See Inside October 2007

The Really Hard Science

To be of true service to humanity, science must be an exquisite blend of data, theory and narrative

Over the past three decades I have noted two disturbing tendencies in both science and society: first, to rank the sciences from “hard” (physical sciences) to “medium” (biological sciences) to “soft” (social sciences); second, to divide science writing into two forms, technical and popular. And, as such rankings and divisions are wont to do, they include an assessment of worth, with the hard sciences and technical writing respected the most, and the soft sciences and popular writing esteemed the least. Both these prejudices are so far off the mark that they are not even wrong.

I have always thought that if there must be a rank order (which there mustn’t), the current one is precisely reversed. The physical sciences are hard, in the sense that calculating differential equations is difficult, for example. The variables within the causal net of the subject matter, however, are comparatively simple to constrain and test when contrasted with, say, computing the actions of organisms in an ecosystem or predicting the consequences of global climate change. Even the difficulty of constructing comprehensive models in the biological sciences pales in comparison to that of modeling the workings of human brains and societies. By these measures, the social sciences are the hard disciplines, because the subject matter is orders of magnitude more complex and multifaceted.

Between technical and popular science writing is what I call “integrative science,” a process that blends data, theory and narrative. Without all three of these metaphorical legs, the seat on which the enterprise of science rests would collapse. Attempts to determine which of the three legs has the greatest value is on par with debating whether π or r2 is the most important factor in computing the area of a circle.

Consider data and theory first. I began this column in April 2001 with what I called “Darwin’s dictum,” which came from a quote from the sage of Down in response to a critique that On the Origin of Species was too theoretical and that he should have just “put his facts before us and let them rest.” Darwin responded by explaining the proper relation between data and theory: “About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize, and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”

Charles Darwin’s dictum holds that if observations are to be of any use they must be tested against some view—a thesis, model, hypothesis, theory or paradigm. The facts that we measure or perceive never just speak for themselves but must be interpreted through the colored lenses of ideas. Percepts need concepts, and vice versa. We can no more separate our theories and concepts from our data and percepts than we can find a true Archimedean point—a god’s-eye view—of ourselves and our world.

Data and theory are not enough. As primates, humans seek patterns and establish concepts to understand the world around us, and then we describe it. We are storytellers. If you cannot tell a good story about your data and theory—that is, if you cannot explain your observations, what view they are for or against and what service your efforts provide—then your science is incomplete. The view of science as primary research published in the peer-reviewed sections of journals only, with everything else relegated to “mere popularization,” is breathtakingly narrow and naive. Were this restricted view of science true, it would obviate many of the greatest works in the history of science, from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, the evolutionary biologist’s environmental theory about the differential rates of development of civilizations around the world for the past 13,000 years.

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