I would like to explore some thoughts about the role of integrative science (as we are doing it in Ecohealth) in modern society: Human perception is primary. Everything we hear, see, feel, taste, makes up how we perceive our world. Language and vision play a very important role. Our brain makes an incredible effort to decipher our perception into patterns that we have already recognized and those that are new. Our body can react with reflexes or movements i.e. when we find ourselves in a burning house. At another level is the interpretation and reflection of things that we have read. Human expression can be in the form of narrative, poetry, mathematical formulas. It can also be as painting, sculpture, music or any other art work. Both the verbal and non-verbal expressions can reflect perceived "realities" and can more or less adequately express themselves. We have the possibility to abstract our expression at various levels. A medical sociologist in Mauritania told me once: "Oh you, epidemiologists, your numbers on disease frequencies say nothing about reality. It is only in the form of a novel that you could attempt to grasp the atmosphere of that Sahelian landscape, but not with numbers". Moustapha, as he is called, came to the point of showing the interface between science and art. Beethoven described the first movement of his 6th Symphonie (Pastorale) with "Happy feeling on arrival in the countryside" and indeed I feel that that resonates with my own perception when I hear it. So what describes reality better, art or science? What is better? I find a piece of art aesthetic when I am emotionally moved and not left indifferent. A figure may give me accurate information of the temperature in the countryside, but not of its atmosphere.
Humanities are often called "soft sciences" because they are in a constant struggle for interpretation of texts or patterns. I disagree that this is soft. Stringent philosophical argumentation is as hard as "hard" numerical data. We should bear in mind that even simple numbers in a table are not self explanatory, we have to interpret, we have to reconstruct a "reality" from them. This is called constructivism. Constructs or models can be misleading or incomplete. We may want to be careful with our constructs and possibly look at them in a way that does not create misinterpreted constructs. This approach would be close to de-constructivism. An important self-critical and self-reflexive attitude, which is needed to address complex problems.
Modern science has the extraordinary power to analyze and characterize "reality" way beyond what our eyes can see. This achievement is made posible by continuously abstracting phenomena, reducing it into simpler and simpler phenomena that can be understood easier and, as much as possible, be expressed in mathematical terms. I can write six coupled differential equations to describe the transmission of dog rabies to humans. We need this to analyze the efficacy of interventions. On the other hand my formulas do not capture the atmosphere of those dogs laying in the shade of a tree in hot and sandy N'Djamena, the capital of Chad. My formulas do not describe the cultural view of dogs in an African context. My formulas do not address the critical issue of social mobilization to make all dog owners bring their dogs in for vaccination. Hence we need many other disciplines to tackle the complex issue of disease control in a developing country. We must collaborate with sociologists, anthropologists, virologists, ecologists, etc. We can only solve our problem if we successfully understand what makes people decide to bring their dog in for vaccination.
This example shows that 1) at some point we need reductionist, disciplinary, in-depth studies to understand underlying phenomena, 2) for more operational work at larger scales we need to connect with other disciplines and 3) the more we involve other disciplines the closer we come to other forms of knowledge. At some point, we want to complement our academic knowledge with local knowledge, Indigenous knowledge and non-academic knowledge. Here we enter the realm of what we call transdsiciplinary or public engagement approaches involving all forms of knowledge in complex assessments and problem solving.
Integrative science is at the interface between basic science and the public engagement of science, it is not less complex than basic sciences because it relates to many different disciplines and scales of action. It is even close to the arts, because it is more and more capable of capturing the "atmosphere" of a local context from a narrative. We engage in training young students and scientists to open up their mind beyond their first discipline. However, I strongly encourage young students to get well rooted in one discipline prior to engaging in integrative science. We need to be recognized in one field so that we can be recognized in our inter- and transdisciplinary work.