Seeing the World Through Soda Straws

straws

Nicholas Christakis takes social science to task in an article in the NYTimes Sunday Review of July 19th. He complains that the social sciences haven’t exploded as the natural sciences have in the past few decades.

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, when I was a graduate student, there were departments of natural science that no longer exist today. Departments of anatomy, histology, biochemistry and physiology have disappeared, replaced by innovative departments of stem-cell biology, systems biology, neurobiology and molecular biophysics. Taking a page from Darwin, the natural sciences are evolving with the times. The perfection of cloning techniques gave rise to stem-cell biology; advances in computer science contributed to systems biology. Whole new fields of inquiry, as well as university departments and majors, owe their existence to fresh discoveries and novel tools.

In contrast, the socialĀ sciences have stagnated. They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years: sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. This is not only boring but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge. Such inertia reflects an unnecessary insecurity and conservatism, and helps explain why the social sciences don’t enjoy the same prestige as the natural sciences.

It should not be hard to guess that the article was written by an academician, working in one of these spanking new scientific micro-disciplines. I think he has it backwards. It is easy to probe the non-human world out there and get to know its innermost secrets. With that knowledge, we can and do conjure up all sorts of wonderful new devices. But so what. These new devices titillate us for a while until they are quickly replaced by system 2.0. And while this incessant process continues, the condition of the world deteriorates.

The new sciences have facilitated our move into a new geological era, the Anthropocene where our use of all the new technology (science in action) is changing the worldly context in which we evolved and require for life. Part of the reason for this is the emergence of the wonderful micro-disciplines that Christakis extols. None has the capability of seeing the whole system which the new sciences impact. By becoming ever more reductionist, the production of unwanted and untoward unintended consequences grows and grows. Almost everything, maybe even everything, we lump into unsustainability follows from the failure of the theoretical knowledge produced by scientists and applied by engineers to represent the real systems that form the context for their knowledge-in-practice.

It takes a good, old-fashioned social scientist to point this out. The more old-fashioned the better because these fields grew out of looking at systems in situ, not in the laboratory. Today, new sub-disciplines are creeping into academia, but not near the rate of the natural sciences. Christakis has an explanation for this slow pace.

One reason citizens, politicians and university donors sometimes lack confidence in the social sciences is that social scientists too often miss the chance to declare victory and move on to new frontiers. Like natural scientists, they should be able to say, “We have figured this topicĀ out to a reasonable degree of certainty, and we are now moving our attention to more exciting areas.” But they do not.

If social scientists would ever be able to do as he says, that is, to claim sufficient certainty to call a halt to their work and move on, we would be in a very bad place. Unlike the worlds of natural sciences that look at a relatively unchanging context, the social world is never the same from one moment to the next. Even about 2500 years ago, Heraclitus knew this, writing, “You could not step twice into the same river.” No “scientist” could make much headway if the topics they study were like the incessant mobile river of Heraclitus. They would be able to make some statements about the expected value and degree of uncertainty of the condition at any time, but could not paint an exact picture.

Social systems are much more like rivers than cells and semiconductors. (At the quantum level semiconductors exhibit uncertain behavior, but not at the macro-level that makes iPads possible.) And because of this, the disciplinary fields that work to explain social systems and the individual human actors that constitute them are perforce broad in scope. If we are to ever understand why the world is in bad shape and getting worse, only the social scientists will be able to unravel the complexity of real systems. One reason for the present condition of Planet Earth is that people like Christakis have done much to delegitimate these fields relative to the natural sciences. Economics, which once tried to explain whole systems, is moving more and more towards a trying to be a natural science, just like physics. It’s a mistake because the humans they study are like rivers, never the same from moment to moment. What I learn today changes the context out of which I behave tomorrow.

What we need to cope with the complexity of today’s crowded and stressed world is systems thinkers, not people who see the world through soda straws. We may not have a new smart phone every six months, but perhaps, the atmosphere won’t heat up so fast. Natural scientists will never find the secret of flourishing. I’m not sure that social scientists will, but I would much rather have them working on the problem.

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1 Comments

David M. Carter said:

John,

I agree with you 100%! One way, I believe, social scientists can help their cause, and that of the broader world, is by being more prescriptive. We know enough about certain behaviors and their effects on human well-being for social scientists to be using more words like "should" and "would". For example, we know that materialistic tendencies wreak havoc on well-being. We should be telling people to avoid it at all costs.