What Is Science?

From the archives comes this comment on a question raised by microbiologist Paul Orwin–“What is science?”:

The only problem with Paul Orwin is that he doesn’t post as often as I would like. He makes a great observation (italics mine):

You’ve set yourself up a nice little system for examining the genome of an environmental isolate for genes involved in some important phenotype. Now, there are lots of ways to do such a thing, but lets keep it simple. You use a mutagenic technique (and there are many) to introduce random changes in the genome. You then use your powers of observation to identify colonies (or growth in some other form) that is unusual. When you find a wierd colony, you isolate it for further study.

Is this science?

It is a real question. Many rigorous science theorists (Kuhn, I’m looking at you) would say “no”. After all, at this point, you don’t have a “falsifiable hypothesis”, unless you would suppose “Mutagenesis causes changes in phenotypes” is a falsifiable hypothesis, but that’s a bit trivial. However, I’d say “bollocks!” to that (or at least, if I was English I’d say that).

This is the start of science. It’s not a full experiment, but rather a way to build hypotheses. And, if you want my opinion, this is the most underappreciated part of the scientific method. After all, hypotheses don’t fall out of the sky like apples.

I would argue that a failure to appreciate this “most underappreciated part of the scientific method” arises because the funding to examine these sorts of questions doesn’t “fall out of the sky like apples.” Determining the basic patterns of microbiology, whether they be ecological (e.g., Paul’s example of soil microbial diversity) or molecular, as in the mutagenesis example Paul described above, is very, very expensive-you can’t do this on the side. In microbiology, ascertaining basic patterns can cost tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention a lot of time. (an aside: in certain divisions at some federal agenices, I think epidemiology suffers from the problem).

I think in microbiology, including much of NIH, there is a strong bias against these ‘hypothesis building steps.’ Consequently, it’s very hard to get certain areas off the ground. As Paul notes, there are ways to devise relatively trivial ‘hypotheses’ to fit that format, but, intellectually, I think it’s akin to putting lipstick on a pig. At least in microbiology, sometimes you just have to poke around. Unfortunately, that’s very expensive.

(an aside: In defense of this method, it has been very useful for certain disciplines such as molecular genetics. The problem is that a funding framework developed for one discipline does not necessarily work for other disciplines. There is also the irony that methods used to determine molecular natural history under very prescribed laboratory conditions are viewed as something greater than ‘hypotheses building steps’ even though when you get right down to it, it’s still just natural history. Let me add that I don’t use natural history as a pejorative, but I don’t see it as hypothesis driven in any grand sense. It’s only that getting at molecular natural history can be so difficult that very difficult experiments have to be conducted just to find out what’s there. OK. The aside is all done.).

The irony is that this ‘poking around’ science is more readily funded at NSF. The problem with NSF is, that for the most part, they won’t touch organisms that are deemed ‘medical.’ Thus, the ecology and evolution of important pathogens (particularly the ecology) falls through the cracks. That doesn’t strike me as very wise, but then again, I’m a little biased…

another aside: Paul talks about falsification of hypotheses. Another irony is that many disciplines don’t use falsification, but likelihood. Unfortunately, certain funders haven’t caught onto this either.

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7 Responses to What Is Science?

  1. Derek James says:

    Sure it’s science. And I find it strange that he talks about falsifiable hypotheses while “looking at Kuhn”. Kuhn and Popper famously disagreed on the importance of falsification. He should be looking at Popper, if anyone. Kuhn was the one who went on about paradigms and was much more likely to embrace the likelihood, or probabilistic, approach to science that you’re talking about.

  2. Coturnix says:

    Yes, I heard of a grant proposal that was rejected by NIH, then immediately accepted once the phrase “ask the question” was replaced with “test the hypothesis”!
    If you scroll down from the first few introductory paragraphs of this, you may like my treatment of the “scientific method”. Or you may not.

  3. James L says:

    What about synethic organic chemists involved in the total synthesis of natural products? Is their work considered science or more akin to engineering?

  4. Drugmonkey says:

    coturnix, while the anecdote has some truthiness, come on. this just perpetuates stereotypes and dismisses the efforts of those of us working in the trenches to try to turn the real problems underlying this shorthand around.
    it is true that grant reviewers aren’t fond of so-called fishing expeditions. but we all contribute to this by prioritizing “mechanistic” over “descriptive” science so much. if you ever use this approach in reviewing papers, well, you might be contributing…
    the key is to try to delineate legitimate exploratory science from just puttering around aimlessly without any sort of plan. the latter is, I expect, where “fishing expedition” comes from.

  5. factician says:

    Indeed, I think you would find many genomics folks upset at the idea of what they do as not being science. Is sequencing a genome science? What’s the hypothesis? That the genome has a sequence?

  6. Randy says:

    The best representation of how science works that I’ve seen is figure 1 of Barnosky & Kraatz (2007).
    Barnosky, A.D., and B.P. Kraatz. 2007. The role of climatic change in the evolution of mammals. BioScience 57:523-532.

  7. iGollum says:

    “Is sequencing a genome science?” seems to me to be a non-question… sequencing is a tool, a technique we use to gather scientific data. What we do with these data will determine whether we’re “doing science” or not. There is often criticism leveled at papers that are purely descriptive: “this bug’s genome contains such and such genes” and so on. And to a certain extent it’s true that without an “additional value” provided in the form of interpretation analysis -about the genome structure in comparison to other bugs, about metabolic capability, whatever- you can argue that there is no hypothesis being tested. Yet this step of gathering data is an important part of the scientific process, it represents a lot of work (annotation is murder) and the result is invaluable in downstream uses. So it’s only “not strictly science” if you isolate this step from the continuum of work that is the bedrock of “true science”. To me, that constitutes a false premise by definition.

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