On Interdisciplinarity; or, a Response

Travis Chi Wing Lau // Following my review of Sari Altschuler’s The Medical Imagination, I wanted to continue thinking through larger questions about our interdisciplinary field and what it does. My post today responds to a recent article by Peter Salovey published in Scientific American’s June 2018 issue: “We Should Teach All Students, in Every Discipline, to Think Like Scientists.”[1] Widely circulated by several of my colleagues on social media, Salovey’s article makes a call to action for colleges and universities to “teach all students to think like scientists” on the grounds that STEM training “prepare[s] them to think critically and imaginatively about the world and to understand different viewpoints.” The payoff seems obvious: the only way we can begin to combat the culture of “alternative fact” and “false narratives hav[ing] become entrenched in communities” is resisting the siloing of knowledge within discrete disciplines and working to translate that knowledge across disciplines and ultimately beyond the academy.

Like my colleague, Aaron Hanlon, I found myself agreeing with just about everything in this piece with regards to the kinds of interventions we need to make as an academic community, but as Aaron rightly puts it in his Twitter thread, “the framing is wrong, and kidnaps the core mode of analysis in humanistic disciplines and calls it ‘thinking like a scientist.’”[2] For Aaron, what is particularly pernicious about Salovey’s argument is how it claims an “analytical method for virtually all knowledge workers” (i.e. critical thinking, assessing evidence, testing and revising theories) and flattens it under the rubric of “thinking like a scientist.” I was deeply troubled by (and wholly unsurprised) by Salovey’s reductive model of science as closer to objective truth that merely draws on the humanities to handle delivery and reception of that truth. Not only does Salovey flatten the humanities to rhetoric and communication but also erases its historical relationship to science. The subheading beneath the title, “Only if colleges and universities teach all students to think like scientists” betrays a perverse vision of an academic “utopia” without the humanities because everyone is really a scientist.

Salovey cites vaccine distrust as a prime example of how scientists need to engage in interdisciplinary research to make an impact on “community and policy discussions that are based on facts and understanding of one another’s concerns, not on assumptions.” His example of this interdisciplinary work is computer scientists working with a psychologist to understand public attitudes on social media about vaccinations. Underpinning Salovey’s narrative of “public trust in vaccines” is the assumption that the problem is purely one of information glut, specifically misinformation glut in our digital age that flies in the face of what should be obvious scientific truth. Again, science is figured as the salvific corrective to this cultural problem and employs the humanities (while never calling it such) to attend to “the psychological, social, and cultural factors.” The choice for the article’s featured image is absolutely no coincidence: a scientist as superhero.

Having extensively researched and written on the literary and cultural history of vaccination in Britain, I find the vaccination debates to be precisely the place where we might trouble the boundaries of what constitutes “science” and “humanities.” Edward Jenner’s development of vaccination in the late 1790s was never purely a private discovery in a lab. In fact, Jenner was fully aware that, as a country doctor, his science could not stand alone. To make legible vaccination to a wider public, Jenner depended on poets, playwrights, and essayists to convince public audiences of what was believed to be rural folklore: that cowpox could be used to “secure” bodies from smallpox. The legitimacy of vaccination as a national health practice was debated collectively by scientists and writers within the very pages of a heated pamphlet war. In short, the work of scientific advancement was the work of the literary.

I found Salovey’s lack of attention to history indicative of larger disciplinary trends that I’ve noticed while teaching pre-medical students and students in the hard sciences. Many of my students revealed they knew little about the histories of their own field, particularly the racist and sexist legacies of Western science in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. What many students receive in their curricula are instead reductive progress narratives of scientific and medical advancement. “They were wrong then, and now we’re closer to being right,” one of my students stated to me in class during our unit on the social history of mental illness. This dangerous framing of history as “wrong” leads to the kind of reductive thinking that Salovey demonstrates in his article in which thinking “critically and imaginatively about the world” is somehow a purely scientific endeavor. Even a cursory examination of the history of science reveals how it was always already deeply intertwined with humanistic thinking.

Crucial to each of us working in the medical and health humanities is how we talk across disciplines. What is at stake in the encounter between, say, a literary historian and a neuroscientist and what does productive collaboration actually look like aside from adjacent names on conference programs? How do we ethically bridge the “two cultures” of science and the humanities without valuing one at the expense of the other? Salovey’s model of a “monoculture” does not seem to be the answer. As academic institutions increasingly embrace that all-too-familiar buzzword “interdisciplinarity,” we must be critical of how disciplines are put into dialogue with one another methodologically, theoretically, institutionally. We have a responsibility as interdisciplinary scholars to reflect seriously on how we train our students to think.

A note at the end of the article indicates that the piece was originally published under the title, “Knowledge Can Be Power.” It absolutely can, but as Salovey’s piece reminds us, the work of knowledge-making in the academy is also a set of power relations. Interdisciplinarity is hardly value-neutral: what fields, what methods, what objects of inquiry get privileged and funded matter and have real effects on the kinds of knowledge we produce and share.

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/we-should-teach-all-students-in-every-discipline-to-think-like-scientists/

[2] See @AaronRHanlon: https://twitter.com/AaronRHanlon/status/998190458974203906

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