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The practical pitfalls of an interdisciplinary approach

Academic disciplines have emerged out of the obvious desire to establish deep expertise and some sort of quality control. By incumbents training newcomers for years and then licensing them in the form of a degree a kind of quality control mechanism was established in the form of peer-approval.

That mechanism is, however, a double-edged sword. 

By establishing the requirement of peer-approval following a multi-year training, academia has also established a considerable barrier to entry for newcomers. It wouldn’t be an altogether bad thing, but it created some incentives that serve no one.

Having your own discipline is the academic gold standard for attaining legitimacy to your assumptions, and for attracting funding. Without it, you cannot have your own department – let alone your own university. Academic fields have proliferated not just in reaction to the world’s complexity – but also as a result of incentives for academics to bring up fences on the borders of their ever-narrower intellectual territories, and guarding them jealously. How could you possibly ask for funding for your discipline if you can’t argue that it’s significantly different from the others? The same way a new religion wants to appear completely different – yet uses the same methods and draws on the same resources as the old ones – academic fields started to puff themselves up and ‘talking up’ their own relevance and different-ness, while conforming to the same mold as the ones before them.

But once you did the territorial zoning and kept everyone out, you cannot possibly venture out of your own turf either. For most academic fields it’s a small price to pay to ensure future funding. If the price of having your own department is never to venture out of your narrowly delimited field and wearing the intellectual equivalent of a horse’s blinder, so be it. Academics are no longer hobbyist aristocrats with independent means who have the economic security that allows them the honest pursuit of truth despite never being paid. (I am not arguing for this or even state-funded tenure, just pointing out the obvious problems with incentives when it comes to non-fragmented intellectual quests.)

In some fields, such as medicine, the effects are very well visible. Narrow medical specializations are sending patients into despair (and into the arms of ‘holistic’ quacks), and doctors couldn’t even try to see beyond their specialization as regulation has created rock-solid walls between them and the law punishes trespassing. What sounds good as a measure against poorly trained medical professionals is, however, also a reason why the public turns away from medicine.

The proliferation of homeo- naturo bio- holistic quacks is a case in point. Their time is cheap (because they haven’t invested in an education) and their field of “expertise” is not limited by regulation (they can promise to repair your eyesight as well as your abusive family with the same whiff of weaponized bullshit). They don’t have to frustrate you by sending you to other specialists, they collect your payment for all the things you want to get fixed.

But medicine is just the most obvious field where genuine academic specialization and obsessive, therapeutic, and make-believe regulation have created a problem that may end up defeating the entire field. (Just look at anti-vaxxers and other anti-science warriors, who get endless ammunition from this.) The much softer field of social sciences is just as keen on territorialization – if not more so. They are even more aggressive and desperate to maintain disciplinary boundaries (and thus funding claims) than medicine is, probably because their turfs are not protected by law.

I have once witnessed two sociologists performing a bitter fight at a conference because one of them dared to comment on the other’s field. One was an urban, another one a rural expert. I would call it the narcissism of minor differences – but I am no fan of Freud and I know it’s more about money than anything else.

I am about to introduce the idea of using the learned helplessness theory and the psychology of depression to help explain the common denominator in authoritarian submission – regardless of political sides. And that is an unwelcome thing.

If academic territoriality is a funding booster, taking political sides across the current (and very dumb) political dividing lines is even more so. You can easily get a leftie to fund a study on how the right-wingers are all nazi authoritarians. Or a right-wing entity to fund a study on how the lefties are all communist authoritarians. People are conditioned to react to ideological buzzwords with centuries of taxpayer-funded state propaganda, who am I to position myself independently from them – and thus from any funding source? An ideological buzzword is a stronger signal to consider a new theory than honest pursuit of knowledge is. The latter takes courage. Taking sides does not.

Still, learned helplessness has political implications. It may be a private phenomenon – but its has massive political impact. Your political behavior doesn’t come out of thin air – it has been forged in your private life and personal values. You don’t leave it on your front porch when you arrive home, nor are your personal values (or the lack thereof) without political consequences.

If I ever try to argue that authoritarian thinking has so many things in common with garden variety depression I would frighten experts of both social an individual psychology to the point that they would viciously attack me. Even though both authoritarian submission and depression are based on learned helplessness (at the very least from a behavioral perspective), and even their symptoms are the same if you clean your glasses from ideological mud.

If you have ever spent a minute in an oppressed or even a post-liberation society, you will know what I mean. The question “Why is everyone so depressed?” is on every American’s tongue the moment they encounter the thick mud of anger, frustration and depression in these countries. They also often get stuck in the mud of helplessness when they try to do business here. When their local partners appear to give up, give excuses instead of solutions, and procrastinate even when it obviously hurts them, for no logical reason. Not logical, unless you understand the psychological logic of learned helplessness and dependence bonding.

What doesn’t make sense from a business point of view makes perfect sense from the perspective of internalized helplessness. People who are socialized in an oppressed society internalize that nothing they can do ever makes a difference. They never have the experience that effort can pay. People who are socialized in an oppressed society learn that individual effort is always punished and discouraged, and their dependence is absolute.

Reversely, when a Hungarian ventures abroad (to the first world) and has his first experience with a working bureaucracy that doesn’t want to fuck with him, a tax system that just collects money and doesn’t treat him as a criminal, a business environment in which bills are paid and promises are kept – he is elated. I keep seeing posts from expats who are thriving and finally see the sun – simply because the heavy stone of helplessness had been removed, because their efforts are finally rewarded, even if it’s just a job that gets paid. That experience is completely missing from many people’s lives. They can’t stop trying to explain it to those left behind – who then bitterly bark back that they are wrong and they know nothing, and stop showing off anyway.

If I argued that the dependence bonding of childhood dependence has the same dynamics and symptoms than that of a grownup with the (oppressive) state he lives in, researchers of both child psychology and political science would pick me apart – not with the intention to improve the theory, but to prove that what I did was wrong. I should have stayed within my own discipline. It’s a bit like in the army: discipline matters above anything else.

There isn’t even a comparable methodology to study both at the same time – let alone available funding to conduct a research in both disciplines. You would have to get one expert from each disciplines to be even allowed to start, or at least a degree in half a dozen fields so you can shield yourself from (some of) the criticism. So what’s the point of risking an individual career on trying to revolutionize the entire, calcified academic community – when it costs foregoing opportunities to get employed and maybe sometimes have enough to start a family?

The hardest proof that intellectual territoriality is a massive problem is that even states (and the EU) is trying to intervene by putting out tenders to conduct ‘interdisciplinary’ science. And the strongest signal that it would fail is that the states (ad the EU) are pushing it. In other words, the money will be spent, but the noble goal sabotaged, and the bureaucrats issue their stamps of approval anyway, because why wouldn’t they?

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