What's Next?

Last Tuesday, November 9th, The New York Times published a special anniversary issue of its regular Tuesday edition of Science Times. They asked “top researchers” in ten sciences to predict the future direction of their field and what the most important discoveries are likely to be during the next ten years.

The researcher’s disciplines ranged from genomics to mathematics to earth science. Here is a very brief list of ten disciplines and the predictions of the researchers:

Space Science: Learning more about asteroids

Game Science: Developing games for the study of women’s rights, climate change and medical innovation

Climate Change: Testing the accuracy of current climate change models

Engineering: Growing integration of biological processes in engineering real systems

Biotechnology: Refining methods for producing stem cells that will be “cheap, fast, and relatively easy.”

Conservation Biology: Increasing knowledge of marine biodiversity

Ocean Science: Exploration of the oceans (70% of the planet) with particular emphasis of the “mysterious” yet major worldwide effects of the Indian Ocean

Genomics: Reading new types of genomes and completing DNA sequencing (ordering) of an individual’s (or any organism’s) genome at a single time

Neuroscience: Determination of the physical organization of a memory within the brain

Mathematics: Discovery of scientific results that are correct and predictive but are without explanation. “We may be able to do science without insight, and we may have to learn to live without it.” [Personal note: My favorite prediction and one with particular relevance to psychology.]

There are several features of this list that concern me. I am struck by the overlap of disciplines. There are two pointing to improved understanding of climate change, two focusing on developments in the biological sciences, and two related to the marine sciences. Indeed, the majority of disciplines are drawn from the natural sciences.

Secondly, the social sciences are completely ignored. Not a single researcher in economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. is interviewed. Are these not sciences? Do they not seek general laws about the subject matter of their inquires? Are there no more discoveries to be made in these fields? Or is it simply that anyone with a head on their shoulders already knows the results of their studies?

Perhaps the editors at the Times do not consider these fields as sciences. Or perhaps they believe we now have a complete understanding of human behavior and are easily able to predict and control it. No, I am sure they do not hold these views. What then can account for their failure to interview a few representative investigators from these areas?

I am aware that they are not unified sciences and that there are frequent disagreements among investigators in these disciplines. For example, Rom Harre, researcher, teacher, and writer in the philosophy of science, and later in social psychology has written about his field, one that was mine for many years:

“It has been about 30 years since the first rumblings of discontent with the state of academic psychology began to be heard…Methods that have long been shown to be ineffective or worse are still used on a routine basis by hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Conceptual muddles long exposed to view are evidence in almost every issue of standard psychology journals.”

Geoffrey Loftus, a leading cognitive psychologist has also spoken of his concerns about the field. “But I have developed a certain angst over the intervening 30 something years, a constant nagging sensation that our field spends a lot of time spinning its wheels without really making much progress.”

I suspect the same can also be said of the other social sciences. Still that doesn’t make them any less scientific in objectives and methods. Rather it reflects their developing state and the extraordinarily complex subject matter they have carved out to investigate. As others have said, the social sciences are the most difficult of all the sciences.

Finally, I might note that there are also wide areas of uncertainty and theoretical disagreements within the natural sciences. So in this respect they are no different than the social sciences, indeed probably any field of inquiry especially one that in comparison with the natural sciences is in an early stage of development.


Stefanie said...

Well you know, social sciences aren't really science ;-)

I think the neuroscience one is interesting simply because I find neuroscience and memory interesting.

Richard Katzev said...

It will become interesting or more interesting when there is a clearer picture of how these recordings are related to conscious recollections and how to account for the wide variation in the active areas of the brain where the memories are said to be located and above all if there is much that can be done for those whose memory systems are on the fritz.

David King said...

Hi Richard,

When I was at Stanford, one of the Psych professors (I think it was Lee Ross...) claimed that Herb Simon shifted from Psychology to Economics because there was no Nobel prize for psychologists.

Kind regards,

Richard Katzev said...

Hi David:
I believe I've heard something similar and suspect there will never be a Nobel that is exclusively for psychology. But his work is clearly psychological regardless of the prizes he receives for it. One day there may be one for the social and behavior sciences in general. But even that is unlikely for the present.
Best, Richard