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Tuesday, July 23, 2019


I have recently watched three documentaries on my computer, all of which in one way or another reinforce an idea I have long had that plays a role in my YouTube lectures on Ideological Critique, an idea that has, at first glance, nothing at all to do with ideology or politics.

The documentaries deal with the discovery in some underwater caves in the Yucatan of the skull of a teen-age woman who died 13,000 years ago; the discovery at a site in South Africa of two million year old remains of a new species of Australopithicus, given the species name Sedibus; and new discoveries expanding our knowledge of the impact of a giant asteroid off the coast of Mexico whose global effects led to the extinction of three-quarters of all life on earth 66 million years ago, including the dinosaurs, known now as the Cretaceous Extinction.

The documentaries are in their different ways quite fascinating, and there are of course many lessons that can be learned from them, but in my idiosyncratic manner I drew from all three a lesson that might not be the first thought for many viewers.  To put it simply, in each case the exploratory and explanatory work being reported was possible only because of the cooperation of a huge number of highly specialized experts no one of whom could possibly have mastered the totality of the science and engineering on which the documentaries draw.

No doubt your first response will be “duh!” or some more elevated version of that.  But try to look at it from the perspective of a Humanist.  Save for the problem posed by the need for translations, from the Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Arabic or German or French or Dutch or Italian, which of course was no problem at all for my old professor Harry Austryn Wolfson, who read them all, I have felt quite confident in pursuing my philosophical investigations entirely on my own.  It would never occur to me to launch a new philosophical investigation by assembling a team.  And yet, the scientists who discovered the skull of the 13,000 year old young woman needed underwater divers, expert makers and users of oxygen tanks, laboratory scientists skilled in extracting and analyzing DNA, and countless other technical and scientific specialists both to collect and then to analyze the remains.

It has not always been thus.  Charles Darwin did his revolutionary work pretty much on his own [leaving to one side the captain and crew of the Beagle.]  Even Watson, Crick, and Franklin worked pretty much on their own, not that long ago.

There are obvious epistemological and methodological implications of this feature of scientific research, but what has always fascinated me is how utterly different from my own daily work experiences are the experiences of fellow professors who, when we meet at a party or on a university committee do not seem noticeably different from me.  A philosopher, a field anthropologist, a laboratory chemist, a macroeconomist, and a mathematician do such wildly diverse things that it is more an act of faith than of rational classification to call them all academics.


Anonymous said...

Take a look at the author list for pretty-much any academic research article in (empirical) high energy physics or astro-physics. 10-12 years ago, I was curious about this, & found some lists of authors that numbered more than 1000! (I had to cut and past the lists into excel, one author per line to count them).

marcel proust said...

That last one was me!

Sonic said...

That last sentence is amazing, an act of faith!

Do you think Darwin could have developed his revolutionary theory if he had been collecting and organizing data in a team with multiple experts?

Anonymous said...

Darwin was part of a team (at least in 19th century terms). He relied heavily of Lyell for geological and general knowledge, his grandfather Erasmus Darwin opined on evolution, Lamarck influenced him, Robert Chalmers' book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was widely popular and helped prepare the public's mind, Alfred Russell Wallace's paper to Darwin forced his hand and he finally published his musings after 20 years.

No scientist or creative thinker ever works in a vacuum. We are all "standing on the shoulders of a giant" as Newton's deft put down of Robert Hooke actually captures.

I'm reading an interesting book by Paul J. Steinhardt, The Second Kind of Impossible, which nicely documents how a theoretical physicist -- working with experts in many areas -- uncovered a natural mineral containing quasi-crystals, a supposed "impossibility". Steinhardt does a very fine job of showing how many individuals (and luck) combined to make a discovery possible. This is real "science" compared to the pablum presented in text books of the "inexorable advance of knowledge" where key figures are picked out in a succession of nearly inevitable discoveries leading to the advance of modern science. The real world is a group effort. We are a social species. We survived because we socialized and included a diversity of personality types and special abilities and interests. We kid ourselves if we think advances come from the creative inspiration of "lone geniuses".

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Of course, but surely you can see the difference between saying that Darwin learned from and was influenced by various people and saying that he worked as part of a team. Kant was deeply influenced by and learned from all sorts of people, but he wrote the Critique on his own.

Dean said...

In The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, Randall Collins illustrates the networks of influence motivating individual thinkers who mostly worked alone. That's very different from enlisting, organizing, and directing a team of collaborating researchers whose individual efforts must complement each other's in real time. Compare writing a play to staging one.

Nice Nihilist said...

This is only vaguely related, but I couldn't wait to read John Roemer's reply to Prof Wolff's reinterpretation of Marx in Volume 2 of Prof Wolff's collected papers, a purchased that probably won't count toward the Friday political engagement registry. It seems that in Marxist scholarship, the kind of collaborative effort one sees in anthropology or high-energy physics is virtually impossible--in one reply after another, each scholar disagrees with the preceding on essential points of interpretation. Still Vol 2 was very much worthwhile. The replies to the irascible Kliman elsewhere are marvelous (I will probably suffer for having written this).

David Palmeter said...

“Big Science” is an enormous user of people and resources. Teams are essential. Before I retired, I made numerous trips to Geneva working with a couple of developing countries at GATT and its successor, the much-hated WTO. Most of the people there are economists, with some lawyers. That was my circle. That’s who I’d work with and socialize with.

One day one of them asked if I knew which academic discipline accounted for the most PhDs in Geneva. I immediately said economics. Wrong. It’s physics. There are hundreds of them at CERN which is located in a Geneva suburb. Only a few are employed directly by the organization, but great numbers of them are there at any one time to conduct their experiments. The collider itself is the largest machine in the world. A multitude specialized fields must have been involved in designing it--engineers and physicists representing all kinds of sub-specialties. I can’t imagine that there is a single person who could explain in any detail the purpose of every component in it, or even understand in any depth some of the experiments conducted with it.

Shortly before it opened, my wife and I went on a tour of CERN. Before the tour, a physicist explained what CERN and the collider were all about and what they hoped to find (first up: the Higgs boson). He made many references to the Big Bang. After his talk, a woman with a very proper British accent asked: “At the Big Bang, what banged? And who banged it?” The physicist was ready for the question. He didn’t miss a beat: “I’m only a physicist. You’ll have to ask a theologian.”

A further note: We can have this online conversation because Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist at CERN, invented the web.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of some physics journal papers with dozens of authors on one paper.

Dean said...

There's also Eliot's "The Waste Land," Ezra Pound, "il miglior fabbro" and all that, though I suspect it was a case of Pound tidying up after the fact, rather than collaborating on the composition on an ongoing basis.