A Blog Around The Clock

Network-like Mode of Thinking

I am so glad to see that conversations started face-to-face at the Science Blogging Conference are now continuing online (see the bottom of the ever-growing linkfests here and here). While some are between science bloggers, as expected, others are between people who have never heard of each other before and who came from very different angles and with different interests. The cross-fertilization we hoped for is happening (and if you had such an experience, let us know)!

See, for instance, what a casual chat over lunch at the Conference did to David Warlick – made him think about education and about online technologies from a – new to David – perspective of someone who watches the way scientists think:

…He said that science used to be reductionist in nature. I asked what that meant, and he said that science was about drilling down to components, cutting out and examining bits of the world, reducing it to its barest fundamentals. He said that the younger scientists spend more time synthesizing, that they seem much more interested in systems and networks, not so much how things operate independently, but how they operate as part of a larger organism, ecosystem, or cosmos.

I suspect that all kinds of speculation might be made about why science seems, at least in the eyes of this science communicator, to be shifting, and one could probably make a case relating it to younger scientists’ digital experiences. The connection that occurred to me, however, was with schools, which seem to me to be in a reductionist mode still…..


My own state, for one, has been teaching and testing computer skills for more than ten years. However, it is a reductionist response to the need for digital literacy (what I call contemporary literacy). We have reduced computer skills out into their own list of standards, separated again into objectives, and performance indicators. We’ve reduced it down to components that can be discretely measured.

I don’t think that this happens entirely because of the industrial mechanized environment that many of us come from. I think it’s just easier to separate things out and teach them in isolation, especially when we believe that our job is to simply teach.

Read the rest…then go and comment on his blog with your ideas. Cross-fertilize some more!

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  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 31, 2007

    Out on context, David Warlick’s point is interesting. But it is hard to say more, unless I know to what time span he refers. He might be saying, for instance:

    (1) With Galileo and Kepler and Newton what was called Natural Philosophy entered a reductionist several centuries. With them, defining key variables and relating them by algebra and calculus instead of just geometry as was traditional, or verbal explanations, Astrology yielded to Astronomy, and Alchemy to Chemistry. New sciences followed the paradigm, with Faraday’s electrochemistry, Franklin’s “Electricity”, Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations”, Mendel counting peas in pods, Mendeleev’s atomic numbers, and the work of Babbage. But something was also lost. The spiritual quest of Alchemy, the connection of personal with cosmic in Astrology, the “tangled bank” of young Darwin, the moral and political analyses of Adam Smith, the taste of chemical compounds, the poetry of Babbage’s coworker Ada Augusta Lady Lovelace’s father Lord Byron. Then Wolfram said that science had gone off the tracks with Netwon, and he wrote his Big Book, and launched his own conferences…

    Or, he might be saying:

    (2) AAAS conferences that I went to, when younger, were reductionist. But then the Cybernetics conferences I heard about, Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life and International Conferences on Complex Systems, brought an exciting interdisciplinary exploration, and an emphasis on system and network and emergent properties.

    Are we talking centuries or decades?

    In some sense, true either way. But, please, context!

  2. #2 coturnix
    January 31, 2007

    The key is to click on the link, of course, where all the answers lie…

    The science journalist he was talking to is describing the differences between current younger and older scientists, noting that the younger ones are more synthetic and the older ones more analytic. David is wondering if this is due to the young scientists’ upbringing in a networked world.

  3. #3 Benjamin Franz
    January 31, 2007

    Or it could be because the ‘preliminary’ part is reductionism, and that portion of the scientific effort is beginnning to run up against its practical limits. Once you have dissected a cell into its component molecules, what is left in terms of understanding cells is the ‘network’: How do all those molecular machines work together?

    That is a much harder problem that is built on top of the reductionist program: Until you take everything apart, you can’t fully understand what is going on when they are all put together because you don’t actually know what you are looking at.

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