Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Real science has curves   posted by Razib @ 1/03/2006 10:29:00 AM

In a discussion thread below the character of scientific 'revolutions' is mooted. John has a few comments in regards to organic chemistry. I would like to throw out the possibility that an intersection with innate cognitive intuitions and biases are necessary preconditions of a science being sexy. So, organic chemistry, or anatomy, for example, won't be generating a 'popular science' arm to leverage discoveries because there aren't widely dispersed ideas about organic chemistry or anatomy lodged within both cognitive and cultural substrates to engage. In contrast, evolutionary biology directly contradicts aspects of folk biology. Neuroscience addresses our sense of self and challenges dualist biases. Newtonian physics overturned some of the intuitions of folk physics. Cosmology and particle physics point toward the domain of culturally mediated and cognitive ontologies. This is not to say that the pre-scientific paradigms are all innate, but the likely intersection of human social systems and our cognitive hardware might 'canalize' our adult viewpoints toward a particular state which modern science would have to address. I recall Michael Ruse once noting how most of philosophy of biology is actually philosophy of evolutionary biology, which suggests that the 'deep' questions that philosophy attempts to address also derive from intuitive starting points. Scientists take advantage of these biases, The Genographic Project tries to sell the public on a scientific narrative which can sketch out their geneologies, even though the real results are far less world changing.

Of course, that doesn't make organic chemistry or anatomy irrelevant. Fundamentally we know that these are both important fields. Consider one GNXP reader waxing on about how they considered it far more important that the public understood the basics of the laws of thermodynamics than evolutionary biology (probably true), all the while posting copious comments on a weblog devoted in large part to evolutionary biology (I suggested that they start a weblog about thermodynamics!). Even though cosmology, evolutionary biology and particle physics might be less practical in the proximate sense than organic chemistry, chemical engineering or even an understanding of compound interest, they address ultimate questions whose significance derives from pre-existing notions.