by Judith Curry
Our age reveres the specialist but humans are natural polymaths, at our best when we turn our minds to many things. – Robert Twigger
Aeon Magazine has published an interesting article entitled Master of Many Trades. Some excerpts:
We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here’s a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world.
Industrialism tends toward monopathy because of the growth of divided labour, but it is only when the physical element is removed that the real problems begin. When the body remains still and the mind is forced to do something repetitive, the human inside us rebels.
The average job now is done by someone who is stationary in front of some kind of screen. Someone who has just one overriding interest is tunnel-visioned, a bore, but also a specialist, an expert. Welcome to the monopathic world, a place where only the single-minded can thrive.
Classically, a polymath was someone who ‘had learnt much’, conquering many different subject areas. Polymaths such as Da Vinci, Goethe and Benjamin Franklin were such high achievers that we might feel a bit reluctant to use the word ‘polymath’ to describe our own humble attempts to become multi-talented. We can’t all be geniuses. But we do all still indulge in polymathic activity; it’s part of what makes us human.
So, say that we all have at least the potential to become polymaths. Once we have a word, we can see the world more clearly. And that’s when we notice a huge cognitive dissonance at the centre of Western culture: a huge confusion about how new ideas, new discoveries, and new art actually come about.
Science, for example, likes to project itself as clean, logical, rational and unemotional. In fact, it’s pretty haphazard, driven by funding and ego, reliant on inspired intuition by its top-flight practitioners. Above all it is polymathic. New ideas frequently come from the cross-fertilisation of two separate fields. Francis Crick, who intuited the structure of DNA, was originally a physicist; he claimed this background gave him the confidence to solve problems that biologists thought were insoluble.
Despite all this, there remains the melancholy joke about the scientist who outlines a whole new area of study only to dismiss it out of hand because it trespasses across too many field boundaries and would never get funding. Somehow, this is just as believable as any number of amazing breakthroughs inspired by the cross-fertilisation of disciplines.
The benefits of polymathic endeavour in innovation are not so hard to see. What is less obvious is how we ever allowed ourselves to lose sight of them. The problem, I believe, is some mistaken assumptions about learning. We come to believe that we can only learn when we are young, and that only ‘naturals’ can acquire certain skills. We imagine that we have a limited budget for learning, and that different skills absorb all the effort we plough into them, without giving us anything to spend on other pursuits.
One reason many people shy away from polymathic activity is that they think they can’t learn new skills. I believe we all can — and at any age too — but only if we keep learning. ‘Use it or lose it’ is the watchword of brain plasticity.
Monopathy, or over-specialisation, eventually retreats into defending what one has learnt rather than making new connections. The initial spurt of learning gives out, and the expert is left, like an animal, merely defending his territory. One sees this in the academic arena, where ancient professors vie with each other to expel intruders from their hard-won patches. But the polymath, whatever his or her ‘level’ or societal status, is not constrained to defend their own turf. The polymath’s identity and value comes from multiple mastery.
The old Renaissance idea of mastering physical as well as intellectual skills appears to have real grounding in improving our general ability to learn new things. It is having the confidence that one can learn something new that opens the gates to polymathic activity.
JC comments: In thinking about how monopathy and polymathy apply to climate science, as recently as two decades ago, few scientists would have referred to themselves as a ‘climate scientist’; rather they would refer to themselves as say an atmospheric scientist, geochemist, oceanographer. Now, many scientists refer to themselves as a ‘climate scientist’. Are climate scientists polymathic? Most don’t seem to be; rather the subject seems to be constrained by the monomathy of the IPCC consensus, and most still focus on a single sub discipline (e.g. atmospheric chemistry, ocean dynamics, etc.). The climate field also shows social tendencies of monopathy, whereby ‘outsiders’ are dismissed as not being real climate experts. ’Outsiders’ here include academics from other fields (e.g. solar physicists) or individuals such as Nic Lewis.
More polymathic activity is needed in the context of climate science. I think senior academics, or technically educated individuals who are retired from other fields, are the ones with the luxury of time and status to indulge in polymathy. I think technical blogs can encourage polymathy.
Climate science, and its linkages with socioeconomics, is an exceeding complex topic, arguably a ‘wicked mess’, that seems to require a polymathic approach. I look forward to your ideas on how to encourage polymathy particularly in the academic environment and graduate education.