Ranking the Sciences: Why Do We Keep Doing It? / by Adeene Denton

To Clarify

Why do we insist on projecting a hierarchy onto the sciences?  And when we do it, does it say more about the sciences or about ourselves?

Disclaimer: this post is written from my years as a scientist, as reflects only those experiences that I’ve had, though friends and colleagues have added their own thoughts as well.

My Equation of State

It’s hard to pinpoint when I started realizing that both scientists and society as a whole have placed a hierarchy on the sciences, but I can tell you that once I noticed the signs they weren’t exactly subtle.  When I consider biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and the like, I know where I’ve been told they fit in on a spectrum, regardless of what I personally believe. And I personally think that this system of ranking academic pursuits is based on several things:

1.    The skill sets we value most in our scientists,

2.    What society tells us scientists look like, and

3.    We are human, and we want to rank things

Why is this important? Does the ranking of science, to the point of outright implying which sciences are more “intelligent” or “impressive” than others, really matter when it comes to producing the scientific work itself? Clearly I think it does, or I wouldn’t be writing this thinkpiece.

It’s important because it’s messing with our ability to do science effectively and grow our field of knowledge.  While I’m aware that there can be no scientific utopia in which we are all funded and we all respect each other, I still think it’s important to move towards a more open view amongst the sciences.  We need to be honest with ourselves about what science is, and who’s really doing it.

We totally do this. It is also totally ridiculous. (Thanks to xkcd for bringing the realness as usual)

We totally do this. It is also totally ridiculous. (Thanks to xkcd for bringing the realness as usual)

1. The Scientific Skill Set

What does a scientist really need in order to do science?

Answers to that question will vary widely depending on whom you ask, so I will be sketching this in the broadest of terms.  That said, I clearly have my own biases in this matter based on my own training and personal opinions.  I believe there are two scientific skill sets: what we think we need, and what we actually need.

I stayed away from science for much longer than I should have, in large part because I didn’t think I was smart enough to do science.  This is because I knew about the skillset we think we need: an encyclopedic knowledge base of any fields adjacent to the field of study, near-instant understanding of concepts, ability to derive any equations as needed (but also to have memorized all relevant equations anyway), and quick and easy competence with any necessary programs or equipment.  Basically, my vision (and others’) of a good scientist was of an unbelievably quick learner who was also a math wiz.  As someone who was decently good at math growing up but nowhere near great, in addition to becoming infamous for my skills in breaking lab equipment, I automatically assigned myself the category of “not a scientist.”

The culture within the scientific community places an emphasis on equations and the presence of “math” in a field and that field’s publications.  This is a large part of the reason why (for example) biology is seen as a less rigorous science than physics – because we think they don’t need to derive equations to describe their phenomena, the field must be easier. Showing my own bias here, but as someone in a field that is typically considered to be “math-light” I reject the concept of “more math = better field” on two counts: a) just because you can tackle a concept with an equation or series of equations doesn’t always mean that’s the best (or only) way to do it, and b) there is more than one way do science, and we do ourselves a disservice when we measure ourselves only by equations. 

For most of us, math is a tool in our scientific toolbox, and we should trust ourselves to utilize the tools that are best suited to our problems. A geochemist studying the differentiation of magma in a magma chamber will probably do experiments in the lab on different mineral assemblages, but might also ask a numerical modeler to model an ideal magma chamber with their data to test their lab results.  That’s science, whether it’s what the typical layperson visualizes it that way or not.

That brings me to the skill set we actually need to be scientists, based on what I’ve discovered in my 3+ years of doing the thing:

-       Willingness to make mistakes, even big ones

-       Ability to look at the same concept in multiple ways

-       Flexibility with regards to ideas (my own and others’)

-       Dedication (my older professors would also say “grit”)

-       Able and open to learning new skills

These are the abilities that all good scientists have utilized, and they’re more conceptual than concrete. Or, as one of my advisors said, “you need to learn to think like a scientist, and learn what it is you need to learn.”  Sometimes you need to learn fluid dynamics, and other times you need to learn how to use a scanning electron microscope.  The key is to know how to learn, and not beat yourself up about how long it takes to do it.

With this advice in mind, there appears to be a discrepancy between what most of us think we need in order to be scientists (innate genius and hyper-competency) and what we actually need (hard work and willingness to screw up, basically). These unrealistic expectations might be perpetuated within the scientific community, but they’re also reinforced elsewhere, which brings me to my second point:

2. Science and Pop Culture

My first introduction to what a scientist was or what they looked like was Professor Oak from Pokemon, which I woke up to watch every morning at 6 am before school. A grey-haired man who showed up in a lab coat to deliver detailed information (serving as exposition) and was rarely wrong – that was my image of a scientist as I was growing up.  Other fictional scientists followed in my childhood, but they all kept to the same pattern: grey-haired men in lab coats or suits scratching equation after equation onto chalkboards or designing life-changing technology in five minutes or less.  They were almost always alone in these endeavors, solitary geniuses that no one else could match.  In fiction, I was surrounded Sherlock Holmes and Greg House, while in real life we lionize Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and others as men who succeeded solely based on their own unassailable genius. 

Do we worship the cult of the fictional (male) genius? I’d argue that we do, while simultaneously failing to appreciate the real-life genii in our mix because they don’t measure up.

Pictured: my scientific role models growing up. Notice a trend here?  Think about what we've been told about each of these figures, and how that informs our view of science.

Pictured: my scientific role models growing up. Notice a trend here?  Think about what we've been told about each of these figures, and how that informs our view of science.

But to get back to the main point: our own society tells us that scientists are lone equation-generating machines, and the media we make reflects that back at us to form an endless loop of overt and subliminal messages.  Should we accept these messages as truth? Moreover, should this be the role model that we’re given? Of course, the solitary, irascible genii do exist in real life, but most scientists (should) know and value collaboration as key to scientific progress.  Most of us don’t spend our days at a blackboard proving our ideas equation-by-equation to a group of disbelievers: we’re at our computers trying to find the bug in our code, or in the lab analyzing samples.  And while we idolize the genii of fiction, in real life most people are put off by their intelligence and different responses to social cues.  No scientist can come close to the ones we see on TV in either actions or personal character – and I’d argue that this affects how we, as scientists, perceive ourselves.

We all know that collaboration is the backbone of scientific progress.  If we each did our own science by ourselves in an attempt at self-sufficiency we’d either a) not get very far, b) generate huge redundancies in the literature by not talking to each other about what we’re working on, or c) collapse under the weight of our own expectations.  Collaboration is key, and most of us are dedicated to getting help from other scientists in the areas where we ourselves are less competent.  But this reality hasn’t stopped me from trying to be the genius I’m told a scientist should be, and many of my colleagues feel that same pressure.  We long to be infallible, logical beings; if science was the Enterprise each of us would like most to be Spock, and derive equations in our heads without the shame of needing to write out the steps on paper.

While sometimes these incredibly high standards are helpful for me as motivation, I think it would benefit all of us to be honest with ourselves as scientists. If we could treat mistakes as learning opportunities rather than terrifying cracks in our veneers of infallibility, we could eliminate a lot of unnecessary stress.  While science is in many ways more accessible today than it’s ever been in the course of human history, we could go so much farther and include so many more people by working to demystify what it is we do.  I know we won’t get all the way there because I am a realist, but I do think it’s worthwhile to try.

Comparing myself to others to others is illogical, but that doesn't stop me from trying. LOOK, WE ARE SUCH SIMILAR BEINGS

Comparing myself to others to others is illogical, but that doesn't stop me from trying. LOOK, WE ARE SUCH SIMILAR BEINGS

3. The Scientist as a Human

I might be getting ahead of myself by hoping for widespread acknowledgement of the validity of every science, not just the ones the media (and society) tells us are important. We are human, and humans like to rank things.  How else could one explain the pervasiveness of hierarchies in human society? If we abolished equations/mathematics as the standard against which each science must be measured, we would probably replace it with something else like publication rates (in which case biology would undoubtedly be on top).

I’m not asking for total egalitarianism – I’ve learned not to ask the impossible, because I cannot even ask it of myself. Instead, I’m asking for honesty and respect from one field to another.  I’m asking for us to admit, at least for a little while or a least to a few of our peers, that our attempts at academic perfection are just that – attempts, made by fallible humans who aren’t flawless.  If I find myself in another intellectual pissing contest with someone from another field (or within my field for that matter), it will always be too soon.  I am tired of realizing my conversations with other scientists are actually efforts at establishing intellectual dominance, and I am tired of attempts to judge one person’s science as better than another’s based on anything other than the merit of the ideas presented.

We’re human, and humans like to rank things and compete with each other. But, at the risk of sounding really cheesy, we’re also really good at collaborating with each other and making good science – that’s how we got to the moon, dang it! And I, for one, would like to do some more of that.

In closing, I offer this xkcd comic:

1. These fields are all relevant and important.  2. I think we're all tired of having these conversations.

1. These fields are all relevant and important.

2. I think we're all tired of having these conversations.