Against interdisciplinary studies

“Interdisciplinary” is an academic buzzword.  Therefore, it must be bullshit.

How do we know in this particular case?  Because all the power science, mathematics, literary criticism, and history have, both to acquire truth and to improve the minds of their practitioners, comes from its practitioners subjecting themselves to a specific mental discipline.  (See my objection to education-by-newspapers.)  Interdisciplinary studies mix disciplines by definition, thus sacrificing the epistemic and moral guarantees of each component.  Mixing together basketball and baseball doesn’t make something twice as fun; it makes an incoherent mess.  Mixing your time between the discipline of being a celibate monk and the discipline of being a married man responsible for a household doesn’t mean twice as much discipline; it means neither discipline.

Nobody will take the replication crisis seriously until it hits chemistry or physics.  Everybody always knew deep down that social sciences are BS.  They had to be!  They’re interdisciplinary, i.e. undisciplined:  trying to answer humanities questions with scientific tools.

Bits and pieces can be salvaged.  Anthropology has distinct components.  Evolutionary anthropology is a science, albeit a speculative one.  Recording and interpreting other cultures’ folkways and myths is a respectable humanity.  Cut out the advocacy, which has no epistemic value, and one has two rather humble disciplines.  Psychology is not a science, but it has picked up some useful lore for teachers, leaders, and parents.  Some of microeconomics appears to be on solid ground.  And so on, though all the social sciences.  There are nuggets of modest knowledge, but will social scientists have the humility to give up their philosopher king aspirations in exchange for more solid epistemic grounding?

17 Responses

  1. The Economist George Stigler had a wonderful essay about what he called non-disciplinary departments, I think it is in this book. His key quote on the subject is “The main insight learned from interdisciplinary studies is the return to specialization”

    Incredibly, as I was googling to get the quote exactly right, I came across this document entitled “What can I do with a degree in interdisciplinary studies” from the University of Texas: Rio Grande Valley. The document uses the Stigler quote and appears not to be satire.

  2. You are correct to write that the word interdisciplinary is most dazzling in the eyes of people who have no direct experience of a real discipline. One tip-off that you are in a non-discipline is that the advanced courses have no real prerequisites (there are, of course, pseudo-prerequisites). Another is that its graduate programs do not prefer its own undergraduates, and may even have a slight bias against them. What these things tell you is that there are no difficult basics that must be mastered before one can hope to tackle the more advanced courses, just some jargon and basic ideas. That’s why non-disciplines are teaming with glib salesmen, but are conspicuously short on nerds.

    Needless to say, I know whereof I speak.

    It’s not just social science, though. Environmental science is a rat’s nest of this sort of high-flown fatuousness. Look out for prefix strings. I suppose it began with socioeconomic, but it has spread. I don’t doubt that the word biogeochemical means something, but I do doubt that something is the sort of thing your average nineteen year old undergraduate can understand. Nor should they be encouraged to think they understand anything that goes under the name of an “interface,” or to take an interest in research that is said to occur at an “intersection.”

  3. I’m going to disagree a bit about psychology, but basically it has only three solid findings:

    1. IQ
    2. the Big 5 personality traits
    3. the 5 moral foundations

  4. Incidentally, none those areas in psychology have experienced a replication crisis.

  5. psychology also found cognitive biases like:
    – sunk cost fallacy
    – survivorship bias
    – clustering illusion
    – confirmation bias
    – contrast effect

  6. Pointing out things that are matters of very basic intuition (people look for information to confirm their beliefs) does not a science make.

  7. I hope people aren’t taking my phrase “lore useful to teachers” as an insult. I am a teacher; I regard pedagogy as an art rather than a science, and I appreciate useful tricks of the trade.

  8. I get it: psychology = field full of liberals, 99% of whom would shrink in horror at ideas such as those conveyed on this blog. You feel wet emotions about this. You gotta man up and separate that from your reasoning.

    I’m not a psychologist, but I know enough to tell you psychology is a vaster field than you seem to realize, and much of it is quite earnest in its scientific discipline. Go see what some of the psych grad/post-grad students at your own school are up to.

    If you meant to single out a specialized area of psychology (clinical? I/O? behavioral?) as being undisciplined, then you should say exactly which ones and back it up with surveys of leading journals in those areas. A news story about a famous experiment that failed to replicate doesn’t actually discredit the whole field. That’d be like saying astronomy is bunk because it turns out Pluto isn’t a planet.

  9. “You feel wet emotions about this.”

    Making unsubstantiable claims about the interior states of people one doesn’t like and people who make statements one doesn’t like–the defining fault of the psychologist.

    All fields are 99% liberal. My particular disdain for psychology comes from thinking the methods of the natural sciences are inappropriate for studying the mind.

    The news stories aren’t about one or two unreplicable experiments; they’re about reputable scientists in the field claiming that a significant fraction of published results are unreplicable, including some prominent ones. That does indeed tell me that I should be wary of the claims of psychologists. The demotion of Pluto is in no way analogous. The discovery of more big Kuiper belt objects led people to decide a more restrictive definition of “planet” was more useful; no previous belief about Pluto itself was called into question.

  10. Bonald, you aren’t refuting what I said. You seem to be focusing on a few popular areas of psychology–the same ones the news media has focused on: social and clinical psychology–and ignoring much else.

    I’m sure you are aware there are dozens of other areas of psychology besides those mentioned above. Many of these are highly scientifically disciplined, with replication rates comparable to other scientific fields. Again, I urge you to walk over to your school’s psychology department and see what the grad and post-grad students in those other areas are doing.

    My own field of work–human-computer interaction–is in fact an “interdisciplinary” field at the crossroads of design, computer science, psychology, ergonomics, and ethics, with additional fields playing a role depending on the specialization. This level of exposure to psychology has been enough for me to confidently say you are misrepresenting it.

  11. “You seem to be focusing on a few popular areas of psychology–the same ones the news media has focused on”

    That’s true. I suppose there could be lower-visibility subfields in better epistemic shape.

  12. A good and fair generalization.

    I disagree in exception, and it all comes down to intentions. Interdisciplinary is ripe for fraud, but something like Religious Studies may require History and Philosophy, and done by an honest man both rewarding and interesting.

  13. My impression of psychology is that the epistemic quality is highly uneven, but it also seems that this unevenness is inherent in the subject, and is not simply a matter of laziness or dishonesty in some branches of the field. Economics is more “scientific” than sociology because economic systems more closely resemble the physical systems on which modern science is based. I suspect that the greatest problem across the social sciences is the adoption of the uniformitarian dogma from geology. The human mind is not infinitely plastic, but it is profoundly historic, so that the psychological findings of today should not be taken as permanent truths. Even if they managed to get perfect replication with very large samples and a great many trials, we would not be justified in thinking that the hypothesis was proven for all time. It is by no means the only problem with Freud, but one problem with Freud is that his ideas reflect the psychology of a particular class, time, and place.

    My main objection to “interdisciplinary” studies is that they are so often pitched to undergraduates who haven’t yet mastered any of the relevant disciplines. And, more importantly, who haven’t assimilated the culture of mental discipline as such. Real interdisciplinary work should be the most difficult form of scholarship, when the “interdisciplinary” programs that one encounters in the university are among the easiest.

  14. Yes, there are. Lots of them.

  15. *My above comment was in response to Bonald.

    @JMSmith: Good points.

  16. You seem to be focusing on a few popular areas of psychology–the same ones the news media has focused on

    Though to be fair to Bonald, large portions of psychology really are just unfathomably stupid.

  17. Even if they managed to get perfect replication with very large samples and a great many trials, we would not be justified in thinking that the hypothesis was proven for all time.

    Yes. Which is why psychologists have started to recognize that they need to do more cross cultural studies before pronouncing on human universals. Of course, we also need to study things across time, which means greater certainty will be slow in coming, and will always be somewhat elusive. We can’t, for example, study what people were like in the past.

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