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The dangers of overspecialization in academia
Overspeciliazation may be hampering progress in the context of higher education and scientific research.
- Overspecialization in academia stops researchers and students from seeing the larger picture of the scientific problems they face.
- Humans have an innate evolutionary curiosity that lends itself towards seeking out novelty and avoiding repetitive non-stimulating tasks.
- People that are overspecialized in one discipline begin to take on an arcane and esoteric view of their subject, which makes it difficult to converse with professionals in other fields.
Humans have an innate curiosity that we carry with us from birth. A child's eye is always roaming about, questioning and wondering about this strange new world. Unfortunately, as we grow older and develop into adults that once ephemeral and magical quality about the world diminishes and for many that light dies out.
It could be that our creative endeavours whither and wane until we're forced into lines of thought and work that aren't fulfilling. Or even our desire for knowledge ironically is diminished by the education system. Conversely, we may begin to delve so deep into one minute area of life that we lose sight of the overall experience of existence. Both of these extremes are far too common in work, education and even scientific exploration.
Our focus is on the latter and how overspecialization in education and science can sometimes be a curse to progress. Let's first look at something a lot of people can relate to — the feeling of discontent or boredom when learning or doing something old and repetitive.
An evolutionary drive to keep us curious
Dan Cable, a professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, in a video with Big Think, spoke about a phenomenon within a certain part of the brain. The ventral striatum — or, as he calls it, "the seeking system" — is a part of the brain that urges us to explore the boundaries of what we know.
Cable says of it: "It's urging us to be curious innately from a young age… Evolutionarily this system was developed to help us to keep us learning."
Throughout history, this simple fact of the mind — this driving force behind innovation and progress — is partly responsible for great inventions, innovations, and for the legendary men and women who've dedicated their lives to achieve their higher ideals.
The end result of this furiously creative drive has been a well-rounded and often multi-disciplinary erudite understanding of various concepts in many fields and disciplines. This is the founding ideal behind the polymath or Renaissance man.
But something happened along the way that has made general knowledge and excellency in multiple fields a rarity. Although it might not sound related, at first, Cable makes a connection between the loss of craftsmanship and individualistic work of a whole process in exchange for extreme efficiency in areas of commerce. This same type of situation is also occurring in academia on multiple educational levels.
The dangers of overspecialization in education
Students in higher education and scientists thrown headlong into their fields of inquiry rarely cross disciplinary boundaries, but doing so is crucially important for advancement in knowledge. Big ideas come from understanding the larger picture and by making connections that aren't confined to some opaque subfield.
Today, a student might pursue an undergraduate degree in chemistry and then go on to focus on astro-chemistry for a Master's degree and then for a PhD they're doing detailed research on a hypothetical chemical reaction in some obscure galaxy light years away.
While they might be the leader in that specific area, they'll know relatively little about the different branches of chemistry dealing with psychoactive drugs or algorithms detailing the best chemoinformatics practices.
With so many different specialized subfields that have been developed and siloed off into their own occult languages, different fields in the same branch of science begin to look like a reading out of an 18th-century grimoire.
Specialization may be necessary and delving deep into a subject as well is still probably worth the effort, but keeping an eye of the greater knowledge of the field and other areas of inquiry cannot be understated.
Oftentimes, the solution to some medical mystery or scientific problem requires that we approach it from multiple directions. We often forget that these distinctions and over specializations are of our own making. Nature does not discriminate and split itself off into branches of being. That is our own doing.
In order to compartmentalize and try to slice off smaller pieces of the mystery, we've developed an insane amount of "majors" in the university curriculum. A millennia ago, universities often only split their faculties into areas of medicine, law, arts, and theology. The modern era has brought us hundreds of different subjects to completely engross ourselves into.
The more specialized we become in one area, the less time we have to dedicate and develop ourselves in connection with other equally important disciplines. Put a classics major and a theoretical physicist in the same room together and have them explain what they're working on. They're not speaking the same language anymore…
In some regard, there is a necessity to be a specialist in some way. But the world also demands that many of us be adept at interacting between disciplines and communicating complex ideas in multiple fields of knowledge.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.