Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On the conduct of interdisciplinary work (& memes)

A few years ago I had a post in which I featured an article by Jeremy Burman on the the history of the meme concept, "The misunderstanding of memes" (PDF). The MIT Press blog now has an interview with Burman in which he talks about that article and how he came to write it. In this interview he asserts:
By citation count, Blackmore’s book is the primary text of the popularized meme; the expansion of the bricolage presented in The Mind’s I, in turn made possible—and then endorsed for its “courage”—by Dawkins himself. Indeed, its publication is why the date range in my article runs until 1999 when it could easily have extended further. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics was still actively publishing at that time, the secondary literature was growing by leaps and bounds, Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell had not yet been published, etc.

Briefly put, though, I think a case can be made that the popularized view of memes satisfies the criteria for what Lakatos referred to as a degenerating research program. This is supported by a number of observations beyond the sequence of three different meanings. For example: the journal failed in 2005, there are no graduate programs now training students specifically in memetics, and the contemporary meaning of the term—relating to cat pictures with funny captions—is in no way related to the original source.
I agree with Burman that the popular view is "a degenerating research program," which is one reason I eventually decided to drop the term in my own work. If you're interested in this business, by all means read Burman's interview.

But that's not the main reason why I'm linking to it. The last part of the interview is about interdisciplinarity, where he says:
Although I accept that the word is used, I’m not fully convinced that “interdisciplinarity” actually exists either. What we actually have is a kind of openness that has been institutionalized to a greater or lesser degree in individual departments, faculties, and schools. And that’s a good thing. But it’s not identical with the use of the word; it requires action, support, and sustained effort—by people.

One important driver of this institutionalized interdisciplinarity is a good and careful editor who is supported by good and careful reviewers. This makes it possible for scholars in more conservative places to produce texts—perhaps even on their own time—that are deemed by a recognized disciplinary institution (the journal) to be of sufficient quality to merit continued recognition and support. In this way, new niches can then be constructed.

Misunderstandings are inevitable when moving across boundaries, but openness can serve as a shield against this too. It simply requires good faith on all sides. And the careful appreciation of different perspectives.

If reviewers assume that something doesn’t make sense to them because it’s bad, then rejections will result (false negatives). This is the opposite of openness; risk aversion run amok. The danger, though, is on the other side: if an author acts in bad faith, and submits rubbish that nonetheless hits the right notes, then some material will be published that shouldn’t be (false positives).

I don’t know how to strike the right balance, unfortunately, except to do as my father has always suggested: “walk softly and carry a big committee.” If you ensure that you have access to a diversity of voices, and empower everyone so that they’re properly heard, then the odds are much better that someone will flag a potential problem before it becomes an embarrassment.

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