Fundamental science vs applied science

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Discussion by: Nexal

As a pupil in primary I would find refuge in the school library. There was a huge corridor devoted to Sciences. 90% of it was dedicated to fundamental sciences and the rest to a few applications. Being a child, I remember the the huge tomes of astronomy, geology, biology, beautifully illustrated with their superb thick glossy pages… They talked about the origin of our planets and the depths of the oceans making my mind soar with dreams of research and discoveries. The applied science books, few as they were, appeared to be poor manuals of lists of procedures that would make an insomniac fall asleep, by comparison.

As the years went by the fundamental science books started giving way to the applied sciences and by the time I finished school the tables were turned. Starting academic life with biology, I moved on to cybernetics with a twist: the degree was called Intelligent Systems (IS) in Reading University. The twist being that the degree included Computer Science (reasonably enough), Cybernetics (of course) and Psychology (the twist). Up to that point I had no respect for psychology, claiming it to be a science in the making but not there yet. And in that mindset I entered the amphitheatre for my first class. It was a shock I still remember vividly. There were 8 of us from IS in a crowd of hundreds. As youth would have it, eyeballing came immediately. 6 boys in a sea of women. The first thing I noticed was that there was no curiosity in my classmates' eyes, instead I found fear, uncertainty and a sense of urgency. Talking with them over the next few months I came to understand that most of the psychology students were there to solve a specific issue for themselves or a loved one. At first, it appeared a very noble thing to do, but as the lab work went on it became quite obvious that my classmates had absolutely no interest in what makes the human mind tick, all they wanted was a list of ingredients or procedures that would cure their ailment.

The saddest discovery of my academic years was that most of the scientists I met (our lecturers mostly and some visitors) would rather bask in the lime light of fame than advance our understanding (there were exceptions of course). The culmination of my disappointment came when I passed my 1st year psychology exam by demonstrating that most personality theories in use at that time did not even adhere to their own validity requirements. The sadness deepened when our cybernetics lecturers illustrated many examples where they were tasked by the government and other big players to model systems and the responses they would get is that their analyses were useless due to their non-linear results. In other words a negative feedback system was too complex for them (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feedback). They wanted quick fixes for short-term relief.

In my discussions with my peers, I became aware of the possibility that most people do not care about the greater picture nor about how things work. What most people seem to want is a band-aid to heal a severed member. The exceptions I did acknowledge had two things in common: they were into fundamental research and cared very little about fame and fortune… Funny enough most of them were biologists, mathematicians and musicians (who would have thought that musicians would make such excellent scientists). The second thing they had in common was that they were unashamedly atheist.

All this could be a false positive by a glitchy pattern recognition system, thus I ask you: What can you say about comparison/contrast between fundamental science and applied science? Do you believe/know that there is or isn't an abyss of difference between the two? If so, is it as crucial as it appears to me?

I mean no disrespect. All I wrote relates to my greatest question and is only empirical. Should anyone take offence, it was not my intent and I apologise in advance.

16 COMMENTS

  1. The sadness deepened when our cybernetics lecturers illustrated many examples where they were tasked by the government and other big players to model systems and the responses they would get is that their analyses were useless due to their non-linear results. In other words a negative feedback system was too complex for them

    Most of this topic seems rather vague, it’s probably me but it’s not all that clear what you are objecting to exactly. But I don’t understand “sadness” as a reaction to trying to develop models that don’t work. I saw this a lot in my work trying to apply AI and sophisticated search and graph algorithms to real world problems. It happened all the time, the academics had a model that could give great, even optimal, solutions to problems like scheduling parts moving on a shop floor or trucks following a route. But the problem was that in the real world there were all sorts of constraints that were difficult or impossible to model using things like Linear Programming or Graph Theory. I.e., the travel cost of a link was not static but highly dependent on time of day, weather, etc.

    IMO, the appropriate response in such situations is not sadness but rethinking the problem. Perhaps the algorithm/model can be adapted to include representing the real world constraints, perhaps (seldom possible but not always out of the question) the business can change the way they work so they can take advantage of more optimal schedules, or perhaps the problem just isn’t appropriate for an algorithmic approach.

    When I worked on CASE tools one of the people on my team wanted to use sophisticated graph layout algorithms to automatically layout large graphs like Entity Relation models. At first I was adamant that it was a waste of time. I had seen automatic layouts before and they never worked, I always ended up manually moving things around anyway. But he insisted that this was new research from U of I (where he had gone) that was designed not just to create optimal graphs in a graph theoretic sense but to actually represent domain specific constraints (e.g. what a “good” ER model should look like expressed in graph theoretic terms). It took a few arguments but I’m happy to say he was persistent and he did it and it worked amazingly well.

  2. . Talking with them over the next few months I came to understand that most of the psychology students were there to solve a specific issue for themselves or a loved one. At first, it appeared a very noble thing to do, but as the lab work went on it became quite obvious that my classmates had absolutely no interest in what makes the human mind tick, all they wanted was a list of ingredients or procedures that would cure their ailment.

    My knee-jerk reaction when I read this was to confirm an observation that my husband ( rather unkindly to my mind) held to be true ; ie people do psychology and welfare subjects in order to solve their own problems. As I’ve always been drawn to these areas, I took it as a personal criticism, though I would not lose any sleep worrying that this might be the case.

    • In reply to #2 by Nitya:

      My knee-jerk reaction when I read this was to confirm an observation that my husband ( rather unkindly to my mind) held to be true ; ie people do psychology and welfare subjects in order to solve their own problems.

      When I worked briefly in mental health that was a common joke everyone shared, no one went into the field who wasn’t pretty messed up. I definitely think people who go into psychology and mental health tend to exhibit certain traits more than others. But, and obviously here I have a bias because what I’m going to say applies to me since I’ve studied psychology and worked in mental health, I don’t think it’s so much that we are more messed up but more aware of how meessed up we actually are. A bit more self aware and honest about admitting we have emotional and psychological issues. I think that can actually correlate with being a bit more depressed sometimes since let’s face it, in a lot of ways an honest evaluation tells you the world sucks some times and we are all pathetic jerks about something at some time or another.

      • In reply to #7 by Red Dog:

        But, and obviously here I have a bias because what I’m going to say applies to me since I’ve studied psychology and worked in mental health, I don’t think it’s so much that we are more messed up but more aware of how meessed up we actually are.

        I agree with you. In fact, if you strive for a career within mental health care you have to confront demons that you perhaps can keep in the shadows when you work in other professions. I think there is a large misconception that just because psychologists and mental health worker are more honest about and aware of their own issues, they are somehow more fucked up or use their profession to help themselves. I would lie if I said that there are no such individuals working within mental health care. Of course there are, but as said I think many people confuse self-awareness and honesty about one’s own condition with having mental issues. The worst mental health workers are the ones who have issues they are not aware of. In psychology you have no tools and machines to help you with your work. You are your only tool. Your words and your ability to have a conversation and build a healthy relation between the patient and yourself. A psychologist can’t hind behind a stethoscope like a physician. They have to get in there and get their hands dirty. That is no easy task.

      • In reply to #7 by Red Dog:

        . I don’t think it’s so much that we are more messed up but more aware of how meessed up we actually are. A bit more self aware and honest about admitting we have emotional and psychological issues.

        This is my line of thinking as well. When I look around me, I notice that everyone exhibits the same sort of thinking processes that I do, however I feel that I’m more self-aware.(probably hubris on my part). Being able to be honest with yourself is a good thing in my book, because you’re able to see what is really ailing people as opposed to the set of symptoms they produce. The waiting rooms of alternate practitioners are full of people with symptoms. People who are not aware that their symptoms are quite possibly self-induced and the cure is the result of the placebo effect.

  3. The article seem rather vague and anecdotal and deals with a variety of subjects, some of which I know very little about. However, I will agree that in my experience, too, friends and acquaintances who studied and later practiced various forms of psychology were in fact very troubled themselves. If he is implying that psychology is one of those fields where real, exploratory science is least practiced, I tend to agree. Perhaps because it lends itself more to fads than, say, physics or biology.

  4. Psychology does have quite a lot of baggage in its history, where the old joke about the wearing of white coats so people could tell the psychologists and psychiatric staff, from the patients seems to fit!

  5. There does seem to be a shift away from pure science in terms of funding and investment. There is an unfortunate but growing perception that research should feed the economic system rather than asking questions which have no obvious or immediate application,but which might increase our knowledge and fascination with the world. In at least some cases, I know that universities are hell-bent on forming associations with commercial enterprises because of the perception that success equals economic advancement. Needless to say, the people driving this change have more interest in money and reputation than in understanding the universe. I share your regret at the move away from pure research.

  6. As others have pointed out I’m not quite sure what you are getting at. Why do you single out psychology and talk so much about how your fellow students were not interested in real science? Nice little anecdote, but so what? You don’t really explain what’s wrong with the applied sciences. I mean, the field of applied sciences is very broad. Engineering and electronics are probably the two most common examples, so why are you babbling about psychology? Psychology isn’t even by definition an applied science. I’m sorry, but you have to be more precise if you want good comments. Do you criticize psychology as a scientific discipline or do you criticize all forms of applied sciences? I really can’t say.

  7. I too don’t grok this as written.

    Neuro-psychology, for instance, is not in any sense “applied”, nor much of experimental psychology that is its conjectural feedstock.

    Up until the mid sixties and the likes of Richard Gregory, psychology’s science aspirations were modest and limited to exploring very simple models. Linking up with neuroscience seemed entirely too daunting a prospect. This left the therapeutic origins of it, which would naturally attract the empathically inclined. As psychologist Simon Baron Cohen would point out, the empaths sit at one end of a scale and systemisers at the other.

    Psychology now is a huge discipline. In truth it would be better to split it up.

    The originator of the UK psychology curriculum for A-level recently wished to revitalise the image of the subject to better reflect this expansion into pure science and re-name the taught subject as Neuro-Science or Neuro-Psychology (I forget which.)

    Incidentally can I urge UK readers to catch up with Martin Sixsmith’s little series on Psychology on BBC R4. Though therapeutically inclined it is an excellent summary of the subject’s origins.

  8. The latest and one of the worst experiences I made was a tv report about a gay journalist who found out that there are numerous mdeical doctors in Germany who still believe homosexuality is a disease and can be cured. I realised that thesse doctors are nothing but – at least very sophisticated – mechanics. I have no numbers but I bet most of them are christians and do not come across that their believe interferes with their profession in a very bad way.
    Governments all over the world are cutting the funding of basic research because it doesn’t pay at once and they need money for more important things like military. We look ino times where fundamental science will be the exception – and people wonder why the progress will be decreasing then …

  9. I am not getting at anything. I am asking a couple of questions that arose through personal experience. All I am trying to figure out is where the actual scientific world stands on this issue.
    I happened to put two and two together in the manner I described. Joe Wolsing, observed it in the medical field. I am certain each one of us has seen this distinction between on one hand thinking and then acting, on the other following guidelines designed for general purposes without terribly adverse effects, in some field or another.

    • In reply to #13 by Nexal:

      I am asking a couple of questions that arose through personal experience. All I am trying to figure out is where the actual scientific world stands on this issue.

      I don’t think there is a fundamental difference, except in intent and proportion of efforts All sciences use practical investigations and methodologies, with associated thinking around the issues involved.

      Sometimes discoveries are made by those researching topics, but frequently discoveries are made accidentally while researching other ideas, or incidentally, in practically applying previous discoveries. Major breakthroughs, are usually recognised with hindsight.

      People looking for fundamental discoveries, or using applied sciences, often spot patterns in nature, stimulating hunches in picking areas for further investigation. These are human curiosity and rational thinking processes, which can be applied to the workings of the universe, or trouble-shooting some problem with a machine, or diagnosing some medical condition.
      Science does fundamental investigations, but then communicates findings which are applied. There are no fundamental boundaries in the processes. Many follow-on developers have added detail and improvements in understanding or applications of earlier discoveries.

      Applications of science could be described as: “making use of understanding from earlier work, to avoid wasting efforts on previously discovered dead-ends”, but this does not preclude further understanding or developments!

      • In reply to #14 by Alan4discussion:

        In reply to #13 by Nexal:

        I am asking a couple of questions that arose through personal experience. All I am trying to figure out is where the actual scientific world stands on this issue.

        I don’t think there is a fundamental difference, except in intent and proportion of efforts All sciences use…

        You are completely right with the basic idea that science always uses practical methodology. But I think Nexal is pointing to something different. You are skilled and know about the value of fundamental rersearch. But even in politics – where the money for science often comes from – many people only want to fund science that can make predictions about the economical usabillity, the profit that will be the outcome of certain scientiffic resaerch. And I guess in the free ecom´nomical sector it isn’t much better. And this is where the problem lies. I think Dawkins (or deGrasse Tyson – not sure at the moment) used the example of the MRI that was originally not developed to serve in medicine. It was just physics and someone else applied it to the medical sector. If science has to predict the possible profit before research gets financed – the progress will slow down or decrease dramatically..

    • In reply to #13 by Nexal:

      I am not getting at anything. I am asking a couple of questions that arose through personal experience.

      What two questions exactly? It still isn’t clear to me what exactly you are asking. I think one question might be: “Is there too much emphasis on applied vs fundamental science?” If that is one of your questions I think it’s too vague to really even be a meaningful question. Too much emphasis where exactly? Compared to the past or just in general?

      In the R&D funded by industry (e.g. big companies like IBM) I agree that most of the emphasis is on applied research but I don’t think that is surprising or a bad thing. Corporations are in business to make a profit not to generally benefit the human race. Of course they want you to think otherwise, companies like Apple pretend to care about innovation or Monsanto about feeding the world but that’s just marketing BS, they ultimately care about profit first and everything else second and it’s naive to expect them to behave any other way.

      To the extent that they do basic research, and actually IBM is an interesting example (Bell Labs was another one back before the breakup of AT&T) because they do more stuff that I would consider fundamental research than really makes sense from a purely bottom line perspective. But I know why they do it, it’s because they see being a “thought leader” as something that differentiates them from their competition. It’s one reason the guys at IBM research who chose Jeopardy! for Watson made such a shrewd decision, the marketing IBM got from that was a bonanza considering the relatively small amount of funding (small compared to what it costs to buy an ad on a prime time TV show).

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