12 July 2007

complexityland (metaland? abstractionland?)

it's disneyland for dorks! the santa fe institute, where i've been since monday morning, says it's "devoted to creating a new kind of scientific research community, one emphasizing multi-disciplinary collaboration in pursuit of understanding the common themes that arise in natural, artificial, and social systems," all of which is true.

in this sense, it's very (very very very) different from your standard research university, although rather less different from your standard liberal arts college: it's too small for departments and, in any case, frowns upon the idea that knowledge need be specialized, or that there should be topic-bound conventions for inquiry.

sounds great, right? and of course, it is great. it is completely, completely great with the gorgeous views and the leather chairs and the catered meals and the smart people and the hiking trails and the intense learning. on the other hand, there are a couple of related pathologies here that make me worry about a general trend in my own discipline, namely the great and greatly increasing power of The Quant (and its close cousin The Formal).

in particular, as was explained to me in an earlier conversation: you need to be able to put up with a lot of reinvention of the wheel from very smart people who are engaging new fields. relatedly, although this issue is farther below the radar in hallway conversation: because barriers to entry are higher for the mathier disciplines, there seems to be more entry in the opposite direction. more qualitative disciplines tend to write in more traditional human languages; therefore they may seem transparent to anyone who is literate, even though some of the language may be used in very nuanced or technical ways. math, on the other hand, includes both a crazy density of heretofore unknown symbols and (arguably) some concepts that can't be expressed in human language at all. what i can't figure out (yet) is exactly how this surface-understanding gradient figures into the worrisome presumption that arguments crafted numerically are intrinsically more sophisticated than those arrived at through other sorts of laborious evidence-sifting. why this seeming assumption that things we can't decipher must just be too smart for us?

related question: does interdisciplinarity necessarily privilege mathematical abstraction, or are there ways of formulating questions and projects that can get to truly collaborative answers? i ask because it often seems that only increasing flights of abstraction can 'cover' the questions of several disparate scholars -- put a chemist, a psychologist, a political scientist and a mathematician in the same room and the mathematician is pretty likely to win the conversation. my initial answer, though, is that you *can* frame the question so as to be truly collaborative, but that doing so effectively might actually require everyone to back away from the leading edge of her/his discipline.