The Polymath: A Case for Polymathic Studies
by Michael Ferguson
There are many branches of science, but they all describe the same universe. Since the universe is logically consistent, the various sciences must be consistent with one another. A Polymath helps assure that they are. A Polymath systematically searches for and develops theoretically significant interdisciplinary connections.
The American Polymathic Institute was founded in late 2000 to promote polymathic research, education, careers and lifestyles. We actively encourage the involvement of academics and scientists who support the goals and objectives of the Institute. We also strongly encourage the support of interested non-professionals.
A More Detailed Definition of a Polymath
As our scientific knowledge has increased scientists have become more specialized . To a degree, this is the unavoidable outcome of the limits of knowledge that any one person can acquire in an educational program of reasonable duration. The traditional subjects, such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, etc. have simply become too large for any one person to comprehensively master. So we have Particle Physicists, Evolutionary Biologists, Organic Chemists, etc. For years I had a question that involved quantum mechanics and relativity. Whenever I met a Physicist, I would ask the question. For years I heard, "Sorry, that's not my area of Physics. I don't know." It was only recently that I met a Physicist with the proper background to give me an answer.
This increasing specialization is also due to the nature of the questions science is asking. Many of them are becoming very specific. In the 1950's we asked the general question, "How does life replicate itself?" Thanks to Watson and Crick we have the answer. Fifty years later we are asking questions such as, "Can cells that contain the reverse transcriptase enzyme of one retrovirus produce DNA copies of the genome of another RNA virus that has infected the cell?" (The answer, by the way, is yes.)
At the same time, science is becoming progressively more interdisciplinary. In the UK, it is estimated that 46% of research time is spent on interdisciplinary problems. [note 1] A review of the interdisciplinary programs at American Universities would lead one to conclude that the percentage is similar in the U.S. More than 1/3 of Penn State's research takes place in interdisciplinary research units. [note 2] Georgia Tech has created more than 60 interdisciplinary research units. [note 3] So, one might ask, what is wrong with how we are doing things right now? Why do we need Polymaths and the American Polymathic Institute? This is the single most common question that API receives from the academic and scientific communities.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with how we are doing things right now, although some of those currently involved in the process don't entirely agree. Under any circumstance, it certainly doesn't mean we can't do other things, such as Polymathic Studies, at the same time. A Polymath does not replace current interdisciplinary activities, a Polymath augments them. As long as the Polymath brings something unique and valuable to the process, it is good science and should be supported.
One of the unspoken assumptions of our current way of approaching interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research is that a community of specialists will find all theoretically significant interdisciplinary problems. The preponderance of interdisciplinary research units in the University systems today certainly bears testimony to how many of them there are and that we are finding many of them. However, are we finding them all?
The research project that I whimsically call " 'Before the Flood" had its genesis in the questions, "What is the optimal standard deviation for intelligence in a hunting/gathering community?" " What is the optimal standard deviation for intelligence in a socioeconomically differentiated agricultural/urban community?" " How does a population get from one to the other?" These questions are massively interdisciplinary and quite likely will not be asked by specialists in any of the related fields.
Even if the questions are asked, the significance of the answers is too diffuse to strike any given specialist with a sense that the problem is worth working on. I call these interstitial problems -- they don't look particularly interesting from the perspective of any single field. This became a research project when I asked myself the question, "What is the probability that the three inventions of agriculture in the Middle East, China and MesoAmerica were causally unrelated events?" In theory, it's a simple problem in probability. In practice, it requires more than a back- of-an- envelope calculation to answer. I can't give a precise probability, but I can say with a high degree of confidence that it's not very likely. Of course, the calculation doesn't tell us how they are causally related. It might be something quite trivial. However, it struck me that, perhaps, the causal relationship might have something to do with the questions above.
The questions I asked myself and the conceptual framework that allowed me to see this as a worthwhile research project was the direct result of my polymathic knowledge base. It is extremely important to recognize that a research Polymath is not just a dilettante in a number of subjects. A Polymath must be specifically trained to find interdisciplinary problems and questions that a community of specialists are not likely to find. This requires a highly targeted interdisciplinary knowledge base. Then the Polymath must be able to function productively and effectively within a multidisciplinary research environment.
The Polymathic Method
We believe that Polymaths should be part of an overall strategy by the scientific community to assure that there are no logical inconsistencies between the many disciplines and subdisciplines. A successful strategy will result in a seamless, internally consistent description of the universe. Polymaths can play a very small but critical role in the process. As stated, our role is to search for and develop interdisciplinary connections that specialists could reasonably be expected to miss.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of an "accidental Polymath" was the proposal made by Walter and Luis Alvarez that a cometary impact caused or contributed to the Cretaceous mass extinction. The specific interdisciplinary connection that gave rise to the hypothesis was between the excess iridium found in KT boundary clays worldwide and the Cretaceous mass extinction. As a Geologist, Walter Alvarez was able to make this connection because the fact outside of his field of expertise is probably the most widely known fact in Paleontology. If the fact he required in Paleontology had been as arcane as the excess iridium was in his own, he most likely would never have found the connection.
Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza is an example of an individual who has effectively functioned as a Polymathic Researcher within the traditional academic and scientific settings. By combining information from Population Genetics, Linguistics and Archeology, he has successfully tracked prehistoric human migration patterns. He is more purely a Polymathic Researcher since he is intentionally making connections between details in various disciplines.
So a Polymath searches for interdisciplinary connections between relatively obscure facts. He also searches for connections that involve three or more disciplines. Such theoretical connections simply aren't likely to be found without a systematic search process and a broad knowledge base with which to do it. The Polymathic Method is really very straightforward. A Polymath reads a lot of journals from the perspective of other disciplines. Over time, the Polymath develops an instinct for recognizing an interesting paper by reading the abstract. On rare occasions an alarm goes off.
Very early on in my formulation of the idea of a Polymath and the Polymathic Method I had some experiences that, while essentially unproductive, led me to believe that I might be on to something. I was doing some reading in Archeology and I came across the fact that bronze smelting was invented before what is generally thought of as "civilization." The Archeologist speculated that the invention might have been the accidental result of firing pottery. The Chemist in me started pushing the alarm bell wildly. Bronze smelting just isn't that easy!!!
The article I was reading was fairly old, and upon further investigation I discovered that this explanation was abandoned for the very reason I objected to it. While, as a budding Polymath, I had nothing of value to bring to the table in this instance, it reinforced in me the sense that I was on to something. I just had to get deeper into things and look for more subtle connections. The community of specialists resolves conflicts at this level relatively efficiently. However my instincts told me that if conflicts exist at this level, most likely they exist at a deeper level as well.
In the past eight years since I had that experience, I have improved my understanding of what a Polymath must know, acquired that knowledge and refined the search process. I don't engage in the Polymathic Method much any more. That is simply because what I have already found keeps me more than busy.
My research mostly involves applying epistemological techniques from the "hard" sciences and novel mathematical tools to the social sciences. I play in a very small corner of the scientific playground. Between the Alvarezs, Cavalli-Sforza and myself, it is apparent that there is much to be found using the Polymathic Method. I believe that there is a strong case for the systematic application of these methodologies within the context of a recognized field of endeavor.
The question of how to best structure a research community that deals with many highly interdisciplinary problems while being comprised primarily of specialized researchers is one that is being actively considered. As a scientist, you don't have to be convinced of the value of Polymathic Studies at this point in order to support it. All you need do is grant the possibility that current methods are systematically excluding a category of worthwhile research. If you grant that possibility, then you should support efforts to find ways to include them.
I believe that I have made a good preliminary case for Polymathic Studies. I would like the opportunity to convince you. We at the American Polymathic Institute do not envision Polymathic Studies as a "rogue science." It is our goal to be accepted by mainstream academia. We are looking for ways to properly train and credential Polymaths. We want them to have access to publication venues and grant money. This will all be difficult. It will be impossible without the involvement of current members of academia.
I have initiated a private e-mail group for our Research Associates and interested members of academia to interact. I am actively soliciting your participation. Postings will be moderated and light. I hope you decide to join. Feel free to pass the link to this article along to your colleagues.
© 2001 American Polymathic Institute. All rights reserved.
Some of the links in this article are no longer valid. Duplicates of some of these pages, published in 2001, were found on the Wayback Machine.
Note 1 -- Link was to
Note 2 -- Link was to
Note 3 -- Link was to