Robert E. Wright
Weary I grow of people’s asking if this or that is “really” economics or history or evolutionary psychology or whatever. Those are just arbitrary labels slapped onto university departments and courses that do not help humans to ascertain the ding an sich, the thing-in-itself, a.k.a. reality or, if not Truth, then a usable claim about the real world.
Those who would help to improve the world should seek out not arbitrary disciplinary boundaries but what biologist E.O. Wilson calls consilience, or the unity of knowledge. They should seek not to fill lacunae in academic “literatures” but to enlighten or illuminate through insight. ‘Tis best not to assert expertise where none exists,’ as economist Thomas Sowell warns, but one should also not fear to ask questions when important problems arise and to wonder if expertise is not lacking in others, especially when responding to rapidly evolving novel threats.
As I pointed out early in the pandemic, people tend to view their tiny bit of the world very clearly, but remain as oblivious to the rest of the world as a racehorse wearing blinders. Such specialization works just fine in an economy with a finely-grained division of labor, but creates some real embarrassment whenever a problem, like Covid or the global climate, requires a broader view of the world.
For decades, universities have claimed to foster interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary investigation, but few have made any real strides as money and professorships still go to departments, divisions, or schools, not to every scholar addressing a particular question or problem. As a result, administrative conveniences have become reified, existing only to satisfy their own internal needs rather than more general enlightenment.
It is difficult to find, say, a law professor willing to read or cite relevant history books, or articles in economics, because they are incentivized to cite law review articles, substandard as most of those articles are in terms of consilience. And don’t get me started on schools of public health, where six departments, two centers, and an institute all work on the same problem without knowing about, much less collaborating with, the others. Merely inefficient most of the time, such silos can cause big problems when emergencies strike in the real world.
Everything, you see, is interconnected, often directly and via several indirect routes, sometimes in one direction but often bidirectionally. For example, there exist economic analyses of religious institutions and religious analyses of economics. Moreover, religions impact economic activity in multiple ways, like through mourning rituals, dietary prohibitions, and Sabbath observances, while economic activity influences religions through the volume of donations, the price of land for churches and cemeteries and such, and the alacrity of acolytes.
Ditto books, charities, communication, computers, criminality, education, fiction, fishing, healthcare, hobbies, hunting, movies, music, sex, sports, transportation, and indeed every aspect of human life. In fact, there exists an economics (chemistry, history, literature, philosophy, psychology, sociology, physics) of every single human thing you can think of, even if you wear too many blinders to know what it is. And every single human thing you can think of affects the economy in ways large and small.
In short, consilience demands no out-of-bounds, only more or less salient topics of investigation. What matters is not the topic per se, but the way a writer or researcher approaches it.
Consider, for example, criminal justice. It is often considered an interdisciplinary, though highly specialized or niche field of inquiry. Yet its Overton window of acceptable policies is so little open that I was the first to suggest that prisoner recidivism could be reduced by incentivizing nonprofits to find ways to keep individual ex-cons out of jail, an insight that grew out of my study of the economics of slavery.
If the connection between slavery and prisoner recidivism isn’t immediately clear, think Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the US, except for those duly convicted of a crime. The point is, no person or group should be allowed to hold a monopoly on understanding complex medical, social, or technological issues, especially during putative emergencies.
Even the study of something as seemingly irrelevant to modern life as dueling (“pistols at ten paces”) need not prove a merely antiquarian or whimsical affair. As Christopher Kingston and I showed in “The Deadliest of Games: The Institution of Dueling,” two men trying to slaughter each other rested on a rational basis even when it seemed as if only “honor” was at stake. The point of the paper was that although their rationality is to some extent constrained, people are not as dumb as they sometimes seem to be.
Moreover, our game theory model of dueling could easily be applied to other types of social interactions where people risk loss, if not necessarily death, in order to signal possession of some valuable, directly unobservable quality. Climate virtue signaling anyone?
So ask not if this or that article belongs to this or that reified academic discipline, ask instead how they may enlighten human understanding of the world. To avoid groupthink and, worse still, bellyfeel, humans need to foster more creative, independent thought, not hackneyed beliefs possible only within the confines of a pinhole view of the world. Intellects of the world unite and break loose all the many arbitrary disciplinary chains inhibiting understanding!