Method Monoculture in Science

Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematise what it reveals. He arrives at two generalisations: (1) No sea-creature is less than two inches long. (2) All sea-creatures have gills. These are both true of his catch, and he assumes tentatively that they will remain true however often he repeats it.
Sir Arthur Eddington

I was also talking to scientists from very different disciplines today (pedagogy, computer science, philosophy, psychology, biology, …). I realized again how much I love interdisciplinary knowledge exchange despite the challenges: The stimulation, the different methods, perspectives, aims and success criteria. It shows you your own expertise (which is often invisible if you work and improve among peers) — and your strengths and weaknesses.

The experiment might be the “royal road” to knowledge (in psychology!), but we are often blind that this “royal road” might not allow you to see the whole landscape. And “royalty” has its dark sides — incest, madness, and narrow-mindedness, rarely beneficial to progress.

Thus I can highly recommend interdisciplinary exchange — whether in formal interdisciplinary projects, or more informal in teaching courses or privately organized conferences (e.g., the MinD-Akademie [German, a student organized meeting under a specific topic, but open to students and scientists from all disciplines]).


  1. It wasn’t said, but I assume we’re that we’re to take away from that Eddington quote a realization that this particular ichthyologist doesn’t realize that his capture technique only comes up with large-than-two-inch gilled creatures because that’s all his net catches. What’s in that net says little about what actually in the sea.

    Specialization narrows the vision, and not just in pure science. Where I live in Seattle, we’re starting to realize that our traffic planners are wrecking out traffic with an agenda called ‘traffic calming.’ It’s a string of techniques to choke up traffic and slow it down. Its proponents actually boast among themselves about making our rush hour worse.

    At first, I couldn’t understand why they regard making our daily commute longer a ‘calming’ effect. The average driver, seeing that his 20-minute commute has now become a 35-minute one, is not going to get calmer. He’s likely to get frustrated and angry.

    Then I realized that these traffic planners have a very narrow and warped perspective. For them, you and I were little more than mindless, unthinking, unfeeling, soulless specks moving about within their computer models. If that speck were moving slower, it would seem to be, by definition, calmer. Like fish caught in that net, speck-speed was their only measure of calmness.

    Of course, in real life, we’re not specks. We get angry, we get frustrated, and when we find our formerly fast-moving four lane arterials have been reduced to choked up, two-lane-plus-a-center-turn-lane streets, we take to the side streets. And true to form, those same traffic planners are now talking about schemes to ‘calm’ (meaning choke up) traffic on residential streets.

    One problem begets another and yet the monoculture of traffic planners plunges blindly ahead. Science can be like that too. That’s why all this talk about scientific ‘consensus’ and the ‘mainstream’ bothers me. Truth isn’t decided by a majority vote.

  2. Hello Michael,

    impressive example (and somehow I’m glad that I can walk to my office by foot). Hmmm, there are a lot of interesting aspects in it, like you said, reducing people to data and simplifying the issue. It reminds me a bit of Rory Sutherland’s talk about simple solutions and of Gold’s article about how “false” consensus can appear in science. I’m working now for about 6 years in science, and personally, it bothers me. I am still at the beginning of my career (if I have one), and the pressure on science and those working in it does — in my opinion — nothing good for science itself. And yes, while I agree that we need peer-review (in a more open and fair form than we have at the moment), I strongly agree with your statement that “Truth isn’t decided by a majority vote.”. Hmm, and it reminds me of a great quote by Feynman: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

    Hmm, and regarding your example, I wonder how the traffic planners come to work. Especially when it comes to application, I think that people should “eat their own dog food” (or “drink their own Champagne”). Or at least learn more about the people they influence. Otherwise it’s like “Seagull Research” (from “Seagull Manager — A manager who flies in, makes a lot of noise, poops over everything and then leaves.”) and the researchers (or planners) are likely to blame the people they influence if the effects are not what they intended (“stupid drivers, switching to side-streets”).

    All the best


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