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.