True interdisciplinarity demands a new way of thinking, a different paradigm.

by: Peter Sloot

14 June 2016

In addition to being professor of Computational Science & Complex Systems at the UvA, Prof. Peter Sloot is also, among other things, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies and will be making an important contribution, together with other top scientists, to the IIS lecture series ‘Complexity - can it be simplified’, which will start in September. The IIS is curious about what interdisciplinarity means to him.

In addition to being professor of Computational Science & Complex Systems at the UvA, Prof. Peter Sloot is also, among other things, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies and will be making an important contribution, together with other top scientists, to the IIS lecture series ‘Complexity - can it be simplified’, which will start in September. The IIS is curious about what interdisciplinarity means to him.

‘You’re never finished. I even attended a lecture on virology 10 years ago and I am 59 years old now. I studied to be a physicist and chemist and I obtained a doctorate in a subject related to biology using tools from the field of Computing Science. What am I then? I know, in any case, what I am not: finished.’

‘Interdisciplinarity is a way of thinking, a different paradigm.’ In the past two to three hundred years, we have been very much focused on a disciplinary approach. There was little disciplinarity before that; there was nothing like mathematics or physics. We have now had disciplinarity for approximately 300 years and fantastic things have arisen from it. In any case, an unbelievably deep and rich insight into everything that is going on around us in nature, from the smallest to the largest...  However, when trying to answer the truly big questions, such as the creation of life and the climate, we often come up against the boundaries of those disciplines. We become stuck. We have no overarching way in which those disciplines can communicate with each other. That is precisely what complex systems research envisages.’

Disciplineless

‘The ambition of complex systems research is to examine all phenomena independently of all disciplines.  The real problems that we are currently struggling with in the world are so multidisciplinary in nature that they appear to be disciplineless. The economy, for example, is a complex system in which people and their behaviour, money, goods, infrastructure, logistics and many more issues all play a role. You can no longer actually talk of a discipline in that case. You are then talking about a large, complex system of issues that are interacting with each other and their environment. Have we got models or methods for that? That is what complex systems research is occupied with: how systems interact with each other and how they influence each other. And that which applies to economics, also applies to other social systems, biological and natural systems, etcetera.’

Tools

‘Will we lose the disciplines? I don’t think so. You really do need to understand things about those different disciplines to be able to reach a higher level. The essence of science is that you can validate it, that you can test it. And you need tools for that testing. And the existing disciplines provide those tools. There is a nice quote by Robert M. Pirsig from his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.” The important issue here is that we develop a decent scientific method, as a result of which we can test things, so that we can understand whether that which we think we understand is correct or incorrect. And that methodology is linked to the disciplines.

All good research begins with a good research question. If you can pose your question so succinctly that people from other disciplines can also contribute their ideas to it, then I believe you are on the right path.’ The trick then is to ask the right question and then you need to use something from all those disciplines to attempt to get close to something resembling an answer.’

Push for emancipation

‘There are three problems that hinder the development of interdisciplinarity. Firstly, the fact that we are still educated in a monodisciplinary way, at secondary school and thereafter at university. Secondly, money for fundamental research is spent on monodisciplines. And thirdly, we are evaluated in a monodisciplinary way. Therefore, every researcher is measured against a monodisciplinary yardstick. Must a push for emancipation follow? This is already happening. The IIS already exists at the UvA and the Institute for Advanced Studies is currently being set up. The Nederlands Platform Complexe Systemen (Dutch Complex Systems Platform) was also recently launched. A lot is already happening and that is promising.’

Published by  Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies