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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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