The differences that make a difference.

Gregory Bateson defines information as “a difference that makes a difference” (1).

This is why the framing, point of view, or perspective of information is important. Perspective is what allows us to take things into account and recognize for whom these differences matter.

Bateson’s words ideas came to mind as I recently read a news report (2) about a social science study investigating the impact of interdisciplinary education on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). For a while now, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has supported interdisciplinary graduate education programs. I had the fortunate opportunity to participate as an affiliate of the Evolution, Development, and Genomics IGERT while studying at Indiana University. There is a wide diversity of programs ranging from the aforementioned Evo-Devo program to focused efforts in Complex Systems and Invasive Species Biology and Policy, for example.

My experience with the IGERT at IU was extremely enriching, but I would never have described it as interdisciplinary, per se. The difference I recognized was the attention that evolutionary biologists gave to developmental variation as a source of novelty and the recognition of developmental biologists that a handful of gene-expression profiles was not enough to characterize the variation in a population. I always wondered if there were any truly unique perspectives involved in the mixing of evolution, development an genomics or if it was really about the integration of tools to expand the explanatory power of evolution and genetics.

In the Nature article, Amanda Haag describes the social experiment in which students were organized into two experimental groups based on their functional role (natural science, policy analyst, etc), their stage of education, and those that had received training in an interdisciplinary framework and those that had traditional disciplinary graduate training. A number of smaller sub-groups were then formed based on the charrette model (3) to solve a specific problem. Apparently, the charrette process is used extensively in urban planning and other disciplines that frequently require the involvement of multiple stakeholders. Not surprisingly, the term is thought to come from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the nineteenth century. Contrast this model of design process with Bruno Latour’s Politics of Nature in which he sets out to establish the context for political ecology in the practice of science and policy-making.

The observation that stood out in Haag’s article was that, “To everyone’s surprise, students tackled the problem similarly, irrespective of whether they had interdisciplinary or traditional training.”


The researchers conducting the study have yet to analyze the results, but from my perspective this observation would not be surprising. For one thing, these aren’t very heterogeneous groups. Each of the functional roles maintains that science has the fundamental explanatory power. That’s a pretty specific perspective. Also, what is the real difference in graduate training that occurs through a program like IGERT? Are different perspectives really encountered, or are similar perspectives reinforced by integrating individuals that share the same perspective but use different heuristics and interpretations? Given that the groups are trying to solve problems based on the intersection of human activities and ecosystem services, these could easily be classified as difficult problems that may also require frameworks other than science and policy-making.

I should back up a bit and provide some more background.

I’ve been reading The Difference by Scott Page (5) along with the Complex Systems interdisciplinary workshop here at the University of Michigan. Page is a Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics, and his book discusses how “the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies.”

Page’s main argument and finding is that diversity in mental models (aka cognitive approaches) is the premiere source of diversity’s benefit to problem solving.

In order to get to this result, Page categorizes people’s cognitive toolbox into four functional frameworks: perspectives, heuristics, interpretations, and predictive models.

Perspectives are “how we see things…[and]…a map from reality to an internal language such that each distinct object, situation, problem, or event gets mapped to a unique word.” One might easily say that artists frequently contribute different perspectives. Keep in mind that we don’t necessarily have to rely on verbal mappings of perspective.

A heuristic is “a rule applied to an existing solution represented in a perspective that generates a new (and hopefully better) solution or a new set of possible solutions.” I tend to think of these as behaviors. It might entail finding a new idea or solution by simply looking across the aisle in a library after searching for a specific book. This chance operation depends partly on the Dewey decimal system, the layout of the library, and the subject of your initial search.

Interpretations are mappings “from objects, situations, problems, and events to words. In an interpretation, one word can mean many objects.” What’s the difference between a perspective and an interpretation? Using Page’s approach, identifying each of these components (perspectives, heuristics, interpretations, and predictive models) as components of the cognitive toolbox is a perspective. Using predictive models to classify the differences among disciplines is an example of how interpretations can be used. How the interpretation is structured and/or relevant depends on our goal (more on that later).

A predictive model is “an interpretation together with a prediction for each set or category created by the interpretation.” Predicting if an organism is a member of a is a member of particular species might be a good example. One perspective might view genetics as having something to do with species definitions and thus say that certain gene sequences will be able to predict its species. Another perspective might perspective might say that genetics is not involved. In this case, one interpretation might simply say that morphology will predict the species. The non-genetic perspective might also say that the a species is classified depending on whether it was embalmed, trained, a suckling pig, a mermaid, fabulous, a stray dog, or other (6).

Page took all of these tools into account when developing a mathematical proof to show how these differences matter for the problem-solving capacities of groups.

Though I’m only through chapter six, here is what I understand about Page’s results.

The main feature thus far is that one shouldn’t rely on standardized measures of ability alone. In fact, diversity in groups trumps the ability of homogeneous groups. In order for this to happen, a few necessary conditions and assumptions are needed.

One condition is that the problem needs to be sufficiently difficult such that no single member can solve it by themselves. That individuals share the same, similar, or synergistic goals is an important factor in determining a group’s success. Many social problems fall into the category of “difficult” including those that the grad students were faced with in the social science experiment.

Another condition is that each of the problem solvers has some ability to solve the problem. This is where some of my concerns begin. In the book, Page argues that problem solvers in a group cannot create overly rugged landscapes. By this he means that individuals in a group must contribute perspectives that contain knowledge of the causes of X problem. In this sense, he is keeping the perspectives among group members constant while allowing the heuristics and/or interpretations to be the mechanisms of diversity. This is an important assumption and one that has important consequences for interdisciplinary policy.

Page states clearly that this result shows that chemists will not benefit from having a poet or other humanist join them in the lab. I personally think he shouldn’t have been so categorical about this conclusion, given the examples he used (designing products, curing diseases, and improving our educational system). The opportunity for someone to contribute knowledge depends on the problem and its definition. If it is too specific a problem, then perhaps only those with extremely specialized knowledge can contribute. However, the very difficult problems he cites are the product of many different perspectives and causes. Should teachers and educational administrators be the only individuals contributing knowledge about the causes of educational inequity? What about educational standards? In order for the benefits of diverse perspectives to be realized, they must, as Bergson points out, be taken into account. After all, these perspectives may be the differences that matter for a positive solution.

Another one of Page’s assumptions is that people with the same perspective are able to communicate clearly, or, conversely, that people with different perspectives are unable to communicate. This is due to the one-to-one mapping of idea and word that Page’s definition of perspective entails. What happens when we don’t share the same perspective and can still communicate? One might describe this as empathy–i.e. recognizing another’s perspective. It might also be the product of a translator that can provide the mapping between perspectives. If these situations exist (and I know that they do), it is likely that people with wildly different perspectives have contributions that will amplify the beneficial effects of diversity.

All of this is why, when I read the Nature article, I was not surprised that the different groups used similar tactics to solve the problems. The question to ask is at what threshold is there difference enough to create diversity in group perspectives. If we have this diversity among perspectives, are we also confident that the group is addressing the same problem? This may be dependent on some form of communication and/or translation that can bridge perspectives.

“Bridges” is a term used by Diana Rhoten (7) to describe researchers that have many cross-disciplinary connections. She contrasts this with “hubs” which describes researchers with the most overall connections. One could therefore hypothesize that a bridge is much more likely to translate across disciplines or perspectives. This is not dissimilar to Burt’s descriptions of network entrepreneurs as individuals that span structural holes (8). Structural holes separate nonredundant sources of information, and entrepreneurs that span these holes recombine these sources in such a way that makes each of these sources valuable to the other. So if we start to ask what interdisciplinary graduate training is providing, we could focus on those policy efforts that remix differences in perspectives, interpretations, heuristics, and/or predictive models. Which is most likely to be the difference that makes a difference? I’ll put my money on groups that bring together wide arrays of perspectives with individuals that can negotiate, translate and broker these differences to solve difficult problems.

  1. Bateson, G. (2000). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. University of Chicago Press.
  2. Haag, A. Environmental science: A testing experience. Nature, Volume 443, Issue 7109, pp. 265-267 (2006).
  3. More on charrettes from wikipedia
  4. Latour, B. (2004). Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Translated by Catherine Porter. Harvard University Press.
  5. Page, S. The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools,and Societies. Princeton University Press 2007.
  6. See Jorge Luis Borges’ Chinese Encyclopedia in Foucault, M. Les mots et les choses, Paris: Gallimard, 1966 (The Order of Things, New York: Vintage, 1973).
  7. Rhoten , D. (2003) A Multi-Method Analysis of the Social and Technical Conditions for Interdisciplinary Collaboration. The Hybrid Vigor Institute. San Francisco, CA http://hybridvigor.org
  8. Burt, R. Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital (Oxford University Press, 2005).

3 thoughts on “The differences that make a difference.

  1. zackdenfeld on

    Great write up.

    It added to my increasing confusion over the radical secularism that is taking over the West and America Academia in perspective. Let me just preface these comments by saying that I am would self-describe as an atheist, and that I am currently living in India on a street with a Temple, a Mosque, a Church, and families of each religion living together.

    Last night I started listening to a podcast interview with Richard Dawkins about his new book the God Delusion. While I have no desire to live in a Christian Theocracy in the U.S. that is a matter of policy and politics and not of philosophy. Taking the radical secularist position that truth and knowledge can only be gained through the scientific method seems absurd given my current living situation. I happen to subscribe to a way of seeing the world that is primarily founded on testability and verifiability, but I have neither tested nor verified most of the truths that I hold.

    Like Bruno Latour, I am not advocating a radical postmodernist or relativist approach to knowledge either. Gravity is not socially constructed. But lets forget philosophy for a second and just think about information diversity from a policy perspective. Dawkins rightly fears the rising power of the Christian right in the U.S. and Islamic Fundamentalism. However, advocating that all people of faith are delusional, and suggesting that humans can not hold two competing world views in their brains simultaneously is not a very affective policy for moderating theists.
    Furthermore, if the issue is not philosophy, but policy, it might make a heck of a lot more sense to begin to cultivate the christian left in the U.S. as a means to accomplish goals of social suggest, environmental sustainability.

    Finally, (And this is the part that most closely relates to your post) in general I like humans. It would be great if we could live another 1000 years or so at some level, even if there are just a few of us on planet earth, or maybe elsewhere in the solar system. What can I say?, I am a little nostalgic for the hairy two legged beasts who can talk. But that will only be possible if there are robust searches for solutions in the problem spaces such as sustainability, and conflict resolution. Limiting a search space to a radical secular and rationalist approach does a disservice to the many ways humans have developed to know the world. For while gravity may not be socially constructed, science and the scientific method certainly are. The world religions are not static, but constantly changing. They are one of the differences that makes a difference. A homogenous mental environment will undoubtedly have the same patterns as a homogenous physical environment.

    For my money I will stop wasting my time on Dawkins, revisit Page’s new book, reread some Bateson, Deleuze, Virilio and Delanda.

  2. gharp on

    One of the ways Page explains the differences among perspectives (one-to-one mappings of reality to an internal language) is based on the landscape metaphor. Different perspectives have more or less rugged landscapes depending on how well they align with reality (greater mismatch between perspective and reality = greater ruggedness). I am wondering if translation between different perspectives (either because of empathy or some mediator) can systematically help to bring different perspectives into closer alignment–i.e. flatten the ruggedness of the landscapes. Another possibility (thanks jaylemke) is that a third perspective gets involved. This third perspective is able to translate, coordinate, or otherwise interact between the two differing perspectives.

  3. Dori on

    This is very interesting for my because I am trying to put together an interdisciplinary course curriculum and therefore am teasing out the ranges of diversity in approach, thought, and practice between engineering, marketing, design, and anthropology. Thanks for the great reflection.

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