Sunday, August 27, 2006

What should you know?   posted by Razib @ 8/27/2006 09:25:00 PM

Here is a portion of an email I received from an occasional correspondent:

I often find Indians scientists, doctors and engineers singularly uninformed/uninterested in anything much beyond their own expertise. The trend is increasingly pronounced with passing generations. My parents' generation had a lot of spill across the sciences and humanities. A reasonably educated person could carry on a conversation about several topics without necessarily knowing the technical minutiae of each one. Scientists and philosophers within my family conversed and debated each other with ease. My own generation lost some of those interdisciplinary skills. The current generation in India is even more compartmentalized.

The comment is not India-specific. Many of my friends with little or no science background are poorer for it. They make grand generalizations about human "nature" with pretty much zero understanding of the biological constraints, and psychological propensities, of our species. And yet, in my experience many scientists are utterly clueless outside of their own field of expertise. Many "old timers" on this blog will remember David Deutsch getting schooled by godless capitalist in regards to evolution and genetics. In a broader sense, if scientists stuck to talking about their particular set of questions that would be fine, but their attempts to discuss history or international politics in my opinion are often as nuanced or informed as Post Modernists who use the gloss of mathematical terminology in their hucksterism.

And yet the demands of the modern world mean that there are few Leibniz's, and it seems unlikely that anyone could be a Leibniz. Even within fields like "biology" and "chemistry" there are clans which never meet and speak in mutually unintelligible dialects.

Ironically, though today we often (at least among the elites) deny the importance of a "canon," it maybe that a canon is even more important in providing common points of reference as our professional interests become more specialized. Analogies and metaphors are laced throughout our speech, conversation and dialogue, and yet they rely on some level of common knowledge and deep understanding of the conceptual structures which characterize a particular idea or system. To some extent the canon does not matter in regards to content. I think the substance does have utility in other ways, e.g. a knowledge of American history, and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, might be beneficial to Americans, especially the elites, in the way they approach their responsibilities as a citizen. But, the important point is to facilitate smooth communication. Of course, we all have pop culture. We all know Real World and Nelly. That's a common lexicon. But is this sufficient? Is the idea that we should know Great Books simple snobbishness? Does watching Real World allows us to generate templates of the "Angry Black Guy" (e.g., Kevin from New York I, etc.) or "Rural Virgin" (I forget) which aid in getting across our points?