Diversity in Science
With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I’ll proceed with this blog post where I intend to invert the pyramid of the sciences, establish the supremacy of palaeontology over all other sciences before removing my tongue to make a really important point: relativity applies to the disciplines of science just as rigidly as it does to moving objects.
During the Enlightenment, physics emerged not only as a discipline in its own right, but as the King of all the other emerging sciences (even if the term ‘physicist’ did not appear in English until the 1830s). Its supremacy was inherited through its explanatory powers for universal phenomena underlying all the other sciences.
In this popular hierarchy, chemistry was enthroned as the Queen of Sciences, with underlying explanatory powers second only to physics. Then there were the ‘softer’ sciences such as biology and geology and languishing down in some kind of scientific serfdom was palaeontology. Barely a science in the eyes of some, with too much missing data, far too many variables, and reliant on too much subjective interpretation of the data to make any meaningful conclusions. Taxonomy, the science of naming and classifying organisms, became ridiculed as mere stamp collecting within biology and, as most palaeontologists are at least in part taxonomists, we were further denigrated into obsessive fossil collectors and classifiers.
But what if the metric for the ordering of the sciences was complexity? Simple sciences like physics and chemistry suddenly become relegated to the bottom of the heap; regularly dealing with just a few variables that can often be controlled, and producing simplified, abstract models that bear little resemblance to the real world. Measure a ball rolling down an incline and deduce the motion of the heavens. Study the states of matter under differing regimes of temperature and pressure and that becomes the basis for understanding environments that we will never experience or encounter.
Under the metric of complexity, biology rises in nobility. To understand an organism requires taking into account numerous variables including ones of which you may not even be aware. Study an ecosystem and the variables increase exponentially. But, no matter how imperfect your understanding because of the complex interplay of numerous variables, your results will tell you something directly relevant to the real world before you. Understand the environmental parameters required for the success of an organism and you know what it takes to keep it alive.
Geology also rides high in the complexity of sciences because all too often, variables are hidden or missing: lost in time. To understand the history of a mountain range or an ore body means playing out a set of unique variables that probably changed dramatically over the millions of years that went into their creation.
And the complexity of palaeontology is that of geology multiplied by that of biology. We’re trying to understand the history of life, changes in organisms, ecosystems and environments over a span of time measured in billions of years. Most of that data is gone, most of those environments and ecosystems have disappeared without leaving any trace of their existence. It’s a complex view of reality we are trying to understand with an unfathomable abundance of variables and a very incomplete record of what they are (or were).
If you want to measure science by complexity, then palaeontology surely comes out King. If you want to keep your science simple, study physics.
No surprise that I’m a palaeontologist by training is it? And as I said at the start, this is something of a tongue-in-cheek little rant but there is a serious message behind it. The sciences are about trying to understand the physical world (and universe) that surrounds us. Science proceeds by a clearly defined set of methodologies that set it apart from other areas of human endeavour that purport to explain the surrounding environment. But a diversity of potential scientific analyses will result in a diversity of perspectives as to what that reality is. Within science your observations as to what reality looks like are uniquely shaped by your theoretical framework. What you see is relative to where you view it from. Usually those differing scientific perspectives are complementary to each other, but sometimes there are clashes.
A good example is discussion around the sciences of population. I was somewhat surprised when last year we had a discussion here at The Science Exchange to mark the world population passing 7 billion people. We had three demographers who discussed the mechanics and patterns of how that population growth has occurred and what is likely to happen in the future. What surprised me is that they generally were not too alarmed at the prospect of the world’s human population heading toward 10 billion people by the close of this century. This perspective was crafted from their analysis of how the present population had grown and managed to adapt the environment to support that growth. With continued innovations and modifications to the Earth’s ecosystems, there ought to be no problem feeding another 3 billion people within less than a century.
Ecologists look at the situation from another perspective and are alarmed at the prospect of 10 billion people. They point to degraded fish stocks, the collapse of bee numbers, the loss of native habitats and arable land, the decline of nitrate fertilizer supplies and a host of other environmental factors in the ecology of the planet and ask how we can sustain increasing numbers of people with decreasing environmental resources? Climatologists are also dismayed because they see the linkages between population and climate change. They have all come to different conclusions about the same issue because they view the situation through different data sets.
There are no privileged positions in science. All things being equal, one perspective does not trump another. And usually the differing perspectives of science are complementary and additive. But occasionally there are clashes generated by differing approaches to similar questions. In those situations the resolution lays in expanding the data sets of all parties. Place yourself in the shoes of the other scientist and a new vista awaits you.
There is a growing push for more interdisciplinary research within the sciences and this has led to some stunning technological breakthroughs and productive research programs. But we are well served to remember that ‘science’ is a diverse congregation. We consist of several different disciplines that all bring useful approaches to the common endeavour of understanding the world in which we live. We should not be surprised if occasionally there are conflicts within that congregation.
By Paul Willis, @Fossilcrox