The Polymathic Method

As the global Information Age civilization emerges, the social institutions and mechanisms, as occurred in previous societal transformations, will also change. In the case of the Information Age, these changes will result in an emergence of a class of polymaths who will create and direct much of the traffic flow of information and ideas. In descending order of number of practitioners, I expect that these polymaths will engage in enterprise polymathy, polymathic mentoring (education), polymathic punditry, community design and research polymathy.

In the early 1990's I attended myself to the question of how polymaths might successfully ply their trade.  While some people have advocated polymathy as a kind of serial specialist, I realized that there is a polymathic method that has been practiced on rare occasions with great success. 

The first characteristic of the Polymathic Method is that it is question, rather than subject, oriented. Within traditional Academia, a child enters school and is given a basic polymathic grounding in all subjects. However, eventually, like a fluid in a funnel, their focus is progressively squeezed down to a specialty and, if they stay with schooling long enough, a subspecialty. A person may be educated as a Dendrochronologist specializing in Paleoclimatology. After choosing this very narrow field, they will go around looking for a problem or question that fits their area of expertise.

Research Polymaths reverse the order. First, they find an interesting question. Then they make a preliminary determination of the knowledge and skills that will be needed to answer the question. They then, either autodidactically or through collaboration, acquire that knowledge and skills.  During the pursuit of the answer, they will often discover that their preliminary determination was incomplete and additional knowledge and skills may need to be acquired in order to successfully complete the project.

The classic example of an accidental Polymath arose when Geologist, Walter Alvarez found an excess of Iridium in the KT boundary. When he asked himself the question, ‘I wonder if an asteroid killed the dinosaurs?’ he launched into one of the most dramatic examples of polymathy in modern times. By the time he was done, he had acquired significant expertise in Cretaceous Biology, Astrophysics, Climatology, Fluid Dynamics, etc. and enlisted the assistance of a broad range of specialists. Furthermore, and more to the point, he completely changed the paradigm of a subject.

Another form of research polymathy is methodology transfer. This is when an accepted methodological approach in one subject is applied to a problem in a different subject. A classic example of this was when Molecular Biologists used electrophoretic technologies to create a 'genetic clock' and began to answer questions in Anthropology.

A third form of research polymathy is epistemological transfer. This is when the epistemological structure of one subject is applied to a subject that typically uses a different epistemological structure. An example of this style of research was Schlieman’s use of literature to lead him to Troy. Ever since this success, people have attempted to use literary references to inform Archeology to no avail. The reason is that his success came from finding Troy. The epistemology of Archeology did not accept his methodology, only his result.

Lastly, research polymathy is free to explore interstitial questions. In other words, most questions are ‘owned’ by a subject. A few fall between the cracks. As interstitial questions have been explored, new interdisciplinary subjects have been invented. A few questions, however, are interesting in general, but not really interesting to any given subject. An example is the question of what humans were doing during the upper Pleistocene. It's not that the question is ignored, but rather that to the Physical Anthropologist and to the Archeologist, the answer seems to be, ‘Not much.” Neither paradigm assumes that if they dig deeper or think about it more, that the answer is likely to change. So they don’t do either.

In many ways, the Research Polymath must be first a metascientist. What we mean by this is that scientific subjects, whether natural or social, have epistemological rules and paradigms that inform them as to what is likely to be the case and what questions are worth pursuing. In other words, there is a SETI project because scientists believe that something might be found. There is no Search for Leprechauns project, because they don’t think that it would be fruitful. They have no evidence of either, however, one fits their paradigm and the other does not. The consideration of what blind spots are created by adherence to a specific paradigm and epistemology is a metascientific activity and an important first step for the Research Polymath.

The historical examples we cite have been cases of accidental polymathy practiced by specialists. Consequently, the connecting fact in the specialty outside their own must be well known. If the excess Iridium informed paleontology about an arcane point, rather than the widely known Cretaceous mass extinction, Alvarez would have known nothing about it and he never would have asked the question and pursued the connection. It is therefore our assertion that, by creating a professional Research Polymath, we will be allowing the interdisciplinary connections to be investigated purposefully and at much a deeper level. We believe that this is likely to surface a broad array of such connections to be explored.

A Research Polymath must acquire a deeper understanding of various subjects. However, that knowledge base is not the same as what is acquired by a practitioner within the field. The Research Polymath will focus on the nature of the current paradigm, the epistemological approaches characteristic of the discipline and where the current paradigm has problems. Only after this knowledge is used to surface an interesting question does the Research Polymath consider what proficiencies should be acquired and when the Polymath should just ask a specialist.

Anyone who is familiar with the three examples we cite is aware that the subject that was informed by the polymathic contribution did not react well. In many cases the ad hominem was appalling. The willingness of the target subject to receive the contributions of what they considered to be an unqualified interloper was non-existent. Consequently, it appears that an effective community of Research Polymaths must be educated and funded outside of the subject specificities of Academia. One approach, obviously, is to do the polymathic research and then write a book about it. Unfortunately, not all polymathic questions are as inherently interesting to the book reading public as what killed the dinosaurs. Our hope is that polymathic enterprises and a generally polymathic larger communities, such as Polymathica, eventually will be able to fund polymathic research.

The Research Polymath must necessarily come from the apex of the polymathic community. They will likely have an IQ above 140.  But they must be intellectually sophisticated, in the extreme.  Research polymathy requires a breadth of knowledge and skills and an ease in learning that is possessed by only a few. Project Polymath (now defunct) asked the question, ‘One da Vinci changed the world. What could thousands do?’ There are thousands of people alive today who have the intellect of da Vinci. It is unlikely they all have his imagination and creativity. However, the important point is that, right now, nearly all of them are being excluded from professional intellectual inquiry and discourse. If we assiduously pursue research polymathy, while probably not liberating thousands of da Vincis, we will quite possibly usher in a new Renaissance. At a bare minimum we will be significantly increasing the percentage of human potential that is productively engaged.


  1. Thank you, this is validating. I've always found that knowledge doesn't quite stick unless it answers a question I already had. This article motivates me to double down on that strategy.