Sunday, July 14, 2013

Nothing special about specialization

Everyone knows that a tree is an organism that is standing on its head. A very large percentage of tree species absorbs nutrients through their roots and excretes oxygen and water vapor through stomata in their leaves. The tree of knowledge is no different. However, we, in our collective madness have done something rather shocking with it. We have, to all intents and purposes, decided that *yuck*, no self respecting organism should identify as its “head” something that is buried in the ground and instead, we have, over the last century or so, valiantly attempted to legitimize the case for calling it’s excretory organ its intake organ. We have tried to re-label its backside as its mouth.

Let me explain. Despite the fact that knowledge, by its very definition should be an all encompassing whole, we concluded that we could become “knowledgeable” by acquiring fact-nuggets selectively. This is the result of a fact of science which proposes, aggressively promotes and teaches us that everything can be broken down into their component pieces, studied in a mutually disassociated state, deductively or inferentially linked together through analysis and understood as a whole. The rationale stems,as Thom Hartmann says, from thinking such as this: If you break a car into its component parts, you can understand exactly how it works and if you put it back together it will come back alive. However, and here is the fallacy of that argument, if you do that to a dog, regardless of how competent a surgeon one is, once one puts it back together it will remain dead. Something very essential to the idea of the living dog, the whole of it existence is lost in the process of dismembering it.  As a matter of fact, when attempting to understand systems that exist dependent on the right juxtaposition of a very large number or even an infinite number of parameters (such as a living being, an ecosystem, a social group, a nation etc.), breaking things down has only one practical outcome – it breaks them.

That there is a serious error in the thinking doesn't seem that hard to get and yet, that is precisely what our education systems, our schools, our universities, our teachers and our examiners are insisting that we do.  That, we are told, is the best shot we have at understanding what is really going on in this cosmos. It is the rope that our inquirers or researchers cling to with bulldog like zeal because there is precious little else to cling on to.Over the last century, blindly believing in this almost axiomatic truth, we have created more than a thousand major scientific “disciplines” or “areas of specialization” and literally hundreds of thousands of minor specializations. I like to call these specializations “fact-buckets” and specialists “fact-sops”. There is nothing there that even remotely resembles knowledge. Just a series of answers to a series of (mostly) irrelevant questions that yield a lot of nothings about mostly everything.

We have, over ten decades, managed to split the tree of knowledge into a very large set of branches (areas of specialization), an even larger set of twigs (minor specializations) and an almost infinite number of leaves (facts), none of which are even remotely aware that they are part of a twig let alone a branch let alone a trunk let alone a root… let alone a tree. I cannot be but blunt about this, but since leaves are the primary waste expelling unit of the tree, we have, essentially, spent thousands of man hours, zillions of dollars and tons of infrastructural resources to buy ourselves a world’s-worth of factual sh** and each time some poor apology for the human race coaxes and teases out a “new finding”  - or factoid - or fruit if you many, in some rarefied “field of inquiry” (for example: The effect of water droplets on the air-water interface, or, basically, what on earth happens when a drop of water is dropped into glass of water- or even more basically, oh lord, is this guy serious?), that individual is perpetrating the dung gathering exercise that we all earnestly believe is true blue gourmet chocolate manufacture, mined out of high quality endeavor, guaranteed to help us in our understanding of what we are, where we are, who we are and why we are.

Pause here for awhile. Take a look around you. What has this done for our world? Have we understood it clearer or made it better? It has done nothing of the sort. In fact, it has had the opposite effect to the one intended. We don’t need climate specialists, agriculture experts, energy gurus, military strategists or money moguls to tell us that through our scientific insanity, we are now almost at Armageddon.

These days, when I go to a doctor, I feel like the elephant that was analyzed by five blind men. I get shunted from the trunk -lady to the foot-dude who consuls the tail-gal who phones up the mahout who collectively proceed to test everything from my teeth enamel to my nose hair, tell me about the dangers of clipping my toe-nails too short,  give me ten dozen different types of medication, attack my wallet to the tune of fifty thousand rupees and turn me into a chronic, serial pill popper.  Almost, I want to tap them on their shoulders and whisper “people, it is the whole darn elephant that is sick, not the elephant’s spleen – that is only diseased and curing that will only cure the disease not the sickness”.  I know it won’t do any good though. Specialization has blinded these people and telling them they are blind won’t give them back their sight.

Amazingly silly aren’t we all? We who specialize and we who believe in the abilities of specialists?

Is there a cure for this giggle? Is there any possibility that such a course of action can be reversed? Sure. There are no questions that human beings feel the need to ask that don’t have solutions, provided that we are not afraid to look wide enough and deep enough. Wide and deep are the operative words here and acknowledging those two words is a challenge for most. Through this process of specialization, we have become instinctively terrified of both of them.

Instead of scrambling up into the branches and twigs of the tree of knowledge, we need to scurry down to its root. Instead of flying up into its canopy like eagles, we need to scratch at its base like turkeys. Instead of selecting the particular type of telescopic tunnel vision we will use for the rest of our lives, we need to buy ourselves the widest angled scope possible. Instead of selective facts we need holistic awareness. We need to be able to study the dog in-situ and figure out how it actually managed to be alive without trying to make mincemeat out of it. This can only be done by the wise – not by the knowledgeable, not by the intelligent, not by the intellectual.

Those who possess an intellect can formulate questions. Those who possess both intellect and intelligence can move towards formulating answers to those questions. Those who possess intellect, intelligence and creativity, can formulate answers to those questions. Those who possess intellect, intelligence, creativity and emotional stability can actually make those answers work in real.

The intellectuals? They are able. Only. The intellectually intelligent? They are enabled. Only. The intellectually intelligently creative? They are knowledgeable. Only. The intellectually intelligently creatively emotionally stable? They are wise. Knowledge, in some ways, we can get at with great difficulty, even while we are scrambling up the tree.  Wisdom requires that we make like rodents. Wisdom insists we acknowledge the importance of creativity and emotional stability as key requisites for actually solving problems instead of merely creating them, analyzing them, discussing them, collating them, researching them and publishing them. Both, unfortunately, are anathema to science and its limiting framework of reference. This is unfortunate for humanity as well.

(This post was triggered by a presentation I made on Democratizing Agricultural Research In South Asia in 2009. While there were a few great souls at the conference, two stand out. My own father, the ex-director of the Agrarian Research and Training Institute and P.V. Satheesh, the Leader of DDS and convener of the National Millet Network of India, Zaheerabad, Andhra Pradesh. To both, over time, I owe unrepayable debts not least for their unique and separate types of fatherhood). 

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