‘Antedisciplinary’ Science

I was chatting with a visiting speaker at SMU a few months back about how the challenges of doing interdisciplinary science in academia. I believe that some of the most exciting opportunites in science are around the edges of the disciplines, where traditional fields overlap. I’ve tried to focus my career on these edges, and have written two review papers on Seismoacoustics and Big Data Seismology that explore disciplinary overlaps. However, even though the word ‘interdisciplinary’ is in vogue, funding agencies and departmental politics are partitoned into disciplinary ways of thinking. I frequently hear things like ‘this doesn’t fit in this funding bucket’, or ‘all graduate students should be exposed to XYZ to be a card carrying Earth Scientist’. He recommended I read this article titled ‘Antedisciplinary Science’, by Sean Eddy. I’m very glad I did!

Three of my favorite quotes from the paper capture the message quite well:

“when I think of new fields in science that have been opened, I don’t think of interdisciplinary teams combining existing skills to solve a defined problem—I think of single interdisciplinary people inventing new ways to look at the world.”

“Focusing on interdisciplinary teams instead of interdisciplinary people reinforces standard disciplinary boundaries rather than breaking them down. An interdisciplinary team is a committee in which members identify themselves as an expert in something else besides the actual scientific problem at hand, and abdicate responsibility for the majority of the work because it’s not their field.”

“Perhaps the whole idea of interdisciplinary science is the wrong way to look at what we want to encourage. What we really mean is ‘‘antedisciplinary’’ science—the science that precedes the organization of new disciplines, the Wild West frontier stage that comes before the law arrives.”

“Every generation, we somehow compress our knowledge just enough to leave room in our brains for one more generation of progress.”

It’s a short paper, so I recommend reading it if this grabs your interest. The basic idea that resonates with me is that science is fluid. We create disciplines as a way for single humans to make progress despite the expanding body of our knowledge, but the disciplinary boundaries shouldn’t constrain our thinking, and must evolve to stay fresh. As someone who dabbles in seismology, acoustics, atmospheric science, and data science – often for unusual applications – I sometimes feel like a bit of a misfit. This article inspires me to embrace that.

To read the full article, visit this link:
journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.0010006(opens in a new tab)

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