Panel presentation given at Society for Literature and Science,
How-To Tips for Interdisciplinary Communication
Abstract: Doing interdisciplinary work in Artificial
Intelligence and Cultural Theory, I have become painfully aware of
successful and not-so-successful strategies for communicating across
the great divide. Here, I would like to put forward some of the major
pitfalls that have ensnared me along the way, as well as some of the
more successful strategies that have resulted from these lessons.
Some of the lessons are relatively obvious; for example, in making
interdisciplinary forays it is important to motivate one's goals for
both disciplines, and not just from the point of view of one of them.
Others are less obvious, like subtle differences in language use that
can easily lead to misunderstanding ("Saying science is evil is
unscientific; saying science is stupid is fine").
Fundamentally, communicating across the divide - assuming one really
wants to communicate - is a kind of intellectual translation,
necessitating familiarity with and respect for the worldview of the
individuals on both sides.
Fundamentally, science is done by scientists (i.e. people), humanities
is done by humanists (i.e. usually different people). Here, 'science'
or 'humanities' is not just an epistemological realm but a world-view
that involves certain ways of organizing one's understanding of the
world. Conflicts between the two realms are often over 'obvious' ways
of understanding world; e.g., for the humanist, science as 'obviously'
complicit with capital; for the scientist, science as 'obviously' able
to achieve some kind of objective truth. Arguments over these things
will not be solved at a purely discursive level, because they have to
do with ways of viewing the world, as opposed to what exists in the
world per se. In order for culturalists / scientists to be able to
talk, they have to be able to translate their beliefs into a language
that can be experienced as 'obvious' by the people on the other side.
Here, I am focusing particularly on strategies whereby culturalists
can make themselves understood to scientists. In my experience,
scientists are are willing to listen to humanistic arguments as long
as it is not made too difficult for them. There are a number of
heuristics that, while not panaceas, can make communication easier;
they often work from science to culture, too. These heuristics assume
communication is actually what you want, which is unfortunately not
totally clear, looking at the history of these debates.
Most of what I have to say here is glaringly obvious. The sad thing
is that these maxims too often go unheeded. I learned the hard way;
don't make the same mistakes!
There is one final maxim that I did not give at my presentation, which
I later regretted: have a thick skin. If you are
going to do interdisciplinary work, particularly work in fields that
have very different assumptions, it is inevitable that people are
going to say something you don't like about one of your home fields.
Brush it off; it is better to overlook these incidents and work
towards your ultimate goal of mutual understanding than to blow these
incidents up into their own interdisciplinary barrier.
- Don't be insulting. This is straightforward.
You can't expect your audience to listen if you are busy calling them
names, telling them they are evil, intellectually bankrupt, or worse.
This maxim can be a little more subtle than it appears because you
have to be clear on what the other side takes as an insult. For
example, one of my (scientific) colleagues who will remain nameless
claimed that scientists don't mind being called idiots, as long as
you don't call them evil.
- Motivate your goals for the other people. You
can't expect other people to listen to you with interest if you don't
motivate what you're saying from their point of view. In critiquing
someone else's field, there is quite a difference between claiming
that they should quite their jobs and go home because everything they
value is useless, and pointing out flaws in their field that undermine
their own goals and motivating them to help you help them fix the
problems. You can get people excited about what you have to say, not
only by trying to get them to adopt your values (though if you can,
more power to you), but also by convincing them that YOUR critiques
will help THEM in their work.
- Don't use a lot of obscure terminology. Obscure
jargon is the number one academic defense against having other people
understand one's work. You may not be able to get away without some
jargon, but be sure to define it clearly so that the `interlopers'
from the other side will be able to get a handle on what you are
- Don't get defensive. A typically human
response to having one's painstakingly constructed argument blown to
bits by an idiot on the other side simply not getting what you are
saying is to get defensive. You've spent years thinking about how
screwed up that field's approach is; now you've finally had a chance
to tell it to them like it is, and they have the nerve to talk back
from their glaringly incorrect views. Right? Wrong. Chances are
your colleague on the other side is actually curious about what you
have to say - and if they're not, it can't hurt to flatter them into
thinking they are. Don't let your missionary zeal get the better of
- Stay in the concrete. A lot of the conflicts
between the humanities and sciences have to do with big worldviews and
not small everyday problems. You may not be able to convince your
colleague that your metaphysical assumptions are better than theirs,
but you may still find that you can come to agreement about ways to
interpret concrete problems that everyone has experience with.
Staying in the concrete keeps the argument from devolving to the "does
the table really exist, or is it only a social construction?" kind of
arguments that don't seem to get anyone anywhere.
The next two hints are particularly helpful for humanists speaking to
scientists. Scientists may be tempted to experiment with doing the
opposite of these hints.
- Talk epistemology, not politics. This is a
subhint of #2. Scientists are trained to think in the realm of facts:
what is and is not true. They often see political considerations -
what is fair or good - as being external to their work. A good way to
get scientists to see eye-to-eye with you on political concerns is to
talk about the effect of the concern on the epistemological accuracy
of what they do. For example, instead of saying, "it is ridiculous
that medicine is so sexist as to exclude women from studies on diet
pills," you could say "the fact that diet pills, while largely used
by women, are still overwhelmingly tested on men, should make one
worry that we do not know everything there is to know about their
effects on their user population."
- Qualify your statements. This is an instance of
difference in language use. Humanists are by and large used to
statements like "Las Vegas is America" (Baudrillard). They understand
that Baudrillard probably means, "Las Vegas sums up many qualities
that we associate with our picture of America." Scientists reading
this statement will tend to interpret it as a statement of fact -
"What? Of course it isn't America! What about Toledo? I was in
Jackson Hole once and it was NOTHING LIKE Las Vegas!" Avoid
accidentally pinging scientists' desire to find exceptions to every
universal statement by qualifying what you say - "Las Vegas is like
America" - "Medicine is often sexist."