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April 28, 2019 Sunday 05:06:44 PM IST

What Google or Leonardo Da Vinci Teaches Us About Interdisciplinary Approach

Guest Column,Reflections

Way back in 1999 when Google wanted to manage its growing complexity of computer hardware networking, they hired Dr Jim Reese an acclaimed neurosurgeon with medical degrees from Harvard and Yale Medical School. He was made the operations chief for hardware systems. The reason could be that our own brains are much more complex in its neural connectivity than any network systems mankind could possibly make and hence Dr Reese was the right choice for Google. It may come as a surprise or shock to many that IT industry can make use of the skills of people who have nothing to do with computers or math.

Paul Kalanithi, a promising neurosurgeon and scientist whose career was nipped in the bud with an unexpected diagnosis of cancer of the lung and brain, had degrees in literature and human biology from Stanford University before he ventured into medicine. According to him, 'literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain'. He writes in his book "When Breath Becomes Air"(Published by The Bodley Head, London, 2016) that he chose literature and philosophy for undergraduate studies because it made him understand what makes life meaningful and studied neuroscience to understand how the brain could give rise to an organism capable of finding meaning in the world. He went on to study medicine and majored in neurosurgery from Yale School of Medicine. He was destined to be a world renowned neuro surgeon and scientist considering his academic and research achievements until the fatal disease took away his life in 2015.

If you pore through history some of the outstanding people had multiple talents. Leonardo Da Vinci considered the polymath of the Italian Renaissance was not only a talent artist but also skilful in music mathematics, architecture, engineering, botany and several other disciplines. Our own Satyajit Ray is popularly known for his films but was equally talented as an author, artist and music composer. The great philosopher Aristotle also had great knowledge of biology, zoology, metaphysics, physics apart from his core area of ethics, aesthetics, logic and philosophy. Karl Marx, the political philosopher who propounded Communism was also a multi-talented personality- a historian, economist, journalist and a socialist revolutionary.

When I did journalism master’s degree program in Kerala University, I had as my classmates an engineering graduate and another who had a masters in marine science. Both of them eventually went on to excel in fields not related to any of the areas they studied.

Compartmentalised Vs Inter-Disciplinary Learning

There are fundamentally two approaches to learning- one which is compartmentalised and the other which is inter-disciplinary. The compartmentalised system breaks up subjects of study into individual silos. Thus, someone who chooses engineering only learns science, mathematics and engineering while someone who chooses psychology ends up learning different aspects of psychology and those taking medicine learn only medical topics. The specialisation approach to learning sees advancement of learning as learning more and more of less and less. Thus, are born electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, neuro surgeons, cardiologists, pulmonologists, cost accountants, lawyers, architects and several other professions. By tradition most of the learning in schools and colleges are compartmentalised or categorised into silos.

Understanding of complex systems whether it is in real life or in industry requires a multi-disciplinary approach. William H Newell of School of Inter-Disciplinary Studies, Miami University has stated in a paper that interdisciplinary courses on phenomena modelled by complex systems promote desirable liberal education outcomes for students and faculty development for teachers. Interdisciplinary studies prepare future professionals to confront the complex behaviours they will face on the job. (Source:

When Should Inter-Disciplinary Learning Begin?

Conventional wisdom would suggest that inter-disciplinary learning should be ideal for college campuses and especially post graduate level of learning. However, new thoughts are emerging about how to integrate it in the school level itself. Vicky Chan, a founder of the design firm Avoid Obvious Architects, believes teaching architecture to school children can help them in problem solving and most effective in teaching STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). The beauty of learning design is that there is no solution that is 100% right or 100% wrong which is quite different from the math and science learning currently done in schools where every problem has a pre-determined answer. (Source: Architectural applications can go beyond STEM to STEAM (adding Art).

In higher levels of academia and industry, the advantages of inter-disciplinary approaches had already become accepted and realised decades ago.

Tim Harford writes in his book Adapt, Why Success Always Starts with Failure about an economic development map of the world showing relative strengths of exporting countries. Countries with sophisticated product capabilities but less income has more room for growth. Nations that export products that several others export turn out to be simple economies. This visual map was created by a young physicist Cesar Hidalgo who knew nothing of economics but in collaboration with economists Ricardo Hausman, Bailey Klinger and network physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi.

Inter-Disciplinary Approaches in Daily Life and Academic World

Sometimes, interdisciplinary approaches can be introduced to reduce competition in the academic field as has happened in economics. When I took Economics for my undergraduate course in the late 1980’s some people warned me of the changing trends in this field. It was already becoming mathematical and since higher mathematics was not my forte, I decided not to pursue it further and turned to Journalism. I was also aware of some clever friends of mine who took science with maths at the pre-degree level not with the intention of trying their luck in engineering or medical entrance exams but to perform well when they join for undergraduate and later post graduate courses in economics.

Mathematical Formalism in Economics

We were made to believe that usage of mathematical expressions and principles made it easier to express and understand many complex theories in economics whether it was micro or macro-economics.  Micro Economics deals with the behaviour of the individual consumer and the firm while Macro Economics deals with economic policy, national income, GDP, budget and resource allocation, unemployment, investment and other topics. Later, some people were of the view that introduction of complex mathematics into economics was to discourage the faint hearted from taking up this subject and thus reduce competition among the academics, economists and others.

Robert H Frank, the author of the best seller, The Economic Naturalist, Why Economics Explains Almost Everything, says escalation of mathematical formalism coincided with increasingly stiff competition for academic jobs. ….Formulating and manipulating sophisticated mathematical models are not task for the intellectually faint of heart. By accomplishing them a candidate credibly signals his or her prowess. So candidates have an obvious incentive to invest additional time and effort in honing their mathematical skills.”

Use of Psychology in Marketing and Politics

Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner in their best seller Freakonomics uncovered several clever uses of psychology, mathematical thinking and economics in our day-to-day life when people make decisions or companies design products. Whether it is display of sweets and chocolates near to a cash counter in a super market , why drug peddlers remain poor while those minority who manage the business become rich or the techniques used by real estate agents to get a deal through, the reason why carbonated drinks are marketed in cylindrical cans while milk is packed in rectangular pouches and that incentives drive people to make certain decisions. In hypermarkets, there is a psychology behind keeping toys and other accessories for children at low height as it will make it visible to their target consumer.

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back by Tim Harford and The Economic Naturalist by Robert H Frank further enlightened the common man about how economic principles can just about explain anything that happens around us.

If you listen to political speeches, you will be amazed at the clever use of short words and sentences that single out the opponent’s wrong policies and failures conveniently suppressing their own. It is based on the psychology that people can be easily carried away by short sentences laced with humour and simplified logic.

Taking a Freakonomic View

Why do Indian families prefer to buy gold ornaments despite jewellers charging huge making charges which is lost in exchanging it for a new one and also the same cost is incurred while selecting another piece of jewellery in exchange?

Apart from cosmetic and ornamental reasons, gold can be converted into liquid cash (store of value), which makes it a great investment. People buy gold in the hope that prices will increase and they can sell it for more money per unit weight than they bought it, thus may be offsetting the high making charges. Wearing gold in wedding and important fashion events enhances the status of women. Economic and fashion reasons aside, gold is also considered precious and there may not be sufficient gold reserves across the world to mine.

Why do people spend so much money to hide greying hair and finding cure for baldness when there is no perceived economic benefit?

Indians are genetically predisposed to having black hair due to an excessive amount of melanin. Melanin production can wean off due to a variety of reasons such as genetics and stress, but the primary reason is age. As a result, people with greying hair are generally perceived to be older. As people want to be seen as youthful, they spend exorbitant amounts to ensure that receding hairline is made up with hair fixing or greying hair stays black. It may not give any direct economic benefit nor any health benefit other than giving a feeling of being young. If you’re meeting someone for a business deal, you would associate younger looks with energy and enthusiasm and old looks with maturity and experience. Both of them have relative advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation. Most importantly, people want to convince themselves that they are not that old or getting old!

 (For the above two answers, I am indebted to my son Darshan,  a culinary arts student in New Zealand whose knowledge of economic theory and psychology was enriched  after a two-year study of the subjects in Class XI and XII)

Sreekumar Raghavan

Sreekumar Raghavan is an award-winning business journalist with over two and a half decades of experience in print, magazine and online journalism. A Google-certified Digital Marketing Professional, he specialises in content development for web, digital marketing and training, media relations and related areas. He is the recipient of MP Narayana Pillai Award for Journalism in 2001 and holds a bachelors degree in Economics and Masters Degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Kerala University.





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