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February 28, 2011

I tend to see discipline differences sometimes as a level of analysis issue. Levels range from the quark-boson-nano tiny unseeable particles, to giant social systems and beyond.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone working at level N imply that level N+1 isn’t really science. Or that N-1 is just too myopic to even find anything of real use. Of course people are going to work at the level they find the most interesting. Nothing wrong with that. Admittedly I think my level is much more interesting than N-1 or N+1.

I’ve been chatting a little with a researcher who is pretty low level for my department let’s call him Fred. If we’re N Fred is N-0.5. Fred of course has stories of giving talks to N-1 (or N-2) departments and occasionally getting the “is this really science?” rebuff. At least one person has literally wagged his finger in Fred’s face and claimed that his method is totally worthless. Mind you, Fred does quite well publication wise. And there are many scientists in N-1 departments relating their work to his methods. So this isn’t the dominant feeling.

Of course, Fred totally did the same thing when we were talking methods. He kind of offhandedly dismissed a particular method, I pressed him to elaborate as to why, he hemmed and hawed and then basically said “Well it just doesn’t say anything about the level that I am interested in”

Seems that occasional refreshers on the difference between personal interests and scientific usefulness are needed.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 1, 2011 1:57 pm

    Great post! Very succinct and insightful.
    One unfortunate thing is that you cannot avoid being reviewed by
    N+/-1 or N+/-2 especially for grants, and then you get slammed for being too applied (i.e. not science) or not useful at all. I find that most people are very territorial and even though they certainly don’t lack the ability to grasp what is being done in fields of neighboring complexities, they choose not to. Resources are very scarce and many people purposefully display their most narrow-minded self when it comes to evaluaing the work or grant potential of others… Kind of sad really.

  2. March 13, 2011 5:55 pm

    This is a really interesting issue, and I have also seen it from quite a few perspectives. I studied my undergrad at a very low level of analysis (call it N) and have since jumped up many levels (say to N+8) and am currently toying around at about N+6.5ish. I’ve really enjoyed learning about science and doing science at different levels of analysis and have come to appreciate the difficulties that arise at each level (they seem remarkably the same, if different by name). I think much of the most powerful work comes about when research problems cut across various levels of analysis. Thus, I think it’s important for dialogue across levels and appreciation of what various levels can provide to understanding a problem. At the end of the day those of us that use various model biological systems aren’t interested in the how things work in mice, cells in a dish or a test tube. What we’re really after is how things work in humans and we can’t lose sight of how our methods place limits on our interpretations and how much more relevance our findings have when they agree at various levels of analysis. I mean, who the hell would believe the strangeness of quantum mechanics if, when taken to classical limits, Newtonian mechanics didn’t pop out?

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