Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Future of SCIENCE

For my class Hist 1445: Science and Religion in American History. Good course. Not a substantial paper in any sense, but here ya go.

William Ogburn on the Future of Science

It's remarkable to read William Ogburn's 1930 article in The Scientific Monthly predicting the future of sociology, in view of where the sciences have come in the past 80 years. Frankly, he gets almost everything entirely right. Sociology trended towards the “hard” sciences in its methods and the attitudes of its scientists; all sciences became more descriptive than proscriptive, differentiated but cooperative; scientists who chose to be active in advocacy or other non-scientific fields struggled to separate this as much as possible from their work. Realistic with his predictions, Ogburn understood that these are ideals, endpoints that may never be realistically reached. But the fact remains that, among mainstream scientists, his attitude is dominant and his goals are shared by most. As a loyal follower of the sciences and an occasional scientist myself, I was astounded by Ogburn's statements, and I too share his sentiments on science as a whole, and the ideal place of the social sciences.

First let us focus on Ogburn's own field: sociology. He is critical of current, sometimes non-scientific and proscriptive methods, as well as the collusion of sociology with politics, ethics, philosophy and government. He finds sociology papers archaically pretentious and literary. His predictions for the field would eliminate or modify all of these perceived problems with the field. On the topic of papers, Ogburn predicts a trending towards the hard sciences, which at this time begins producing shorter, more empirically-minded papers for a purely scientific audience. The goal of sociology papers will be the same, namely for the audience to be “the scientific guild, and no attempt will be made to make these articles readable for shop girls or for the high-school youth. Articles will always be accompanied by the supporting data. Hence the text will be shorter and the tables and records longer” (Ogburn 301). This type of reference article is precisely what one finds in science journals today, only occasionally with ideas for application added in the conclusion, and the social sciences are no exception.

This would seem to make science an insulated field, purposefully avoiding contact with the public at large, both in spreading its findings and in advising the public on how to implement them for the greater good. To an extent, Ogburn wants this in order to improve the working of scientific study, but he doesn't require scientific knowledge to be kept from the public sphere – or scientists, for that matter. The multiple personalities of the scientist will come up later, but as to the public persona, it is possible for a scientist, or non-scientist, to dedicate themselves to translating scientific knowledge and advances to a broad audience. One can think here of Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins*, or even Alan Alda, host of the popular PBS show Nova, as modern examples of this. The goals of such individuals is to “show the human significance of these discoveries and measurements...[to] dramatize science, which will rewrite scientific results in terms of slang” (301). This is where proscriptive science, scientific journalism, ethics and philosophy, education and science-fiction, come into play in raising awareness of the importance of science to our lives, and raising funding from the public and private sectors.

But to accumulate real, hard scientific knowledge, the scientist must change his methods and attitude. Emotion, belief, and an eye toward application must be abandoned. As now, the scientist spends most of his time in a lab doing tedious work, taking down evidence and drawing reasonable conclusions from it, rarely aiming for a breakthrough but sometimes hitting on one. Though statistics as a field still exists separately from other sciences, Ogburn was right in predicting that “every one will be a statistician, that is, nearly every one. All the universities will have statistical laboratories and the individual workers will have plenty of machines, all of them electric” (303). This conservative prediction has easily been realized. The scientist relies on technology to help evaluate results and to produce them in the first place. Even for those who study social behavior, computer science and the machines that implement it are indispensable in analyzing results; to attempt to bypass this empirical analysis is to forfeit some credibility among your peers, or to forfeit the auspices of science.

Ogburn thinks that to attain the necessary attitude of scientific ambivalence and fixation on results and rigid methods, not on interesting headlines and the production of belief, the scientist must leave his presuppositions at the door of the lab, along with some degree of intellectuality. He admits rightfully that intellect and creativity are necessary for producing innovative, viable hypotheses, and in this way intellect is a scientist's prerogative, but extending this to overlook the need to verify claims or seek out evidence is an error. No longer can papers eschew evidence in favor of interesting mental suppositions, often based on inadmissible “gut feelings” and the like. For an interesting hypothesis to progress to the establishment of knowledge based on the theory, the proposed “idea of value to science must be formulated in some sort of form capable of demonstration or proof; then must follow the proof or verification” (302). This hearkens back to ancient theories of empiricism popularly represented by Aristotle, and has shown itself to be the basis for most viable science, sociology included.

These descriptions of the ideal scientist and his many potential identities brings us to a key aspect of Ogburn's idea of the scientist, and perhaps his most reasonably objectionable claim. One of his harshest criticisms of modern sociology is its tendency to overlap with other fields such as politics and public policy, wherein social scientists attempt to focus their work and results on practical applications and estimations of value and correct action. In his view, this should not be the goal or position of the scientist; he gathers the information, and at most offers conservative advice to social workers or people in other fields as to what it means and how it can be reasonably applied. Though the knowledge needed for social scientists and social workers is roughly the same, their functions in society, and in dealing with that knowledge, are separate and should be kept that way. The social worker should not claim to have the ability to produce evidence and scientific knowledge; the social scientist should not cater his research to intended functions or desired results.

However, this does not preclude a scientist from operating in multiple fields separately from his actual work. In describing the scientist's potential to also be an artist or a politician, he admits that “In some rare cases a person may be both a scientist and an artist. But, if so, the guiding of the ship of state will be done by only one of his two personalities, the executive one” (304). He offers similar explanations for how a social scientist can function, outside the lab, as a social worker, political advisor, or in any other adjacent or separate field – mostly those with practical, real-life applications. Here is where Ogburn could be veering into implausible, or unreasonable, territory, though many would applaud this sentiment. Can someone really partition their minds into separately-functioning identities – doctor, researcher, artist, politician, advisor? It could be functionally impossible to not desire a breakthrough in the lab, to have no emotional investment in your work, to carry out your work without thinking of how it could be used to increase your funding or be sold to NIH as an important, applicable breakthrough. Indeed, the existence of such bodies as the NIH and federal committees on the sciences, populated by actual scientists, would seem to require far too much if all its members had to divorce themselves from their own work and scientific minds in order to participate.

Yet Ogburn and I would argue that this is ideal, and attainable to a lesser extent than actual personality fragmentation. Francis Crick can have his own non-scientific beliefs, contribute substantially to the realm of scientific knowledge, and advocate for the sciences publicly, including sciences that he is unattached to. Our own Prof. George Whitesides can have a bustling, rigorous lab full of grad students, teach introductory organic chemistry, fund and cooperate with health-related NGOs and their innovative technologies, and spend time as a top advisor in Washington, without having his various interests and functions bleed into each other in detrimental ways. It might be difficult to avoid entirely, or detract partially from his ability to commit fully to any one of his ventures, but nothing stops him from succeeding in every one of them and contributing to the scientific, international, and academic communities. As Ogburn says, there are those who are best suited to one field alone: monotonous, unfeeling scientific research, empathetic social work, decisive political action – and there are others who can succeed in multiple fields, to a greater or lesser level of achievement, without letting one trickle into the other.

I will close on a similar note to Ogburn. For social science, and all sciences, to function most effectively in advancing our knowledge of the world and improving it, those who attain that knowledge must operate outside the realms of practicality, emotion, expediency and all other biases as much as possible. Then either by handing this information over to other experts and workers, or by changing hats to help do it themselves, this knowledge can be made publicly accessible and useful in various ways. But beyond being able to work in multiple areas of science, technology and policy, the scientist is allowed to have a free, creative, awe-inspired intellect at the world he studies, even at the work he does which should inspire him anyway. I am reminded again of Carl Sagan, who may not have been a prominent researcher but was in every way imaginable a beacon of science for the public and scientists alike. But apart from making science accessible and exciting for the public through fiction and non-fiction alike, a wonderful aspect of Sagan's personality was his unadulterated wonder at the universe, at the capability of man and science to understand it, and at the places scientific advancement can take us. No better figure, I think, exemplifies Ogburn's closing statements, and no other figure stands as a better role model for what I'd like to believe science is and should be.

*In a recent conversation with Prof. Dawkins, he told me that he believes the stigma against the public scientist who makes the subject accessible to the public is unfair. Even to communicate with professionals in other fields, one must use metaphor and simplification to get ideas across. He went as far as to say that all working scientists should work to have this dual role.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, quite amazing the amount he got right - his quotations on life and living wouldn't have been easy. There are some he got wrong, but minor in comparison: http://www.quotti.com/William_Fielding_Ogburn.
    "The role of government is bound to grow. Technicians and special interest groups will leave only a shell of democracy. The family cannot be destroyed but will be less stable in the early years of married life, divorce being greater than now. The lives of women will be more like those of men, spent more outside the home." Quote remarkable.