Tuesday, November 27, 2007

THE AGE OF UNPOPULAR AND SOFT SCIENCE

When I was in college, there was a cohort among us science-minded folks who looked down upon popular science that was then being popularised by scientists like Jayant Narlikar. With more than a hint of egotism, they used to shun "scipop" as they called it as being the bastard son of "real" science. I always used to disagree with these friends of mine, perhaps because I myself was interested in popular science since the beginning. But somewhere I used to find myself wanting to agree with their contention that what we were supposed to do was real science, macho science, and that we should not pay attention to this dumbed down version of science, wimpy science.

Also when I was in college, the real academic stars among students were those who excelled in mathematics and physics. Chemistry was somewhere in between. Those who studied biology were seen to lack the intellectual zing and brilliance that these other mathematically oriented folks had. The mathies; they were the ones considered the brainy child geniuses. Maths and physics, these were the "hard" sciences. Biology was a "soft" science. And we needn't have even gotten started on the social sciences like psychology.

What's common between these two above attitudes? They are both lopsided and in the end, just wrong.

Now Michael Shermer, a favourite author of mine and editor of Skeptic Magazine has written an excellent piece in Scientific American that demolishes both these myths; that popular science is somehow less respectable than technical science and that biology and the social sciences are "soft". I agree with him and have some thoughts of my own.

First of all, while it is true that doing creative research in mathematics or physics is quite hard, at least the variables that define a system are constrained by the researcher. One can have very fixed assumptions and axioms. In biology or psychology on the other hand, it is often difficult to even define the variables, let alone constrain them. In fact it is usually impossible to constrain them in the real world. Physics, for all its usefulness, many times involves multiple assumptions about "ideal systems" that need to be radically modfied when approaching real-world problems. It is of course very important to have results from these ideal systems, but the point is that applying them to a real life system is if anything as hard as the conception of the approach. And it gets harder as you move from cells to bodies to human societies. So the epithet of "hard sciences" for more mathematically based sciences is really a misnomer. This notably is not taking away anything from these sciences as being the foundations of most scientific research, but it's just an acknowledgement that their application to "higher" levels requires non-reductionist and novel techniques that are as hard as their own.

As an aside, this should also demolish any thoughts people might have about the reasons for there being more women in the biological sciences. Clearly, any attempts to correlate this fact with their intelligence is nonsense. If anything, women might be more successful in the biological sciences because they are better at having an overall view of things.

And so it is also for popular science. While there is a lot of mediocre or average popular science out there, its is very difficult to write an impeccable popular science book; one in which the science is simplified but not oversimplified, crystal clear but not naively presented, catchy but not too informal or flippant, rigorous yet accessible. There are very few examples of such writing. I would suggest almost anything written by Richard Dawkins, Philip Ball, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould and my favourite popular science book of all time, John Casti's Paradigms Lost. Writing supremely readable popular science is as difficult, if in a different way, as doing challenging research.

But there is a quite different and extremely important reason why popular science should be hailed right now. The dark forces of ignorance, religion-inspired politics and general intolerance are making science even more confusing and inaccessible to an already scientifically-challenged public. It is the utmost need of the day for more science writers to come forward and write enlightening and eloquent science. For this reason, popular science now has become as important in my opinion as the best of scientific research. Without conveying science well, it will languish even more in the shadows, and we would be deprived of the one thread of rationality which can save us.

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8 Comments:

Anonymous SR said...

Ashutosh,

Excellent article on something I have often thought about, namely the 'perceived superiority' of one form of intelligence over another. Having grown up is an environment very similar to yours, I can fully attest to the fact, that almost everybody I knew including parents, teachers, friends and the maharashtrian community at large seemed to attach greater importance to success in the 'hard' sciences as compared to the soft sciences. I remember having those same opinions myself. I think the reason for this fascination with genuises in math and physics is that they are they are able to take a small number of theories and axioms, often known to the rest of us as well, and use them to solve problems that seemed impenetrable to us more common folk. On the other hand, people in biology and chemistry seemed to first accumulate a great deal of information before bringing it to bear on a problem. As a lay person, the feeling was that if one also spent the time and effort accumulating that information, one would also be able to solve the problem at hand. Hence the fascination with math and physics, where a few well known laws, were used ingeniously to solve a multitude of problems seemed more admirable.
However, as I see more of the world, I have come to appreciate different forms of human intelligence. Math and physics represents a sort of 'deductive' or incisive intelligence. On the other hand, many other fields as diverse as medicine, investing, law, biology and even chemistry require a more 'synthesis' sort of intelligence where one accumulates a vast amount of knowledge and then uses the 'feel' or synthetic knowledge developed to come up with 'creative' solutions to the problem at hand. It is another form of intelligence and really should be treated with a similar degree of respect.
Rege

1:42 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sid,
I completely agree with you and I think you said it very well. It is true that you get the feeling that if you accumulated all the information necessary for chemistry or biology, you could do great chemistry or biology. But as you indicated, the synthesis and application of all that knowledge is far from trivial. At the same time, I myself share the fascination with mathematicians or physicists who seem to deduct so much about the world based on a few principles; I agree that it's this quality that usually contributes to the admiration of math geniuses when they are young. I guess genius in chemistry or biology often comes later because of this accumulation of knowledge that has to be done before. But you are quite right; the kind of intelligence needed in the sciences is different for every science, even if it overlaps. Even I had to grow up before I really appreciated this fact!

1:53 PM  
Blogger Manasi said...

Hey, if the biology and chemistry people have it bad, we political science people are better not talked about!

And about SR's comment about maharashtrian community at large attaching greater importance to 'hard' sciences and not the soft....I think we can safely extend it to the Indian community as a whole. Everyone loves a good mathematician over a biologist.

2:48 PM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

Wonderful article as usual and echoes some of my sentiments which I may have never been able to express so eloquently. When I was a student at IIT, the prevailing attitude was the same as you describe with Math nerds enjoying the most intellectual reputation, engineering a little low and humanities zero. In my naivete, I used to think along the same lines but my opinions have changed as they should have because hopefully I have acquired more 'wisdom' over time. Doing hard mathematics may not really be any good or even useful science. An extreme example is String Theory, which most non string theorists do not consider good physics. In my research, I have seen multitude of papers with zero content but lots of hard mathematics just to hide the lack of content in them. Sadly, reviewers get impressed with that intellectual mumbo-jumbo and are more than willing to publish any shredder-worthy research with lot of greek alphabets in it. As a rule of thumb, the 'harder' the science, the lesser is the proportion of any good research being carried out in it. The perceived hardness of the science is a very good excuse for many of these researchers to publish obscure papers and earn tenures.

PS: You seem to be on a blogging spree these days. You are posting them faster than us folks can read them :)

4:22 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Manasi: I agree; its a sentiment shared by a large section of the Indian community. As for political science, I believe that this century is going to the century of the marriage of social and political sciences with the "hard" sciences.

Vivek: Thanks. You give a good example of ST which is now called by many physicists as simply fancy maths with no semblance of reality. Apparently it has not made a single testable prediction. I also agree that sometimes mathematics for its own sake is touted when its relevance to the real world is slim.
About the blogging, you must also have realised that the posts are getting shorter. I am trying to improve as a blogger; many have complained that I subject them to torture with long posts, and I have to thank my regular readers for putting up with them :)

5:15 PM  
Blogger Nithyanand said...

Couldn't agree more.I'm a popular science fanatic too.But looks like you've missed out on a couple of classics in your list of popsci books.Here are a few recommendations:
"Phantoms in the Brain" by V S Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee
"Fermat's Last Theorem" by Simon Singh,who in my opinion,is the best popsci author alive(He's written 2 other books)
"Doubt & Certainty" by George Sudarshan and Tony Rothman.
All these books are must-reads.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Nithyanand; Thanks for the input. I do have read Fermat and agree it's great. Another math related fascinating book that came to my mind is the one on Paul Erdos, The Man who loved only Numbers, by Paul Hoffman. I have heard about Ramachandran's book; I have heard his talks and he and his work are just fascinating.
Will also check out the one by Sudarshan.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Nithyanand said...

Talking about math,here's another classic-"The man who knew infinity:A Life of the genius Ramanujan" by Robert Kanigel.Obviously,it's mainly biographical,but it's inspiring.

5:07 AM  

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