Monday, April 06, 2009

The Value of Intellectual Diversity

Academia, like society in general, is susceptible to cliques. Cliques are exclusive groups of people. And like-minded scholars (whether they be egalitarians, libertarians, feminists or environmentalists) often form and interact within cliques. Indeed these tightly knit intellectual communities often function as the spring board or catalyst for a great deal of research within disciplines. So scholars might organize and attend conferences on their shared interest, edit books and publish "back and forth" exchanges on topics of mutual interest in specialized scholarly journals, etc.

Because academia is often characterised in overtly idealized terms (e.g. as the pursuit of knowledge), very intelligent academics can be blind to the cognitive limitations of their own discipline, the social pressures to conform, etc. When scholars are driven by the short-term carrots of careerism (e.g. winning the praise of their dissertation supervisor, getting published and eventually getting tenure and promotion) it is easy to go loose sight of the many obstacles that can impede genuine knowledge.

So it is important to recognise that academics, just like all groups, are vulnerable to various biases and pressures to conform. Like-minded thinkers enjoy each other's company. And "outsiders" can make one feel uncomfortable. So what happens? Well, political philosophers tend to dismiss the objections of economists as "irrelevant", environmentalists characterize all dissenters as "science-sceptics", etc. Academics tend to read research in their own narrow field (why waste time reading more broadly if it won't help you realise one of the short-term carrots mentioned above?), send their work to journals receptive to their ideas (after all, who wants their work to be rejected!), attend conferences where those sympathetic to their position will likely attend, etc.

The professionalization of academic disciplines creates pressures that run counter to the goals of truth and knowledge. And it is important that we recognize this.

How can one overcome (or at least minimize) some of these biases and limitations? At a minimum one should try to stay abreast of developments in fields outside of one's main discipline. So you can reap the benefits of "intellectual" diversity by holding "many different minds" imaginatively present when doing your research. This can be achieved by being well read across a broader range of disciplines than might be required to churn out just specialized research in a narrow sub-field of a discipline.

But reaping the benefits of diversity requires more than just holding others imaginatively present. One should also try to make them "conversationally present" by presenting your work to different audiences, perhaps even sending your work to journals in different disciplines (and getting feedback from reviewers in those fields). The latter has been enormously valuable to me in my own research.

Now this kind of strategy has some risks in that it might take one longer to hone the skills to write for a different audience and one never knows for sure what the short-term "careerism" payoff might be (e.g. how much weight hiring committees might place on publications in a different discipline). But on the other hand one shouldn't overlook the long-term benefits that can come from forging interdisciplinary interests. Not only is it intellectually stimulating (and has not only sustained, but actually increased!, my enthusiasm for research over the years), but it can actually make one a better scholar. It can broaden your understanding of particular questions and provide you with the distinct skills needed to progress debates in new and interesting ways.

I was motivated to write about this topic when I happened to come across this recent paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The authors examine the benefits of social diversity, which parallels some of the points I mention above concerning intellectual diversity. They conclude their paper with the following:

out-group newcomers may have their primary impact on group performance, not because they bring unique information to the group, but because they command the attention of oldtimers and force them to consider their social standing in the group. Consequently, although allies of out-group newcomers may experience distress, when it comes to mastering the task, the pain is worth the gain.

The Globe has an interesting story on this study here.