The Challenge of Consilience

If you want to be recognized as someone who knows a lot about a lot of things, you should become famous for just one thing first. This will give you a better platform to give your opinion, and be respected for your opinion, about more things. This is true, even for people who like to emphasize the importance of a broad range of knowledge in a variety of fields.

The book Consilience, by famed evolutionary biologist EO Wilson, is about this very idea: the concept of uniting different fields of knowledge. Too many academics and specialists, he says, are stuck in silos where they learn the jargon of their fields and write papers and do research that appeals to others in their fields. But most real-world problems defy such easy classification as we might find in academic departments. The world needs more people who can connect the pieces among different disciplines, because the meat of nearly all real-world problems lies at the intersection of different areas of study. Of course, the reason this opinion comes with such weight, is because Wilson is well respected in his field.[1]

EO Wilson wrote this book nearly twenty years ago. But since its publication, the tendency toward specialization has only increased, rather than decreased.

So why aren’t there more experts in consilience?

It’s easy enough to appreciate why consilience could be valuable. Take the problem of global-warming, for example. It’s an atmospheric chemistry problem (to what extent is there compelling evidence that recent changes in climate patterns can be attributed to anthropomorphic causes?); it’s a policy problem (how can we coordinate different governments to address the problem?); it’s an economics problem (is it possible to incentivize private firms to reduce anthropomorphic climate change without sacrificing job growth?), and it’s a legal problem (how do we draft effective laws that reduce climate change?). One would think that if there were an academic or scholar who were well versed in atmospheric chemistry, policy, economics, and law, that this person would be an invaluable resource and a leader in addressing issues of climate change.

So to be a true expert on climate change, it would be advisable to have a broad range of knowledge in these different disciplines.

But if such a person exists, I’ve never heard of her. Instead, who are the biggest figures in the debate right now about climate change? Some possible candidates include: Al Gore, Bill Nye, Pope Francis, Michael Bloomberg. Ban-Ki Moon, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Matt Ridley, Donald Trump, and the Koch Brothers. This is a list of people who rose to high status for something other than specialized knowledge of climate change.

There’s an absence of high-status experts in atmospheric science, policy, economics, and law, and so high status people in any particular, unrelated discipline are free to chime in and influence the debate to fill in the vacuum. Without more informed, high-status experts at the intersection of these fields, the public debate is susceptible to uninformed far-flung expert debunkery by non-experts.

I see two patterns driving this phenomenon:

Professional disciplines do not easily welcome influence by outsiders. If you’ve spent ten years studying a specific discipline, it’s understandable that you would not be receptive to feedback from those who haven’t spent as much time studying that discipline. If you’ve studied the arguments and counterarguments of the greatest experts in your field on the most important issues, a person who is unfamiliar with those arguments may seem bumbling by comparison.

It’s nearly impossible for generalists or multi-discipline specialists to obtain clear status indicators in multiple fields. To acquire terminal degrees in atmospheric chemistry, policy, economics, and law, you’d have to spend at least 15 years going to school after graduating from college. And today, given the degree of specialization of most academics and professionals, there would still be additional post-doctorate research and further publication necessary to acquire the hallmarks of genuine expertise in each of those fields. And even if you did somehow manage to do that, you’d be branded as an egghead academic with no professional experience, and it would be unlikely that you’d have the political or professional skill to influence the debate.

The challenge of consilience is the inherent difficulty (near impossibility?) of convincing experts in any specific discipline of the merits of your ideas and arguments, when you have a sub-expert’s degree of sophistication in every specific discipline.

But if you have enough weight in your own discipline, you have a better chance to influence those in other disciplines as well. When the Elon Musks, Jane Goodalls, Albert Einsteins, and Warren Buffetts of the world talk, everyone listens. Reasonable or not, because Warren Buffett has been so good at making money, something nearly everyone wants, many people are interested in knowing what he thinks about everything.

Fair or not, if you want to be famous for knowing lots of things, it’s best to become influential for just one thing first.

[1] Though his opinion on group selection theory is very controversial and probably non-consensus.