Specialization of science bleg

I am looking for good writings on whether science has become an overly specialized endeavor, and if so what are the scientific and social consequences of that development?  Any leads you might offer would be most appreciated.  Of course this could cover many different fields.


Not exactly on point, and a bit old now, but still among my favorite books and a continuing source of partial self-justification for my lack of intellectual focus:

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson


Agree. Consilience has some good passages on how over-specialization reduces the ability to integrate findings across disciplines.

Great book.

Science that doesn't attempt consilience is not science.

The language is a touch precious, but this recent George Steiner interview might have currency in some circles: http://www.presseurop.eu/en/content/article/1320071-george-steiner-certain-idea-knowledge

As someone who works in biological (medical really) research I gained a lot from reading "A conversation with Richard Lawrence called "The Heart of Research is Sick" @ http://www.lab-times.org/labtimes/issues/lt2011/lt02/lt_2011_02_24_31.pdf

I realised that there was a need for a voice
to express the frustration that many scien-
tists felt, particularly young scientists, about
what was happening to science. Since then,
the trends that I picked out have continued,
getting worse and worse and worse, until
the whole fabric of science and the way we
do things has become corrupted. There are
many problems. Some are more interest-
ing than others.
Essentially, it’s the publication process.
It has become a system of collecting coun-
ters for particular purposes – to get grants,
to get tenure, etc. – rather than to communi-
cate and illuminate findings to other people.
The literature is, by and large, unreadable.
It’s all written in a kind of code, with inap-
propriate data in large amounts, and the
storyline is becoming increasingly orches-
trated by this need to publish. We all know
it. We all suffer from it. I think the changes
to the scientific enterprise have been inex-
orable and progressive. The deterioration
has been so steady that people don’t real-
ly realise how much things have changed.

You wrote about the publication sys-
tem in ‘The Politics of Publication’ (Nature
2003; 422, 259-61), criticising the atti-
tude of the editors. At that time, you’d al-
ready been a journal editor for more than
20 years. Do you feel in some way responsi-
ble for how things have changed? Were you
carried along by this movement?
Lawrence: I guess I should share some
responsibility. But I did try to resist it. De-
velopment is an unusual journal because its
editors are all professional scientists, who
are still working; most of us in full-time re-
search enterprises of our own. Their per-
spective on science is different. When I
started, there were hardly any young pro-
fessional editors. Now, most of the journals
are managed by professional editors, most
of whom have chosen editing rather than
research, or who couldn’t go on in research
because they didn’t have enough com-
petitive advantages. The power structure
of scientific publication has moved more
and more into their hands. They are part-
ly to blame for what’s happened, they and
those who try to measure everything. Those
who measure us are using publications as
a means of assessment. I think measure-
ment, assessment and evaluation lie at the
heart of the problem. Once you start count-
ing papers, scoring journals and measur-
ing impact then the purposes of publica-
tion change.

Models of a Man, which discusses economics at length.


George Steiner mentioned this briefly. "Our world is shrinking. Science is becoming inaccessible to us. Who can understand the latest innovations in genetics, astrophysics and biology? Who can explain them to the profane? Knowledge no longer communicates; writers and philosophers in our day are incapable of enabling us to understand science. At the same time, the scope of imagination in science is dazzling. How can we claim to speak of human consciousness if we overlook what is most daring and imaginative? I am concerned by what it means to be literate today. Is it possible to be literate if you do not understand non-linear equations?"

Your quote speaks to accessibility, not specialization. Accessibility, even within professions, does affect specialization.

The middle and bottom tier researchers can't compete with the funding, knowledge, data, and public goods available to top tier researchers. The low hanging fruit (at least in Econ theory) has already been picked. In order to publish, researchers have had to work in small niches too obscure or insignificant for better researchers to waste their time in.

Science is getting harder for the professionals too. Some people who got tenure 30 years ago would be teaching at a community college today with the same skill set.

In my opinion.

"Is it possible to be literate if you do not understand non-linear equations?”

Is this a serious question?

It makes sense in context. He is questioning the value of literature and culture as a vehicle for understanding the modern world. When scientific knowledge and learning consisted of classical thought and philosophy, literature and being literate conveyed a deep knowledge of these subjects spanning science. With the vast sweep of modern science, largely inaccessible even to those devoted to it, you can hardly claim to have scientifically well-grounded beliefs without at least some understanding of the mathematics behind it all. TLDR : literate here means scientifically literate.

"Does the complicity between literature and philosphy still pertain today?

In my view, both forms are under threat today. Literature has chosen the domain of small scale personal relationships, and no longer deals with great metaphysical themes. We no longer have writers like Balzac and Zola, geniuses of human comedy who could explore every domain. Proust also created an inexhaustible world, and Joyce’s Ulysses is still very close to Homer... Joyce is the bridge between the two great worlds of classicism and chaos. In the past, philosophy could also claim to be universal. The entire world was open to the thought of a philosopher like Spinoza. Today an immense part of the universe is closed to us."
... ...
"Culture is in danger of becoming provincial. Perhaps we need to rethink our entire conception of culture."

I write optimization software and I run into this issue quite a bit. This blog post (disclosure: I wrote it) touches on the principle that advances in very specialized science don't lead to much in the way of economic gains if they can't be integrated into an engineering process that leads to new products and services:


Therefore technologies like Genetic Algorithms are going to become increasingly important not because they are faster or more clever, but because more diverse specialized knowledge can be brought to bear on a single engineering problem.

That's an interesting question. Here are a couple of papers I wrote relating to this topic:

Widening Access and Narrowing Focus: Could the Internet Balkanize Science?

Global Village or CyberBalkans: Modeling and Measuring the Integration of Electronic Communities

Larry Moran is a microbiology professor and writer of the blog "Sandwalk". He often writes about what he thinks is wrong with science education, which may be relevant to your question. These posts can be found under the "science education" keyword.


Rather far afield, but Condorcet's "Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind" (1794) is built on the assumption that scientific knowledge will be widely dispersed throughout the population, and this will perfect our understanding in ways that result in the solution to all our political problems. In other words, science will produce mass enlightenment, and enlightenment will prevent tyranny and ensure economic growth and perpetual progress.

It is not enough that knowledge grow without bounds. It must be held in common to be politically effective. This was the idea behind Diderot's Encyclopedia.

There a number of problems with Condorcet's ideas, but clearly the specialization that makes it impossible for advanced knowledge to be held in common, even in common among members of the same discipline, is a pretty big one for Condorcet's politics. In the absence of mass enlightenment, arguments from science become another variety of arguments from authority, and instead of contributing to self-government can actually work against it. Insert your favorite contemporary examples here.

Benjamin Jones at Northwestern: "The Burden of Knowledge and the Death of the Renaissance Man: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”
Review of Economic Studies, 2009

And: "The Increasing Dominance of Teams in the Production of Knowledge" (with B. Uzzi and S. Wuchty) Science, May 2007

James Evans, UofChicago sociologist, has a Science paper on the topic, "Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship." http://www.sciencemag.org/content/321/5887/395.full

In short, he finds that online access to journals has made scientists search more narrowly, leading to more specialization and less exploration for new ideas.

There's a recent article in Wired on the subject. Not sure I agree with the argument in its entirety, but it's certainly thought-provoking.


There is also a small literature on the diminishing number of polymaths (a result of hyperspecialization), a related topic.


This quite good, relatively short TED talk is about cross disciplinary collaboration.

For ideas, I recommend very much Bruce Charlton. He has a number of posts and a longer booklet on science. Some choice quotes:

A major difference between real science (as it was) and scientific research (as it is now) can be stated in the form that real scientists aimed to be as honest as possible, while scientific researchers do not allow their honesty to fall below a minimum level. [link]

And of course in the practice of ‘research’ dishonesty is necessary – root and branch. The professor must pretend to be seeking the truth when actually doing whatever is necessary to get grant funding. He must be merciless toward the errors of the junior researcher and the non-PC researcher – while apologizing for and fawning over the dominant researchers – the peer review cartel whose opinions determine appointments, promotions, grants, publications and prizes. [link]

"When I look at these areas of science now, and compare them with the area as they were when I entered them, I see no progress whatsoever: the problems, errors, misunderstandings and stupidity which were there years ago are still there - in many cases amplified and elaborated. In many cases things are in a much worse state than they were when I first entered the field: error and falsehood have not been suppressed or corrected, but have instead thriven.

There is no evidence of progress. "

Hmmm... TGS?

Bruce Charlton is often very bitter and prone to overstatements, but I think these are a necessary antidote to the general go-go science progressive mood. Many people seem to think that if there are any problems with science at all, they are minor and tinkering at the edges of the science publication and funding system will fix them.

This has a few chapters (with references) on efforts to map scientific disciplines.


The topic of overspecialization - and its disastrous consequences - is a major topic in Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. There is little discussion of economics, but it is a very good book if you have not yet read it.


I'd suggest to look at Kevin Kelly (www.kk.org) and his article in how ignorance grows with science

David Weinberger's new book Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room.

Excerpted at the Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/01/to-know-but-not-understand-david-weinberger-on-science-and-big-data/250820/



Research Specialization and Collaboration Patterns in Sociology
Erin Leahey1 and Ryan C. Reikowsky2
1Department of Sociology, University of Arizona, P.O. Box 210027, Tucson, AZ 85721-0027, USA, leahey@u.arizona.edu
2Department of Sociology, University of Arizona, P.O. Box 210027, Tucson, AZ 85721-0027, USA, rcreikow@u.arizona.edu

Researchers interested in the structure of scientific fields have documented increases in specialization and collaboration. How, if at all, are these two trends related? Is specialization so severe that scholars cannot collaborate unless they share specific research interests? Or, have specializing tendencies promoted research that joins specialty areas and broaches new topics? We answer these important questions for a single discipline, sociology, using both qualitative interviews and latent profile analysis. We empirically identify three collaborative styles that depend on both the areas and extent of specialization in coauthors' research programs. The prominence of the reinforcing generalist profile suggests that specialization in science mainly serves to encourage scholars to work with others in their specialty area. However, the existence of two other styles — a more complementary one and one that is characterized by migration into new intellectual terrain — suggests that subfields within sociology are permeable enough to permit boundary-spanning, original research.

Here's an essay I wrote for PLOS Computational Biology about how natural history and molecular biology have drifted too far apart (starting with E.O. Wilson and James Watson in the 1950s): http://www.ploscompbiol.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pcbi.0020156

Jacques Barzun's *Science: The Glorious Entertainment*

Try this book:
Globalization and Organization. World Society and Organizational Change, by Meyer, Drori and Wang.
The second paragraph is about the scientization of society. In there you can find at least some literature on the issue.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert A. Heinlein

a blog called Mon Mon.

On the related question of whether pure and applied mathematics are drifting (too far?) apart, you might reader this panel discussion at the 2006 International Congress of Mathematics:

Here's an article I found very helpful in thinking about the state of modern science:
John Hardwig, "The Role of Trust in Knowledge" (1991), at http://www.jstor.org/pss/2027007
One of its themes is how much of modern science is literally impossible for any one person to fully understand.

Interesting paper on specialisation in astronomy and physics, particularly telescope design and organisational structure. Fair bit of physics jargon, the best non-technical sections are pp. 5-7, 14-16


Actually, rather than looking for good writings on scientific specialization, you should instead look at how academic science departments are reorganizing themselves. Departments are forming interdisciplinary research groups--pharma chemists working with brain researchers, comp scientists working with graduate marketing departments, etc.

Look at how universities are changing--sure, the department is still specialized, but the department members are also in and working with other specialists in different fields in an uber department.

By uber department, I mean a working group that other departments have jointly funded so their specialists work with other specialists. This is quite common in life sciences today, and is even becoming more common in graduate business programs--where a faculty member in the graduate business school is working with a faculty member in the comp sci department or a faculty member in the health care management department, etc.

I think that is specialization. If I go have someone in the statistics department do my statistics, I'm doing more other stuff.

c p snow, the two cultures (1959), only kind of tongue in cheek.

Science is not certainty...

Specialization and fragmentation are only to be expected. Finite brains vs. infinite knowledge. Wisdom?

Social insects transcend the limitations of their members. How far can science transcend the limitations of its members, its scientists? Maybe as @BILL describes it. Maybe science should study this: How to optimize itself, given its limitations. The nation that does this best... But who would get the grant?

What is important for man to know?

It might be an interesting exercise to relate Quine's "web of knowledge" approach to epistemology to overspecialization in science...

In my "field" of biomedical research, the word "field" commonly refers to something even more specialized than neuroscience or vascular science, etc. The word is often used for a specific protein or set of associated proteins. For example, I'll hear "people in the thrombin field..." (thrombin is a blood clotting enzyme) to differentiate themselves from those doing work with other blood coagulation enzymes. Scientists studying thrombin will at times not be all that familiar with the literature for other proteins thrombin itself associates with. Not only is science specialized, but there are sub-sub-sub-sub-specialties

I decided to write a blog post about this instead of a long comment here: http://rocksandwater.net/2012/01/11/specialization-in-science-part-1-specialization-of-the-scientist/

Basically, I think it's difficult to characterize science, an interconnected body of knowledge (both factual and methodological) as 'specialized'. However, individual scientists may be getting more specialized (I argue that we are not, we just know Fortran instead of Latin), and a unit of scientific productivity (e.g., a journal article) may be getting more specialized. I think the latter is true, because this unit has gotten smaller (a series of 5-25 page, rather specific journal articles instead of a 200 page monograph) and because rigor is generally increasing: new measurement techniques allow us to test previous assumptions or hunches, and although this takes a lot of time and money to do, it is increasingly expected.

Thinking about science in breadth vs. depth terms, analogous to horizontal and vertical dimensions in manufacturing, is necessary when addressing this question. A paper using variety of methods (chemical, physical, numerical, observational) put forth to answer a question that has little impact outside of its discipline may not be any more specialized than a paper that uses one method to show that Brownian motion can describe bird flock dynamics.

Columbia professor Mark Taylor's NYT op-ed on the dangers of over specialization in academia:

"And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations."


Wow. I wish I had such a blog with loyal readers whom I can ask such questions!

Nobody's thought of this, but if I had a blog and had a post on this topic I'd post it here.

If memory serves Richard Posner wrote on this briefly in Sex and Reason. He believed that specialization was a good thing but that it was important to have really bright people such as himself who could synthesize knowledge across fields.

Thank goodness for the polymath whizzes like like Posner and Cowen!

The impacts of this, and ways to address it, are covered in Campbell's "Ethnocentrism of Disciplines and the Fish-Scale Model of Omniscience": http://ngw.cs.colorado.edu/xwiki/bin/download/DCNM2009/Relevant+Resources/Campbell-fish-scale.pdf

Some are trying to broaden - consider the effort at ASU to bring together law and science - the head of the law school is a lawyer with a PhD in genomics. Other parts of the ASU family brought in a physics expert to disrupt thinking about cancer, as described in Nature. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110601/full/474020a.html

Specialization does have upsides though. Consider for example cross-border collaborations between cutting edge cancer centers focused on particular cancers and tumors - knowledge is exploding in that area. Just browse the publications listed online at for example, MD Anderson or Sloan Kettering.

Note also this new and apparently successful cross discipline effort to figure out where Deepwater oil went, and how and why.

article: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/01/04/1110564109

summary: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/01/120110093601.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily%2Ftop_news%2Ftop_science+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Top+News+--+Top+Science%29

I suspect that some of the problems discussed here involve components arising from the funding regime that has come to dominate scientific research. Most so-called "basic research" is funded by government and this can be shown to induce more "lock-step" in the kind and direction of research that tends to be done and to which Peter Lawrence and others have attributed the "corruption of science," including over-specialization as research becomes more tethered to interests driven by the political process. This doesn't necessarily mean that such research is "wrong"; rather, it reflects problems associated with the increasing centralization of research funding.

My gut feeling is that increased specialization is inevitable. Scientists only have a certain amount of time and there is more knowledge out there than ever before. There are benefits to knowing the big picture, especially benefits to teaching the big picture to students, but science itself is a practice that leads itself to specialization.

Lee Smolin, "The Trouble With Physics" - Chapters 16-20 (especially 19). Smolin focuses these chapters on answering, "Why, despite so much effort by thousands of the most talented and well-trained scientists, has fundamental physics made so little definitive progress in the last twenty-five years?" He goes on to explain the difficulties in hiring "someone from outside the field who offers new ideas over the hiring of a technically impressive candidate who is working on narrow issues that advance the existing research."

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