Panel presentation given at Society for Literature and Science, 1996

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!

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 saying.
  4. 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 you.
  5. 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.

  6. 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."
  7. 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."
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.