Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nature Editorial on Narrowing the Gap Between the Natural and Social Sciences

This editorial in the latest issue of Nature is an interesting one on the gulf between the natural and social sciences. A sample:

The relationship between the social sciences and the natural sciences has historically been fraught. 'Hard' scientists have often treated the social sciences with disdain. For example, some of them fought, successfully at first, to exclude the social sciences from the remit of the US National Science Foundation. And those social scientists who studied science itself, under the remit of science and technology studies, often returned the favour, seeming on occasion to be devoting themselves myopically to demonstrating that the scientific emperor had few, if any, clothes.

There remains something of a dialogue of the deaf between these two wings of the academy, separated as they are by language, custom and methodology. But barriers are coming down. Senior scientists and administrators, especially those in socially contentious areas such as climate change and reproductive technologies, realize that they need to collaborate with scholars of society-at-large. Sociologists and philosophers of science, in turn, are acquiring a more intimate understanding of the scientists that they study.

....None of this should encourage a dismissive attitude among sceptics. The applications of genetics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology and other technologies are giving rise to substantial new challenges in professional practice and communication, in ethics, in intellectual property and in many other dimensions beyond the science itself. Objective insights into these dimensions have their own value, and the new collaborations should help. The challenge remains to identify how that value can best be fulfilled.

This editorial resonates with me as I attempt to help bridge the divide between political theory and the biological sciences.