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Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Case for Inter-field Knowledge...

They say that the time of the generalist has come and gone, but to me that is a sad thing. Of course, every so often some new "hot" field develops from the merging of several other fields, and the buzz word "interdisciplinary" gets thrown around a lot these days. However, it really shouldn't be just a buzz word, and I have two short anecdotes that I think make that case.

The first is a horrifying tale from my first year psychology course last summer (which I had to take so I would be able to take some of the neuroscience courses I wanted to this year). Since it was a summer course it was not actually being taught by a professor, but rather by a PhD student in developmental psychology. The first couple lectures were devoted to neuropsychology, the quaint name given to the "branch of psychology" devoted to studying the actual physical make-up of the human brain (as opposed to several of the other branches, which is basically just making stuff up that sounds vaguely plausible. That, however, is a rant for another day). Anyway, now I had spent the previous four months realising that intelligence was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life studying, so I had done some modest reading about the brain. It was nothing fancy; I think the least pop-science style book I had read pertaining to the brain was Oxford Press's A Very Short Introduction to the Brain. Anyway, I make this clear because I want to point out how absolutely rudimentary my knowledge of neurophysiology was at this point. Imagine my surprise, then, when this young lady gets up in the front of the class and proceeds to dazzle everyone with several blatantly false statements. While I was a little disgruntled when she told a student that withdrawal of a limb from a painful stimulus was not a reflex, but rather the turning and oral searching of a baby was what was meant by the term reflex (granted, she was a developmental psychologist, so she dealt with infant reflexes more than the withdrawal reflex, but she should still know the definition of the reflex arc and some of the common examples), I was far more horrified when she answered another student's question as to how the myelin sheath helped make signals travel down the axon faster by saying it was "superconducting". Leaving out the blatant misunderstanding of what is meant by superconductivity, she clearly had no clue how myelin works. And this was the lady standing at the front of a class of several hundred students answering questions like she knew what she was talking about, because she was planning to get her PhD in a field that at least tangentially claims to study the brain.

How can a person possibly hope to bring insight to the question of how the brain develops and mediates thought without at least a rudimentary understanding of the underlying hardware? There is a reason they make computer science and software engineering students study digital electronics and lower level languages than Java or Python, because if you don't understand the underlying architecture of a system you are left writing all your MatLab scripts with for loops and uninitialized matrices rather than matrix algebra and left wondering why your program takes hours or even days to run.

Anyway, I had planned originally to also mention how my neuroscience textbook prompted this entire post because of its blatant reference to species selection at the beginning of the chapter on sexual selection, and I was going to spend some time dwelling on the importance of understanding evolution in all its brilliantly nuanced glory when doing anything in the life sciences (including neuroscience), but instead I seemed to have gone on a little too long with my rant about the lack of knowledge of my psychology lecturer. Clearly, I still bore an intellectual grudge.

Perhaps, though, I am being a little too harsh, since this very weekend an intellectual travesty far worse than what I have just described is going to be gracing selected theatres across this continent.

Also, please note that the majority of my "scientific" links were to various Wikipedia pages. I recognise that Wikipedia most certainly is not a scientific source, but the point I was making was how non-specialized this knowledge really is.