Is specialization of knowledge a boon or a bane?

Once upon a time, polymaths roamed across the earth. Knowledge was not splintered into cocoons of exclusivity. We had philosophers who did science and scientists who philosophized. We had Leonardo da vincy who was a painter, engineer, architect and scientist rolled into one. We had Albert Einstein who was a philosopher-scientist, and Charles Darwin, a biologist cum geologist.

The fragmentation of knowledge was catalyzed by the Industrial Revolution which introduced the assembly line concept. Production was split into various functionalities. Even the simple act of manufacturing a pin divided labour into 18 different functional silos.

A sense of integrated scientific spirit prevailed in the initial phases of the scientific revolution that unfolded in Europe from 17th century onward and produced great astronomers, biologists, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, etc, However, from the 18th century onward, the explosion of scientific knowledge triggered the birth of many new disciplines and sub-disciplines. Scientists were forced to pursue narrower and narrower fields of knowledge. This mirrored the economic division of labour practised during the industrial revolution.

Modern science thrives on specialization. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for scientists to focus on more than one subset of a discipline.

Specialization has crept into the humanities as well. We have different sub- categories of psychology, sociology, law and history, etc.

The advantages of specialization in the knowledge economy cannot be overemphasized. Focussed research on scientific specialties and sub specialties add to the corpus of knowledge and benefit humanity with new discoveries and inventions.

The disadvantages of specialization, however, have not received the attention they deserve. Scientists tend to work in silos and the absence of interdisciplinary research has robbed science of new vistas of knowledge. Scientists tend to be overprotective of their turfs. The monopolizing of a branch and its subsets by a few scientists results in cartelization of knowledge. The monotony of working in a narrow field of knowledge is an occupational hazard that scientists have to live with.

The disadvantages of specialization in the practice of medicine are seldom talked about. The human body is more than a sum of its body parts. Medical education does not consider the interconnectedness of the human organs and systems. For example, a patient suffering from acid reflux and lack of sleep is treated by a gastroenterologist who does all the tests and finds nothing unusual with the patient. He prescribes antacids and sends the patient home. It doesn’t occur to the doctor that lack of sleep could have something to do with the brain. The gut bacteria in our stomachs have links with the brain. A patient suffering from depression is likely to suffer from poor digestion. The gut-depression connection is rarely considered by specialists. If the patient is lucky, she will land at the doors of a psychiatrist. Otherwise, she will suffer from the debilitating consequences of untreated mental illness.

Different specialists prescribe different drugs with little understanding of the interplay of the chemicals. Doctors rely on the information provided by the pharmaceutical companies. The side effects of multiple drugs play havoc with the patient’s body.

Scientific establishments everywhere have developed an insular attitude. They are overprotective of their territory and discourage interdisciplinary research and collaboration.

Knowledge, whether it is in science or the humanities, will be enriched if cross fertilization of ideas flourish. The barriers to multi disciplinary study and research erected by establishments should be dismantled. Let the winds of enquiry and research blow in all directions injecting a whiff of fresh air into the stale and narrow corridors of knowledge.

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