Over-Scientification

Jumping off a 100 story building into a cement block without a parachute has only one result. With 100% probability. We don’t need a well-conducted randomised controlled trial, a high quality systematic review, or any measure of precision around the estimate.

While the example is extreme, I wonder whether sometimes the ‘pursuit’ of knowledge unnecessarily overcomplicates problems that did not really exist to begin with. Science started out to answer basic questions about the universe and nature. The entire universe can now (nearly) be explained with not-too-complex equations. Developments in medicine are also largely (or at least partly) attributable developments in scientific and experimental methods. The euphoric idea of there being a ‘right’ is far more appealing than the insecure feeling of fate. But given that science has been proven to be ‘right’ a lot of the time, we might be increasingly relying on research to answer questions created only as a result of the possibilities of scientific methods.

Things that were accepted have now become scientific problems. It used to be accepted that some people end up in good marriages and some do not, regardless of family-based vetting. But a recent BBC article exploring related science suggested if you rejecting the first 37% of potential suitors it increases the odds of finding your soul-mate. The food required to live used to also be accepted knowledge. Now there is an over-abundance of advice on nutrition, including exact percentages of difference food groups required on medium-sized dinner places (notably, recommended servings of fruits and vegetables ranges from about 5 in the U.S. to 10 in Australia).

Jon Burras takes an extreme position, arguing that scientification is a conspiracy. Scientists overtook religious leaders to be the premiere sources of knowledge after a couple of key discoveries in the 15th and 16th centuries (See article: http://www.jonburras.com/pdfs/The-Conspiracy-of-Scientification.pdf). While I disagree with his conspiracy theory, I do think about the extent to which science might be overcomplicating the world by instilling a belief that it always has the answer: how many things can we still believe without a randomized controlled trial or a well-conducted systematic review? This number is likely decreasing. Though these are all now scientific problems, we actually probably all know people who met their soul-mates the first time they dated, and practically-speaking, we know nutrition requirements and how to maintain a healthy weight. Turning to science has become a default well beyond its original application to the universe and nature.

There is evidently still a lot of potential for scientific work, academia and the development of new fields of studies. But stopping to consider the historical simplicity of some questions makes it seem that things that were ‘accepted’ or ‘known’ might be turned into entire research disciplines because of intellectual curiosity rather than practical need to understand. Perhaps this is where researchers lose a lot of the public. The loss is accomplished by either confusing people so that no one can make sense of things they thought they once knew, or by earning a reputation that we live far from reality.

Whether over-scientification is harmful is debatable. A good test would be if, 50 years later, we manage to convince people jumping off a 100 story building into a cement block without a parachute might actually have multiple gruesome possible outcomes with (highly imprecise) probabilities for each. But hopefully before it comes to that, or something similarly extreme, researchers do consider the possibility of over-scientification as we continue to rely on science to answer questions that were never even questions before.

Author: Deepa J.

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2 thoughts on “Over-Scientification

  1. A few thoughts:

    I feel that health-related research is a special case where the object of the research is expected to have some specific utility. More generally, testing the validity of observations with experimentation in order to challenge accepted ideas is the idea at the heart of scientific investigation, regardless of the purpose served by the information learned. The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge still has its merits, in my opinion. I feel that it is true that some areas of research seem to inefficiently gather evidence that has no practical importance for planning interventions or modifying behaviour – but I think that it is only a problem if the research was explicitly designed (or funded) to be more useful (in the practical sense). I think that this disconnect – where the objectives of specific studies do not serve any well-defined goals for how the research will be important or useful (at a society-level) – is a really interesting issue though, that requires the scientific community, those who rely on the evidence it generates, and those who fund research, to think carefully about what/whose interests this research should serve (if any).

  2. I am not a student at your university and I am not sure how I stumbled over this blog. But your initial premise is interesting in a way totally contrary to the way it’s stated. You stated “I wonder whether sometimes the ‘pursuit’ of knowledge unnecessarily overcomplicates problems that did not exist to begin with.” What about when over-scientification complicates the solutions to problems that really do exist? For example, when it comes to global warming, solutions have to come from eggheads (such as the inventor that is creating cyclones to harness their energy) or from people that tell other people how to behave. Changing our behavior is the only way to save ourselves (granted behavior changes will make a substantial difference) seems to be the mantra of people that aren’t really looking for a solution. One has to be an idealist or a scientist to contribute to the argument. Is that preventing some ‘common’ solutions from being implemented?

    Batteries are made from acid and two interactive metals. What if spikes made of these interactive metals were driven into the naturally “aggressive” trees of the rainforests and then linked in a circuit. Perhaps a natural battery would be made and there would be a reason to preserve the trees that our planet needs.

    What if earthen dams (normally non-hydroelectric) were turned into hydroelectric dams? This could be done by creating a syphon system over the top of the dam and having the water spin an overshot turbine.

    Ideas such as these may seem to be of little value (due primarily to over-scientification) but many such ideas may make a huge difference. What’s really needed is a system where people are throwing ideas like these into the public domain and still receiving compensation when and if the ideas prove feasible. The patent process is too slow for the problems we are facing. Perhaps this new process could be “scientists”-free.

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