The way that academic and educational institutions function is by categorising things, cataloging and classifying different areas of study into different “buckets”. The natural curiosity of humans cannot be split-up in such way, much like the periodic table is broken down into different groups of elements and groups of chemicals.
Human interests are fluid.
Therefore, it is necessary, for pragmatic ends, for areas of study to be highly specialised, however, this highly specialised approach often means that one can fall prey to a certain tunnel vision.
Take for instance a specialist in neurobiology that may not have been exposed to, have the the desire to, nor ever attempted to understand, outside of their secondary education which may have been limited, deeply problematic questions that are at the core of the universe’s nature, such as how we can think about unifying general relativity with quantum mechanics—just one example from this field of study.
A specialist in neurobiology may have not even consider how their work is applicable to ethical discussions.
A specialist in neurobiology may have not even considered how their work is applicable to ethical discussions.
Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist and Professor from Stanford who researches neurobiological questions such as the effects of biological stress on humans, the development of the human brain in its environment, and many other questions in animal behaviour has also extended his research and work to encompasses the intersection of the criminal justice system and neuroscience. His paper “The frontal cortex and the criminal justice system” is one example of this cross-disciplinary academic research.
Professor Sapolsky’s case isn’t a typical case, but his work certainly doesn’t make him an expert in criminal justice. It’s safe to say that most other neurobiologists or neuroendocrinologist would be steering clear of this type of interdepartmental intermingling. There are many “public intellectuals”, however, who do write for and speak to a general audience about a myriad of scientific and academic topics. Many of these individuals do so to communicate the ideas of researchers and academics, rather than engage in the work that takes place within research labs, scientific studies and so forth. That said, these intellectuals in the public sphere often do their own research due to the demands of their tenured positions and professorship but much of their communications to the public is not based on their own research and work.
“Public intellectuals”, perhaps the likes of Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky, and controversial figures such as Slavoj Žižek, Cornell West, and so on often touch on many subjects they do not have much personal experience with but are widely read on these subjects nonetheless.
Most experts in their field specialise in the ways that they do, due to necessity. It is a vastly challenging task to be an expert in more than one specialisation of their field, let alone be an expert in more than one field or even an expert in an entire field. I dare say, this does not occur any longer in the modern area. Polymaths in academia just cannot exist due to the depth of the body of knowledge that one has to be familiar with to call themselves an expert.
There are those, however, that are truly exceptional and can be experts across different disciplines (even if the scope is limited) but this is certainly a rarity. Edward Witten, a theoretical physicist who won the fields medal in mathematics might be an example.
The nature of the human experience is one that encompasses a quest for knowledge. We naturally want to collect a catholicity of different types of knowledge from different areas and fields. There was a time when the study of philosophy encompassed all of science, psychology, art, poetry, and so forth. We are much like the ancient Greeks in this respect. The good life and the search for knowledge and understanding are still things we uphold as holding greatness and goodness. I believe this is tied heavily into our evolutionary nature to want to understand the world around us in order to have a better chance of surviving. This drive is hardwired and is the case whether one is an academic or a layperson.