this amazing community. We need specialist that aren't boxed in compleatly that see the bigger picture and can apply their understanding to other fields to help them grow and become stronger creating deep understanding. We need specelist to think out of their box.
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    Mar 31 2012: Deep deep knowledge is needed to make advances in any field, but creativity needs inspiration from outside the existing knowledge base. So an open mind, ability to listen and collaborate are just as important. But being jack of all trades and master of none won't add much to the sum of human existence.
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    Mar 30 2012: Both are needed and there's no point in forcing someone who is by nature a specialist to stop working in this way. The same applies to forcing a generalist to ignore the broader implications.

    However, outside of research, specialism can be overdone. The medical profession is a good example of where this happens. It's not uncommon for a doctor who, for example, specialises in treatment oof a particular joint from an orthopoedic perspective to dismiss symptoms which have no bearing on his narrow area. The result can be a patient with a serious problembeing denied treatment.

    So in some circumstances, there is a need to prevent or compensate for over-specialisation.
  • Mar 30 2012: We need both A specialized perspective and wholesome perspectives creates growth in balance. Should we only have one or the other we'd find ourselves getting stuck as a community. Each offers momentum like a professional ballroom dancing -l one person leads direction and the other balance. This makes the dance seem effortless and graceful and yet there's a lot of muscle, thought and physics happening in the dance. If both lead and balance you get chaos and not much grace.
    • Apr 3 2012: Melissa,

      I enjoyed reading your comment. The dance metaphor is a really good way to visualize the relationship between generalization and specialization. I’m especially intrigued by the idea that one person leads and the other follows. Perhaps, this sort of division is also necessary in society. That is, we need people who are extremely specialized in their field and people who are familiar with a range of disciplines to create balance. Sure, I believe that it is possible to be an expert in a field as well as a well-rounded individual. However, I don’t think we can be equally good at being both. Speaking from personal experience, people seem to lean more toward one or the other side of the specialization/generalization spectrum. But, if we think about the specialization/generalization dichotomy in light of what we know about muscle contraction, it does not seem as problematic. Just as the different components of muscle work together to create movement, people who fall on different sides of the specialization/generalization spectrum can work together to maximize their productive potential.
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    Mar 30 2012: What an interesting topic to raise! Though I know next to nothing about Bioelectricity, I can relate. Both experts who are specialized or interdisciplinary are crucial to society. I don't think we can do without either. They both have so much to offer. Interdisciplinaries may serve as the link between specialized experts.
  • Mar 30 2012: I think a simple decision will not suffice in this early stage of understanding of how interdisciplinarity works. The disciplinary excellence has to balanced with the power interdisciplinary innovative capacity. Lot's of research will have to focus on how science will develop in regard to this topic. Cognitive, communicative, methodological differences arise from strict disciplinary teaching, but increase the speed information exchange within a subject. Differences in terminology create problems in interdisciplinary research especially if the well defined polysemy is unknown to a team.

    Interesting subject. Balance and meta-work is required.
  • Mar 30 2012: I agree with Nikhil, the separation of learning into subjects early in a child's education really blinkers individuals. The old way of topic based learning is a much better model. After all the invention of the battery came about due to the observation of a fish. Experts in all fields are necessary, but the ability and knowledge of the wider world allows for true innovation.
    Look forward to reading your book Nikhil!
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    Mar 30 2012: Well a combination of both is a rare and much sought after attribute.
  • Mar 30 2012: All Rounders definitely, the thinker is always the one that needs to know the different worlds and what they have to offer before creating another Industry Standard.
  • Mar 30 2012: An important part of having "general" knowledge is developing versatile intellectual capacities - reasoning, analyzing, questioning, sorting information, contextualizing, zooming in, zooming out, identifying patterns, singling out anomalies, etc. What is more important than having general knowledge, in terms of having basic information about a variety of subjects, is having general capacities - capacities that enable acquiring and processing new information outside of one's area of specialization. I'd like to suggest that specialized knowledge combined with generalizable capacities is the best formula for maximizing both benefit to society and benefit to the individual.
  • Mar 30 2012: As a general rule, what society needs is for the best tools to be used for the job at hand. Often, development of ideas and theoretical concepts is best handled by teams of specialists, each trained in a slightly different area of one field working as a team. Implementation of ideas, conversely, is often best handled by one or more people with interdisciplinary skill sets, more aware of issues not directly concerned with only one field.

    Sufficient work by specialists can develop theory to a point that saves a vast amount of trial and error in implementation, applying known issues to theory to test its validity. Likewise, theory can be put into practice by those with interdisciplinary skills in ways that specialists may never have thought of, being unaware of areas outside their specialty. The issue they face is perhaps best summed up by one of my favourite quotes: "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is."

    The old-fashioned concept of the 'renaissance man', who could know all there was to know in every field, is now an impossibility and many fields can easily absorb a life-times work. Perhaps what society needs is a better understanding of how specialisation and interdisciplinary approaches are both critical in their own way.
    • Apr 2 2012: I see the sense in having specialists, focused on theoretical knowledge in their respective field, save time on the implementation of ideas by a team of interdisciplinary oriented people. Attempting to draw an example from real life, I would see the building of a submarine requiring an interdisciplinary team at the head along with those who specialize in design, engineering, and manufacturing fields. The people in charge should have some knowledge of all the specialist fields and be able to provide a “big picture” perspective, whereas if specialists in only one field were in charge the view would be more narrow.
      Also, somewhat related to the topic, the Cooper Union School of Art has an interdisciplinary seminar. http://cuids.org/
  • Mar 30 2012: It seems that a look at the most respect thinkers and scientist throughout history, from Aristotle to Einstein to Hawking, (along with most of the speakers at TED) have a background steeped in a liberal education. This education has included not only math and science, but history and philosophy and art and literature. The experience people gain from such an education in invaluable in allowing people to see the connections across the disciplinary divides.
  • Mar 30 2012: @Anthony @Nikhil. You're right that interdisciplinary work is good. But my interpretation of the question was 'is generalization better than collabaration?'. And I think not.
  • Mar 30 2012: What do you mean by 'beneficial to society '? If it's more civilization and growth, the classic idea of 'progress', then this is a solved problem that was taught to me in high school economics: " In the first sentence of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith foresaw the essence of industrialism by determining that division of labour represents a qualitative increase in productivity." See here for more details as thrashed out by many philosophers through history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Division_of_labour