Interdisciplinarity Requires Patience and Tolerance

By Graham Peterson

It should really be an obvious point that working with people from outside your own tribe takes patience and tolerance.  You have to translate constantly; you might not crack coconuts the same way; and your hypothalamus will kick up and say “gross run!” or “fuck that, kill!” when it senses something foreign.

Alas, in the academy there is enough pretension about quality, dedication, honesty, and rigor to power a weather balloon, and we tend to reserve those moralistic judgments to our friends and presume The Other Team lacks them.

So it happens that when people read outside their field, they get really prickly when someone makes mistakes that a specialist from inside their field wouldn’t have made.  “This is low quality [relative to what my peers who have worked on it for decades have done]!  This person is dishonest [relative to people who have better information]!  This person is lazy!”

Here’s how this type of thing goes.  Brad DeLong illustrates nicely for us, because he completely lost his mind about David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

DeLong found mistake after mistake that Graeber made concerning recent economic history — a topic that economic and monetary historians have covered exhaustively (because of its richness of quantitative historical records).  We are then supposed to infer that the rest of the book is probably garbage too.  A lot of people (maybe not DeLong) also conclude that Graeber is stupid, dishonest, or incompetent.

These are exactly opposite the conclusions one should draw in such a situation.

When someone from outside your field screws up details from inside your field, it is probably the case that they have a much better grasp on the details from inside their field.  Concluding otherwise is like showing up in Tahiti and concluding that the Tahitians have nothing to teach you about Tahiti because they speak English poorly.

If you stop listening to the foreigner, or trash them repeatedly on your blog, you lose the opportunity to educate them about your field, and to be educated about theirs.  I think there are a lot of things wrong even with Graeber’s interpretation of prehistoric economy, but I had to suppose that a world famous anthropologist was not completely incompetent or lying to me, in order to consider the issue.

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