On Transfession and Transdisciplinarity (Part I)
31.03.2017

- Professor Galazhinskiy, last time we talked about how modern companies need specialists who are not only “digitally educated”, but also flexible and who can adapt to changing conditions and master new technologies. An agile environment provides the best conditions for developing such flexibility. Part of this agile environment is professional diffusion that leads to learning new skills and their interfusion. Does it mean that broad specialists are going to replace experts in one subject?

- It does not, if we consider the traditional understanding of the term “broad specialist”, which means “a specialist who has a little knowledge about everything”. And we think of a “subject matter specialist” as a person who has limited but profound knowledge. To succeed today it is not enough to be a good broad expert or a good one-subject expert. The present is about being a transfessional.

- At this point we would like to have more details. Many people become alert when they hear words starting with “trans”: transformers, transgenders, and transgression… And now we have transfessionals!

- The base “trans-fero” means nothing else but “transfer” in Latin. Therefore, transfessionals are people who have learnt one or more trades and are capable of switching their career if necessary. They can transfer their knowledge and skills from one area to another and generate new knowledge and skills. If we go through The Atlas of Emerging Jobs, we will see that most new jobs are synthetic and combine professional skills from different  professional areas, for example bioethicist, agricultural ecologist, place brand manager, media policeman, information systems architect, emotion designer, cyber detective, and many others. The Atlas also provides the list of professions that may disappear after 2030, among them accountants, librarians, trip agents, lawyers, network engineers, and so on. But it does not mean that subject matter knowledge will disappear too. Transfessionals deal with “local” knowledge as well.  

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- What do you think is the correlation between interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and convergent knowledge?

- Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are different levels of knowledge convergence from various scientific areas. But sometimes these two terms are used as synonyms.  However, I would prefer dividing them into two different terms. Interdisciplinarity is a synthesis of knowledge from different disciplines but within the same sphere, such as natural science or social studies and humanities.  Transdisciplinarity is a convergence of a higher level. It contemplates transfusion of knowledge from different spheres – natural science, social studies and humanities, and IT.  A good example of such convergence is the cognitive sciences, which did not existed until not that long ago.

- What caused the trends to change and the focus on convergent knowledge instead of special area knowledge?

- There is a number of factors; the most important are the cycling of development of scientific knowledge and particular qualities of human thinking. On certain stages of them, the processes of synthesis prevail, in other stages, the processes of differentiation and analysis are dominant. Synthesis had been prevailing in natural philosophy since the Greek Antiquities up until the 19th century when science became diverse and started dividing into separate disciplines. The next 150 years were dedicated to the analytical knowledge paradigm that proposed to study separate elements (objects of research) of everything that surrounded people and people themselves. Convergence increased when   most researchers realized the limits of fragmented knowledge that interfered with studying nature, society, and humans, and developing new technologies. The problem occurred at the end of the 20th century.  

- But why did it occur only at the end of the 20th century? Philosophers started discussing the importance of integrating sciences much earlier. We all are familiar with Karl Popper’s statement that it is impossible to solve a serious problem by the means of only one scientific discipline. 

- Not only philosophers, but some scientists as well started talking about the necessity of changing the paradigms. The most sensitive and talented always feel when it is supposed to happen. Such as Noble Prize winner Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger widely known as the author of the Schrödinger’s Cat metaphor that explains specifics of quantum physics when applied to macro-objects.

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In the 1940s he wrote a book What is Life?. The content was much wider than its name because he considered life not only physically, but also biologically, chemically, and even philosophically. As a result, the book had a great impact on the development of biophysics and molecular biology. The preface became a certain manifesto to transdisciplinary knowledge. Igor Kurchatov and Sergey Korolev are Russian convergent scientists. Actually, there are many other examples of such anticipation of the coming convergence. However, most researchers came to realize the necessity of changing the paradigms from analysis to synthesis much later.

- Does it mean that today we do not have any problems with understanding the importance of the matter and everybody does research regarding the rules of convergence?

- I do not think it is possible to work that way in science. And this is good, because total agreement in science leads to stagnation. However, there are problems that interfere with integration in science necessary for developing new technologies and investigate nature, society, and humans on a new level. One of the problems is underestimating transdisciplinarity. The latter, as I have already mentioned, helps to integrate knowledge from different areas of research, if we classify sciences as “natural – technical – social studies and humanities – philosophical”. 

- Why do you think Russian science is moving toward transdisciplinarity so slowly?

- We underestimate the role and specifics of social studies and humanities. There are still many academicians in Russia who believe that science is physics, chemistry, and biology, and the rest, including humanities, is not science. However, Albert Einstein once said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” He added that he would never have made his discoveries if he had used rational thinking. Both types are science, but of different nature. That is why in English there are different terms to designate science: science, studies, and art. They differ in methods and goals, but they complete each other in examining complex objects. Humanities develop creative thinking in research and teach how to ask questions the right way. Philosophy is mostly responsible for the latter. Socrates came up with a new method to formulate questions in order to find the truth. It is called  maieutics.

- This explains the real meaning of the PhD degree, despite what sphere of knowledge a researcher represents.

- Correct. Doctor of Philosophy in this case is a researcher who can formulate philosophical questions in his or her research. This skill is particularly important nowadays, when we deal with big data.

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With the help of supercomputers and other instruments (tomographic scanners, telescopes, microscopes, and others), people collect a great amount of data of a varied nature.  Collecting data is not a problem anymore. The real problem is to use it. Computers can evaluate data in accordance with downloaded algorithms, but they cannot comprehend it and make discoveries. It means, machines operationally outrank people but they cannot create concepts. Those who participated in big world congresses on new technologies know that sometimes thousands of researchers participate in events. There are usually about a dozen key speakers, the rest present their posters. If one took these posters and line them up, the lined would be several kilometers. Who can read so much information and digest it? Most likely, nobody. We receive so much data, but we are short of genuine discoveries that revolutionize science.

- According to your example with the congresses, we are not the only nation that has such a problem.

- This is a global problem. Ideally, every inter- and transdisciplinary project group must involve a philosopher who could help to formulate questions in the process of data evaluation and provide humanities input.

to be continued