Exploring Scientific Boundaries
Musings of a scholar in progress
I was recently asked by a colleague of mine here at MIT whether I thought that urban planning and design could be considered true science.
His point was that the discipline lacked the precision of the natural and exact sciences. Whatever findings we get from our research couldn’t really be labeled as measurable, replicable, or objective truth, therefore the field was not truly scientific in nature.
The question took me aback at first, as I am a PhD candidate in urban planning. The premise behind the question seemed totally out of place in the temple of knowledge that is MIT, where open-mindedness is a highly valued trait. However, I didn’t believe the question was posed with intentional malice, but rather out of honest confusion combined with a typical MIT argumentative streak.
In the following days, we exchanged emails trying to intellectually reconcile the matter. I set out to ask other people inside and outside the campus for their opinion. It turned out to be a more controversial topic than I originally imagined.
Most of the people I spoke with shared my position. The mere thought of labeling some areas of knowledge such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and computer sciences as true sciences and some others such as behavioral, social sciences, economics, and planning as not, seemed anathema. It seemed completely against the values of a place like MIT.
For others, however, I could sense a similar confusion to that of my colleague. Conceptually they agreed that science was an endeavor for knowledge based on the scientific method but simultaneously — I would even argue subconsciously — viewed the different sciences with a hierarchical frame of mind.
The most telling thing was the euphemistic language often used for what was envisioned as lesser sciences (i.e. social sciences, economics, planning, design). Some would refer to them as scholarly pursuits, disciplines, or complementary ‘approaches’ rather than as true sciences. For a smaller few, the real surprise was that I was even asking the question.
Obviously (to them), some types of sciences were true and others were not. “Are you kidding me,” they seemed to say, “putting astrophysics and behavioral science in the same sentence? Preposterous!”
As a scholar in progress, I think and feel that it is important to have an opinion. Not simply a matter of fact one, but rather one that invites further debate. After some reflection, here are my thoughts on the matter.
I believe that science is defined as the systematic study, discovery, and creation of knowledge; this is done through structured methods of observation and experimentation. In short, the scientific method.
The key resides in thinking critically, having intellectual honesty, and applying methodological rigor when answering a question. This is what truly separates science from pseudo-science, as eloquently explained by Carl Sagan in “A demon-haunted world”. As such we can have both scientific (i.e. honest and rigorous) or pseudo-scientific (i.e. dishonest and non-rigorous) answers in any discipline.
The scientific method requires that we search continuously for better explanations of physical, natural and social phenomena. Seldom is this knowledge created in a vacuum; it rather builds from existing knowledge.
As scientists, the scholarly nature of our work requires peer discussion and validation of our research. Over time, the combination of the two yields a structured, collegially discussed body of knowledge that forms our disciplines. Disciplines continue to grow and change over time, reinventing themselves in an endless cycle of skeptic criticism, intellectual exploration, and methodological validation. As Stephen Hawking once wrote, “we are merely standing on the shoulders of giants.”
What defines the different kinds of sciences is the combination of the topical nature of their fields with the varieties of methods used to answer questions. The type of question begets the method and research approach. Some can be answered with mathematical precision, some by methods that can only yield degrees of approximation.
As methods and tools evolve over time the precision of answers increases. However, some questions simply can’t be answered through numbers alone, which is why qualitative and design research methods exist. In fact historically trying to force all questions through absolute mathematical certainty doesn’t always work, since this approach often leads to an oversimplification and reductionist view of reality.
This is because our current mathematical models are still imperfect and cannot explain reality as a whole. They are very powerful and precise at describing realities at the astronomical and nano scales, but as Martin Rees wrote in a recent article on scientific understanding, “it’s everything in between that gets tricky.”
The biological and the social worlds, for example, often pose problems of greater complexity than those from mathematics, physics or chemistry. I understand that modern society over emphasizes the value of putting a number in an answer but as history shows this is not often for the best. As scientists, we should only conform to demonstrable truth and not to our particular agenda of beliefs.
Increasingly, methods and perspectives are borrowed from one discipline to another. In modern science, more and more often we are seeing a cross-pollination of fields that really makes discrete labels not fully describing much of the research being done today. Should applying deep learning methods to improve early detection of cancer classified as computer science, medicine, or biology?
None can fully claim ownership; all three contribute. Well, what about using big data analytics and machine vision to understand people’s behavior in public places? Is it planning, computer science or mathematics? It is only natural that as knowledge accumulates there is a rising pressure for greater degrees of specialization in intellectual focus and methodological cross-pollination, which invariably challenges traditional definitions of the disciplines.
I believe, therefore, that making the mistake of thinking that some types of sciences are more important than others or even worse thinking that only “exact” sciences are “true” sciences is intellectually erroneous and deficient.
This view stems from a distorted understanding of the meaning of science. It is a fallacy that imposes a distorted normative view that some topics are more worthy of systematic study than others,or that some methods have greater value than others.
It limits the perspective of our intellectual reach rather than acknowledging and celebrating our ever increasing scientific toolset.
While some might argue, I believe this perspective forgets that all intellectually honest questions are valid since they drive the scientific endeavor forward.
Let’s not forget that science emanates from an essential trait of us human beings. We’re curious, and curiosity is boundless.
What do you think?
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