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The Revenge of the Soft Scientists

I have nothing against the hard sciences, mathematics, physics or chemistry. Sadly, however, some philosophers take physics as the measure of what science is all about: you measure and count and weigh and perform experiments, which you can do over and over again. Biology hovers uncomfortably between the two worlds—the hard and the woolly. Hard biology tends to be molecular, physiological, experimental, while at the other extreme is woolly natural history— bug collecting and such like

By | December 15, 1986

I have nothing against the hard sciences, mathematics, physics or chemistry. Sadly, however, some philosophers take physics as the measure of what science is all about: you measure and count and weigh and perform experiments, which you can do over and over again. Biology hovers uncomfortably between the two worlds—the hard and the woolly. Hard biology tends to be molecular, physiological, experimental, while at the other extreme is woolly natural history— bug collecting and such like—a nasty habit that Charles Darwin caught as a young man.

The real difference between the hard and woolly sciences is best illustrated when they come into direct conflict.

A now-classic example of this is associated with the Nobel laureate physicist Luis Alvarez. He was responsible to a great extent for getting across to both scientists and the general public the notion that the dinosaurs were wiped out as the consequence of an asteroid's splatting the planet. That was an eye-catching idea that gripped everyone's imagination and it took hold so firmly that many people, scientists among them, speak of this event now as an established fact. Everyone was wowed with this amazing, dramatic idea—everyone, that is, but the paleontologists.

To the astonishment of Alvarez and his colleagues, paleontologists were not at all impressed. Alvarez became quite exasperated, saying “I simply do not understand why some paleontologists deny that there was ever a catastrophic extinction.” Paleontologists did not seem able to handle quantitative data: “The field of data analysis is one in which I have a lot of experience [it gained him a Nobel prize]. . . . So far as I know, such great computing power has never before been brought to bear on problems of interest to paleontologists. I'm really quite puzzled that knowledgeable paleontologists would show such a lack of appreciation for the scientific method.”

Splatting 'Em Between the Eyes

In fact, we paleontologists do not spend our time looking for the answers. Instead, we are primarily interested in trying to find all the chunks of information that need to be taken into account before any theory can get off the launching pad. We do not try to simplify the problem, but complicate it. It's like a game to try and find out as many questions as we can, and then when someone comes up with claims to having solved the riddle, we turn and say “But how can you deal with this fact and all these others?”

So, for a start, if one wants to talk about the extinction of the dinosaurs, we ask what about the other organisms that snuffed it about the same time? Why should microscopic plants in the ocean and large animals on the land have been bashed? What about the flying and swimming beasts that went— the plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs and ammonites in the seas, the pterosaurs in the skies? It may be possible to dream up a theory that explains the extinctions, but you need to think about the survivors: the birds, mammals, cuttlefish, bony fish, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, turtles, all of which did not seem to realize that there was some great crisis going on around them.

And then where were the seas? What was happening to the climate? There are ways of discovering this from isotope studies. Next—and this is critical—when exactly did the different groups die out? Was it simultaneously or did different groups pack up at different times?

We get a great kick out of this, especially when along comes a superior person, a Nobel laureate or whatever, who believes that nobody over 10 years of age takes dinosaurs seriously. Off they go thinking they can hold
forth on the basis of their own particular specialty and astonish one and all by their erudition, resolving in one fell swoop what the simpleminded paleontologists have been pondering to no avail for ages.

Then we splat 'em, like a meteorite, between the eyes. It is always good for a laugh.

Proud to be Woolly

We woolly scientists need to have more pride in what we do. Unfortunately, many of the woolly scientists seem to have developed a kind of inferiority complex. It is about time we, the geologists and sociologists, the paleontologists and psychologists, actually got our acts together and stood up to defend our own methodologies. There is plenty of evidence that we have something positive to contribute, if only we remain true to our disciplines and do not try to ape the methodologies of other narrow disciplines.

I am proud to be a woolly scientist. There is a sense of becoming one with the natural world, almost snuggling up to it, all warm and cozy to understand it, in contrast to the hard version where you bash the poor world into shape and are concerned with ordering nature about, with controlling it. The irony is that until you really understand nature in all its ramifications, you will come unstuck and will deserve all you get.

Haistead is a paleontologist in the Department of Geology, the University of Reading, Whiteknights, P0. Box 217, Reading, Berkshire, England RG6 2AH.
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