Get smarter, faster. Subscribe to our daily newsletter.
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.
This storm rained electrons, shifted energy from the sun's rays to the magnetosphere, and went unnoticed for a long time.
- An international team of scientists has confirmed the existence of a "space hurricane" seven years ago.
- The storm formed in the magnetosphere above the North magnetic pole.
- The storm posed to risk to life on Earth, though it might have interfered with some electronics.
What do you call that kind of storm when it forms over the Arctic ocean?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/8GqnzBJkWcw" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Many objects in space, like Earth, the Sun, most of the planets, and even some large moons, have magnetic fields. The area around these objects which is affected by these fields is known as the magnetosphere.</p><p>For us Earthlings, the magnetosphere is what protects us from the most intense cosmic radiation and keeps the solar wind from affecting our atmosphere. When charged particles interact with it, we see the aurora. Its fluctuations lead to changes in what is known as "space weather," which can impact electronics. </p><p>This "space hurricane," as the scientists are calling it, was formed by the interactions between Earth's magnetosphere and the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interplanetary_magnetic_field" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">interplanetary magnetic field,</a> the part of the sun's magnetosphere that goes out into the solar system. It took on the familiar shape of a cyclone as it followed magnetic fields. For example, the study's authors note that the numerous arms traced out the "footprints of the reconnected magnetic field lines." It rotated counter-clockwise with a speed of nearly 7,000 feet per second. The eye, of course, was still and <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/for-the-first-time-a-plasma-hurricane-has-been-detected-in-space" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">calm</a>.</p><p>The storm, which was invisible to the naked eye, rained electrons and shifted energy from space into the ionosphere. It seems as though such a thing can only form under calm situations when large amounts of energy are moving between the solar wind and the upper <a href="https://www.reading.ac.uk/news-and-events/releases/PR854520.aspx" target="_blank">atmosphere</a>. These conditions were modeled by the scientists using 3-D <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-21459-y#Sec10" target="_blank">imaging</a>.<br><br>Co-author Larry Lyons of UCLA explained the process of putting the data together to form the models to <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/space-hurricane-rained-electrons-observed-first-time-rcna328" target="_blank">NBC</a>:<br><br>"We had various instruments measuring various things at different times, so it wasn't like we took a big picture and could see it. The really fun thing about this type of work is that we had to piece together bits of information and put together the whole picture."<br><br>He further mentioned that these findings were completely unexpected and that nobody that even theorized a thing like this could exist. <br></p><p>While this storm wasn't a threat to any life on Earth, a storm like this could have noticeable effects on space weather. This study suggests that this could have several effects, including "increased satellite drag, disturbances in High Frequency (HF) radio communications, and increased errors in over-the-horizon radar location, satellite navigation, and communication systems."</p><p>The authors <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-21459-y#Sec8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">speculate</a> that these "space hurricanes" could also exist in the magnetospheres of other planets.</p><p>Lead author Professor Qing-He Zhang of Shandong University discussed how these findings will influence our understanding of the magnetosphere and its changes with <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-03/uor-sho030221.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">EurekaAlert</a>:</p><p>"This study suggests that there are still existing local intense geomagnetic disturbance and energy depositions which is comparable to that during super storms. This will update our understanding of the solar wind-magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling process under extremely quiet geomagnetic conditions."</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.