Scientific Snobbery

By Michael Edmonds 17/04/2011 10


One of the things I like about Sciblogs is that it is a convenient way to “mingle” with those from other scientific disciplines. More and more these days, I see the really impressive advances coming out of interdisciplinary research. For example the manufacture of new body parts is a nascent technology derived from medicine, biology and engineering.

Consequently, I find it quite disturbing when I hear comments from one field disparaging another. For example, in a recent discussion on Pharnygula one commenter described analytical chemistry as an area taken up by typically C grade chemists. This brought some rather sharp remarks from other commenters, who rightly so challenged the arrogance of this remark. Assuming it was another chemist who made the mark, he/she is overlooking the fact that analytical chemists play a vital role in allowing us to probe the world around us, and that they can be just as innovative and intelligent as any other area of chemistry.

I’ve also come across physicists (only a few) who seem to take excessive joy in quoting Rutherford – “All science is physics or stamp collecting.” A rather myopic view, and one that needs to be consigned to history. Granted physics may underlie all of the sciences, but each branch of science makes its own impressive contributions to our world. Biology tells us where we came from, how we work and gives us the knowledge which underpins medicine. Chemistry helps us explore our environment and merges with biology to develop amazing new drugs, it provides us with novel materials.

Our ventures into space have relied on all three fundamental sciences – physics, chemistry and biology.

Another type of snobbery is that which exists between what are sometimes referred to as the hard sciences (chemistry, biology, physics etc) and the soft sciences (sociology, psychology). Indeed you will find that there are those who believe that the “soft” sciences should not be classed as sciences at all. I find this quite shortsighted. These areas of science contribute to our understanding of how the human mind works and how we interact and create societies. If ever there was a time in history when we need to understand this it is now, as multiple cultures are attempting to occupy the same spaces. Indeed, I would suggest that if the term “hard science” should be applied to any category it should be the later two. In chemistry, it is challenging enough to deal with the oft unpredictable behaviour of molecules, but that is nothing compared to the behaviour of human beings. Psychology and sociology are making important contributions to everyday life.

As I see it, the most effective way forward for science, and humanity, is for the different branches of science to keep working together. In an environment where governments underfund and ignore inconvenient science, working together is incredibly important. There is so much we can learn from each other, and so much more that can be achieved collaboratively.


10 Responses to “Scientific Snobbery”

  • Well done Sam, I’ve come across xkcd strips before but couldn’t remember what they were called.
    Do they ever have cartoons that poke fun at physicists?

  • Can statisticians & mathematicians be called scientists? If not then why not? I’ve seen many statisticians & mathematicians that have published their work in scientific journals (various ones in both soft & hard sciences) but those researchers don’t really want to call themselves scientists. For example, marketing and some major work done by psychologists are pure statistical analysis, which is the bread & butter of statisticians, and while we call psychologists scientists, we tend not to label or view statisticians & mathematicians as the same. There have been some articles that have been discussed here at SciBlog and if one reads those (without noting of where they were published in), he/she would have mistaken them as statistical studies (nothing to do with science).

    What was the definition of science as it was known in the last 100 years or so? Can the meaning of science today be redefined? If it does need to, then over time, I believe that everything will be regarded as science irrelevant of what those fields may be doing in terms of research. Is economics a science? It is a branch of humanities just the same as sociology anyway. Some say it is and some say it isn’t.

    Where can we draw the line of what is science and what is not?

  • Falafulu Fisi

    An interesting point – mathematics and statistics play important roles within the different fields of science, so can mathematicians and statisticians be called scientists? I cna’t see why not. Perhaps it depends what the mathematics/statistics is used for?
    Perhaps we need to decide what a good definition of a scientist is. Off hand I would say a scientist is anyone who applies the scientific method to an understanding of the physical/natural world.

  • Unless definitions have changed, mathematics was a “formal science”, and was considered vital to the “empirical sciences”, which included the natural and social sciences.

    The issue is more about what individuals prefer to be called, rather than exclusion, as “science” is simply a synonym for knowledge.

  • Wikipedia separates out the sciences into three groups in a way I think is quite good. The natural sciences, which seem to be what most people refer to when saying whether or not something is science, which include chemistry, physics, astronomy, biology and so on. The social sciences containing the usual suspects of anthropolopy, economics, linguistics, psychology and so on, and thirdly the formal sciences which include theoretical computer science, mathematics and statistics. It’s the distincinction I tend to use because I think it is worthwhile having the so-called formal sciences as a separate group to the natural and social ones since the methodology is quite different again.

    fields by purity

  • Sam & HappyEvilSlosh,

    I’ve used that first cartoon in a post a while ago; it came straight to mind when I saw the blog post title, too! (Forgotten what post I used it in, sorry. Probably something about computational biology / bioinformatics.)

    HappyEvilSlosh,

    While I take your point, personally I feel wary that classifications can imply (to those not familiar with the reality of research) a lack of work shared across whatever categories are devised.

    My own field—computational biology—while based on biology draws from and occasionally contributes to computer science and more generally computing (and statistics, chemistry, physics, … you get the drift).

    Likewise, psychology and neuroscience (biology) increasingly overlap.

    There are plenty of other examples. All classification schemes—because of the ‘binning’ nature—will have these type of flaws so I’m not against that per se, but I’d make sure that people are also aware they’re not isolated spheres of endeavour, etc.

  • @Grant: Yeah you raise a good point. When I say it’s a useful distinction to make I mean in the sense of when the topic is specifically about how to ‘sensibly’ divide up sciences based on overarching themes in methodology. Actually if you take a number of the subjects I put as examples I would say that in fact parts of them will fit better in other classes and few, if any, of them will sit wholely within any one of them. Linguistics for example you could have in the formal sciences in the context of parsers of programming languages, i.e. Naum-Chomsky form I understand is not that useful in human languages but receives quite a bit of use in programming languages, and could fit in the natural sciences, say if you were applying phylogenetic methods to appropriately derived data. However in spite of that I would stay it still fits ‘best’ in the social sciences bucket. I guess I’m thinking as it being more of a fuzzy membership.

    In particular since I may not have made it clear and since it was the topic I was trying to reply to I think all of those groups should be considered ‘science’ rather than some subset of them.

  • I’ve never come across the term, formal science, interesting to know.
    I think perhaps more importantly than defining which science belongs in which category the point I wanted to make is that those working in different fields should respect each other. Each field provides unique contributions to the world and the world would be very limited if we all wanted to be physicists (or chemists or biologists …)

  • I understand the need to separate the various sciences – simply because no one person can hope to assimilate the entire of science – but wish it weren’t so.

    It would be wonderful if we were still able to have true generalist scientists, the “natural philosophers” who later evolved into the scientists in the various sub-branches of science, but I fear the knowledge required to be a natural philosopher is now too great for any individual human.

    In spite of the division of the fields of science, some of the major advances occurred when scientists from different areas have co-operated (e.g. physicists and geologists with geological dating, physicists and computational mathematicians with CT scanning). Just imagine what could happen if a single human were able to merge the knowledge of multiple fields!

    Many years ago I was given an extremely good piece of advice that cemented me on the path of scientific discovery and enjoyment. One of the more interesting things was that the person giving the advice was an ordained Roman Catholic monk: “Question everything, including the Bible.” I passed on the first part of the quote to my offspring who, adopting the scientific method in their own right, independently developed the second part.

    For what it’s worth, I believe that the entire basis of science can be summarised by the phrase “Question everything.” By following that phrase I think that I have had a much more interesting and enjoyable life than I would otherwise have experienced.