Making a Case for Simpler Science

One of the characteristics of science seems to be that it has to be hard. Difficult. Incomprehensible unless you are one of the “gifted few”. And of course, doing science on a high level is difficult, but that doesn’t mean it should continue to be posed as such a feat.

I’m not writing this article to bash science. I love science. Barely was able to do science is high school, but I think science is cool. Maybe I should have clarified a bit what I mean by science. When I say science I think of chemistry, physics, neuroscience and biology, what most people call the natural sciences I suppose.

But it isn’t just those hard sciences that are being passed off as the pinnacle of difficulty. Try reading an economics paper, or a paper written in anthropology or philosophy. Sure, there’ll be some terms that you’d have learned if you had a background in this field, and would have then understood when reading. But I have read papers in my own fields (economics, psychology (and a bit of neuroscience)) and have just been utterly baffled by what they were trying to say. If someone in the field doesn’t even get it, who would?

There seems to have been a trend to write things down in a way that is so complicated, that the average sentence has become a paragraph long. This paragraph is then filled with fancy, 5-syllable-long words and by the end of the sentence (paragraph) you have absolutely no clue what was said at the start. Great.

There have been some academics who have abused this tradition and kicked against it. They submitted a paper so convoluted with impossible, yet utterly void language, which got accepted. Their paper got published (can you imagine how salty that makes other, serious academics?!). In 2018, such a paper was submitted (and published) by Helen Wilson (which was actually done by three writers). This paper explores the (sexual) dynamics between male and female dogs, and as such poses a critique on human male and female interactions. It suggested that men (of either species) can be trained out of their rather “rapey” tendencies. Interesting.

Now don’t think just because this paper was published with regards to a “softer” field (sociology) that this could never happen in the “harder” sciences. Because it has. The Sokal hoax is actually one of the most famous “fake paper” scams. It’s so good, it has its own Wikipedia page.

In 1996, Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London, submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal's intellectual rigor and whether a leading journal would publish an absolute bullsh-t article, if it sounded good and flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions.

So, what did he submit? The article was called; "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" and was published in the Social Text spring/summer 1996 "Science Wars" issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. After three weeks Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax.

Unsurprisingly, this sparked a debate about the scholarly merit of commentary on the physical sciences by those in the humanities; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor. But the main thing I got away from either of these studies (hoaxes) is that if you spew enough fancy nonsense, you should be golden. What a pile of ………….

To me, that is one argument for making things simpler. If making it simpler boils down to you revealing that you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not saying anything new or remotely relevant, or you have just blatantly doctored your results, so be it. With simplicity that’ll come out.

Another great reason to keep it simple rather than convoluted is the merit simplicity brings. It is a very simple argument: the simpler it is, the more people can understand it. What you don’t understand you can’t apply. What you do understand you can apply, and you might actually do so.

Behavioural science is a great example of things that are most definitely and directly applicable to the behaviour of individuals. This field researchers how we make decisions, why we can’t stick to a diet (and how we can), how we get into debt, how we get tricked into not repaying the debt, and how we can make sure we repay that debt etc. This is useful information! This needs to be properly spread out.

Now you are probably thinking: “but Merle, there’s many popular science books out there that do exactly that.” I know what books you are referring to. I know about, and have read, anything by Ariely, Thaler, Sunstein, Newport and Gladwell as well, to only name a few. But there is an issue with those books: they go beyond simplification.

These pop. science books take the studies with the most interesting results, explain the method of the study in simple terms, and the implications of the results. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s just that often the method of a study poses the limitations on the results of the study. And that is something those books very often don’t dive into. In their simplification, they leave important stuff out.

As I said, I have read these books, but had also read the studies they were referring to, and often I read the studies again, see why they would say about the study what they had said, but feel like there was a lot lacking. I can imagine someone reading the book and then reading the study, and thinking they were dealing with two different pieces of research. And that cannot be right.

No, the change has to come from within science, or maybe rather academia itself. We must push for simplicity and clarity more, as a way of easing the process of testing for rigour and a way of allowing academic research to be accessible to the public. Rather than a few academics who then turn them into pop. science books.

So, maybe the title of this article is misleading. I’m not making a plea for simple science, I’m making a plea for every field of study to be more accessible to the public, especially in terms of language. Because what good is a great finding, with many real-life implications, if only five people will read it, and only two actually understood what it said?