June 18, 2017

Loose Ends Tied, Interdisciplinarity, and Consilience

LEFT: A network of scientific disciplines and concepts built from clickstream data. RIGHT: Science mapping based on relationships among a large database of publications. COURTESY: Figure 5 in [1] (left) and SciTech Strategies (right).

Having a diverse background in a number of fields, I have been quite interested in how people from different disciplines converge (or do not converge) upon similar findings. Given that disciplines are often methodologically distinct communities [2], it is encouraging when multiple disciplines can exhibit consilience [3] in attacking the same problem. For me, it is encouraging because it supports the notion that the phenomena we study are derived from deep principles consistent with a grand theorizing [4]. And we can see this is areas of inquiry such as learning and memory, with potential relevance to a wide variety of disciplines (e.g. cognitive psychology, history, cell biology) and the emergence of common themes according to various definitions of the phenomenon.

Maximum spanning tree of disciplinary interactions based on the Physics and Astronomy Classification Scheme (PACS). COURTESY: Figure 5 in [5].

The ability to converge upon a common set of findings may be an important part of establishing and maintaining coherent multidisciplinary communities. Porter and Rafols [6] have examined the growth of interdisciplinary citations as a proxy for increasing interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary citations tend to be less common than within-discipline citations, while also favoring linkages between closely-aligned topical fields. Perhaps consilience also relies upon the completeness of literature inclusion for people from different disciplines in an interdisciplinary context. Another recent paper [7] suggests that more complete literature citation might lead to better interdisciplinary science and perhaps ultimately consilience. This of course depends on whether the set of evidence itself is actually convergent or divergent, and what it means for concepts to be coherent. In the interest of not getting any more abstract and esoteric, I will leave the notion of coherence for another post.

[1] Bollen, J., Van de Sompel, H., Hagberg, A., Bettencourt, L., Chute, R., Rodriguez, M.A., and Balakireva, L. (2009). Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science. PLoS One, 4(3), e4803. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004803.

[2] Osborne, P.  (2015). Problematizing Disciplinarity, Transdisciplinary Problematics. Theory, Culture, and Society, 32(5-6), 3–35.

[3] Wilson, E.O. (1998). Consilience: the unity of knowledge. Random House, New York.

[4] Weinberg, S. (1993). Dreams of a Final Theory: the scientist's search for the ultimate laws of nature. Vintage Books, New York.

[5] Pan, R.J., Sinha, S., Kaski, K., and Saramaki, J. (2012). The evolution of interdisciplinarity in physics research. Scientific Reports, 2, 551. doi:10.1038/srep00551.

[6] Porter, A.L. and Rafols, I. (2009). Is science becoming more interdisciplinary? Measuring and mapping six research fields over time. Scientometrics, 81, 719.

[7] Estrada, E. (2017). The other fields also exist. Journal of Complex Networks, 5(3), 335-336.

1 comment:

  1. Interdisciplinarians
    Dear Bradly,
    As I've noted before, those of us who practice interdisciplinary research tend to be marginalized:
    A local attempt to organize us was made a few years ago, and might be worth following up:
    Your graphs suggest a curious way of pulling together interdisciplinarians: take one of these networks, and color the nodes representing disciplines for a given individual. That individual could then be ranked by various measures: number of disciplines, scatter over the network, creation of new links or enhancement of weak links between disciplines, etc. The ranks could be used to try to form a Society of Interdisciplinarians. Of course, such an effort might prove as fruitful as attempts to herd cats. But perhaps metagraphs, linking interdisciplinarians together by degree of overlap of their discipline sets, could identify those who might want to talk to each other.
    Yours, -Dick Gordon