What is the problem for which interdisciplinarity is the solution? The answer is what I call “epistemic rent-seeking,” namely, the tendency for disciplines to become increasingly proprietary in their relationship to organized inquiry. A discipline is “proprietary” in this negative sense if it can compel inquirers to acknowledge its ownership of a field of inquiry, regardless of the disciplines’ actual relevance to the epistemic ends of the inquirers in question. This “rent” may take the form of requiring that the inquirers undergo specific discipline-based training or cite authors in the epistemic rentier’s field. If organized inquiry is a kind of intellectual journey, then disciplines impose tolls along the way, perhaps for no reason other than having made a similar journey first.

“If organized inquiry is a kind of intellectual journey, then disciplines impose tolls along the way, perhaps for no reason other than having made a similar journey first.”

The natural opponent of the epistemic rent-seeker is what the sociologist Randall Collins has called the “credential libertarian” who sees disciplinarians as George Bernard Shaw famously saw experts more generally, namely, as a conspiracy against the public interest. No doubt the advent of the internet has launched a new and robust wave of credential libertarianism, as we are now always only a few keystrokes away from finding challenges and alternatives to expert opinion on virtually any topic. However, in what follows I focus on the revolt against epistemic rent-seeking coming from inside the academy, which is how I see interdisciplinarity.

Epistemic rent-seeking is a feature of what Thomas Kuhn originally called ”normal science.” This occurs when a distinctive theoretical and methodological framework—or paradigm—with proven effectiveness is extended indefinitely, thereby crowding out other approaches and the distinctive sorts of questions that they potentially address. For example, after the early striking successes of Newtonian mechanics, all of material reality was presumed to be covered by the framework, which served to drive many tricky issues relating to the nature of life and mind into the margins of physics.

To be sure, this marginalization resulted in the creation of other disciplines, such as biology and psychology.  But they too have undergone the same “normalizing” process. The endgame of this vision is that domains of phenomena come to be owned by disciplines, access to which involve high entry costs, not only in terms of specialized training but also the human and material resources required to bring a research project to fruition. At the same time, and perhaps due to this resource-intensiveness, there is little incentive for significant disciplinary re-orientation. Indeed, according to Kuhn, a discipline needs to be on the verge of self-destruction—the “crisis” that precipitates a “revolution”—before its paradigm is properly replaced.

We see then, as economists would say, that disciplines are “path-dependent” entities, whose very success in following a particular path becomes a strong attractor for other fields of inquiry. Thus, the proven success of Newtonian mechanics became a template for other disciplines to follow. Considerable philosophical midwifery has been involved in the process, to be sure, most heroically in the twentieth century by the logical positivist movement. Here we see epistemic rent-seeking at its subtlest, especially with regard to the social sciences. After all, Newtonian mechanics in its nineteenth century heyday—concerned as it was with light, electricity and magnetism—did not offer any special access to the phenomena studied by the social sciences.

On the contrary, as James Clerk Maxwell made patently clear in his 1870 presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, physicists were the ones who had to adopt styles of probabilistic reasoning already being championed in the field that Adolphe Quetelet had dubbed “social statistics.” To be sure, by following Maxwell’s advice, the next generation of physicists witnessed revolutions, first in thermodynamics and then quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, in Maxwell’s day, physics as a discipline was already seen to have found a formula for epistemic success, effectively establishing the “gold standard” of scientific status, in terms of which aspiring candidates to the title “science” could be judged—not least, the social sciences themselves.

Notwithstanding the robust presence of a more literary, humanistic tradition in the social sciences throughout the twentieth century, the need to approximate physics-based standards of epistemic achievement took its toll in the form of marginalizing research that did not easily fit into the physics mold. Indeed, when people speak of “interdisciplinary” research in the social sciences today, they often mean nothing more than bringing its ‘interpretivist’ and ‘positivist’ sides back together in a manner that would not be out of place on the pages of, say, Karl Marx, Max Weber, or Emile Durkheim, all of whom wrote more than a century ago.

Logical positivism plays a Janus-faced role in the history of epistemic rent-seeking. I have already suggested that it turned physics into the high-rent district of organized inquiry. Yet, at the same time, the positivists demanded that other disciplines explain why they required theories and methods that differ from those of physics. In this respect, logical positivism resembles the sort of liberal imperialism promoted in Victorian Britain. Both were officially “free trade” doctrines designed to promote relatively frictionless transactions in ideas and goods, respectively.  But equally, both assumed a privileged position from which to espouse the free trade doctrine. In the case of the positivists, privilege was conferred on mathematics, be it in symbolic logic or statistical representation.

When I was a student, this feature of logical positivism was expressed as a distinction between the “context of discovery” and the “context of justification.” Science as an institution converts the idiosyncratic origins of discoveries into knowledge claims that anyone in principle can justify for themselves simply by examining the evidence and reasoning offered for a particular knowledge claim. In this way, individual insights come to be incorporated into a collective body of inquiry, which in turn empowers humanity as a whole.  Thus, while a particular truth may have been discovered in a very particular way, the task of science is to show that it could have been uncovered under a variety of circumstances, provided the necessary evidence and reasoning.

It is easy to see how this positivist principle could sound the death knell to epistemic rent-seeking. The positivists themselves—much in the spirit of past imperialists and today’s globalizationists—saw the removal of trade barriers as leading to greater integration and interdependency. Interdisciplinarity would be effectively fostered through anti-disciplinarity, at least insofar as disciplines would need to translate their specific jargons into a common lingua franca of intellectual exchange. Yet, this is not quite what happened. Just as in the economic case, the already existing power asymmetries between the disciplines played themselves out in this “free trade zone.” While many disciplines became physics-friendly, non-physics-friendly modes of inquiry were consigned still further into the intellectual backwaters. Mathematics constituted a hidden barrier to free trade in this context.

The result is that epistemic rent-seeking and its proposed positivist remedy nowadays coexist without resolution, arguably the worst of both worlds. Again, this is not so different from the world’s political economy—and the phenomenon is especially evident in the social sciences.

On the one hand, there are the economists and psychologists capable of using mathematics to arrive at striking conceptual insights that their natural science peers can easily understand and appreciate. These can then lead to interdisciplinary alliances, which are on display, say, at the Santa Fe Institute. On the other hand, less mathematically inclined inquirers can fall back on their “indigenous” disciplinary knowledge bases. This helps to explain the increase in what might be called “referential entrenchment”—that is, high citations to a well-bounded body of texts. In that case, one needs to master the local jargon before making any intellectual headway: very high-rent but in a relatively small, gated community. Much of “postmodernism,” especially as seen by its detractors, can be understood this way.

Lost in the process is what the University of Chicago library scientist Don Swanson called, already thirty years ago, “undiscovered public knowledge.” His starting point was the increasing amount of published research in all fields that goes unread and underutilized. Of course, part of this state of affairs is due to the sheer expansion of the number of researchers. But more disturbingly, most new recruits reinforce existing patterns of inquiry. In other words, even well-cited pieces of research tend to be cited for the same reasons. Add to that the number of pieces that are not cited—and probably not read—at all, and a strange epistemic purgatory results, one in which knowledge is produced without ever being fully consumed.

“Nevertheless, progress in one discipline was facilitated, if not revolutionized, by importing insights from other disciplines.”

Swanson showed that research from two quite different fields can be brought together to solve a standing problem in a third field. The problems which most concerned him were medical. In his original case, he successfully proposed fish oil as a remedy for a circulatory disorder, Raynaud’s disease, based on observing (in the physiology literature) that the disease is characterized by high blood viscosity and (in the nutrition literature) that fish oil can reduce blood viscosity. To be sure, Swanson had both the time and the interest to make the relevant cross-disciplinary connections. Nevertheless, progress in one discipline was facilitated, if not revolutionized, by importing insights from other disciplines. If Swanson was able to do this in 1986, surely it should be easier to achieve today, given the advances in computerized search engines. What is needed, however, are incentives that encourage researchers to exploit the full range of undiscovered public knowledge before striking out on their own with a research funding proposal. Here, I will offer one such idea that could act as an incentive for cross-disciplinary work in the social sciences.

At the moment, the literature reviews in most grant applications are relatively perfunctory affairs, aimed at anticipatory appeasement of potential peer reviewers, who will then focus most of their assessment on the work proposed to be undertaken. However, it would be easy and beneficial to impose a higher standard on passing the literature review phase. This could begin simply by requiring the applicant to show whether other disciplines have (or have not) already dealt with the same or related problem, and then place a premium on showing that one would utilize work and perhaps personnel from other disciplines. Such a requirement could be economically justified as making the most of neglected knowledge, while avoiding diminishing returns on oversubscribed knowledge.

But most of all, universities and funding agencies need to reward researchers for proactively reading across disciplines to exploit undiscovered public knowledge. This is easier said than done.  Perhaps the most fundamental problem here is that academia primarily rewards people for writing, not reading—let alone reading across disciplinary boundaries. Moreover, the sort of reading that academic writing is supposed to reflect is not comprehensive but targeted to the intervention one already wishes to make.

“In effect, I am proposing a strongly computer-assisted form of interdisciplinarity.”

To put the point in the language of today’s big data analysts, incentives are thus needed for academics to go beyond mere “data-mining” to outright “data-surfacing.” The latter would involve a more exploratory search for patterns of ideas and findings which emerge from the entire body of academic literature, regardless of whether they track the preconceptions of discipline-based frameworks. In effect, I am proposing a strongly computer-assisted form of interdisciplinarity, which would serve to undermine epistemic rent-seeking by regularly showing that reading across disciplinary boundaries is more productive than reading inside of them.

I write as someone all of whose academic degrees have combined two or more disciplines. For the past thirty years, my research program of social epistemology has been thoroughly interdisciplinary. My thoughts about “epistemic rent-seeking” come from my acquaintance with the public choice theorist Gordon Tullock’s generalized theory of “rent-seeking behavior” in the 1990s, which I first presented in developed form in (2002). In 2003, as visiting professor in the School of Library and Information Sciences at UCLA, I learned of Don Swanson’s seminal 1986 article, “Undiscovered Public Knowledge.” Finally, the distinction between “data-mining” and “data-surfacing” is a coinage of the major Silicon Valley cybersecurity firm, Palantir.

Posted on June 7, 2016