Fractionation and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge

During the past 75 years departments in major universities have increasingly divided or split into separate units, a phenomenon I term “fractionation”. Fractionation is not confined to the “mature” disciplines in the natural sciences, Physics, Chemistry, or Biology, but seems to apply generally.

There is some informal preliminary evidence that before a new discipline joins the community of sciences as an independent unit – a process which may take many years – it may already possess a solid theory and may even have impressive supporting data for it. The major attribute of such a new discipline would be its power to stimulate intensive research and its ability to gather much additional “confirming” data (i.e. knowledge).

This brief sketch of how contemporary science may be producing new knowledge disagrees in many respects with those accounts which are primarily based on case histories from the period from Copernicus to Einstein. But science in all its forms has become heavily institutionalized during the past century and it is entirely possible that this has also changed the character of science and how science is done.

Under what historical conditions has this happened? How does the process of fractionation affect the emergence of new theories and consequently the production of data? Does it change the dynamics of the growth of scientific knowledge? By pooling resources from sociology, history and the philosophy of science, I hope to explore and attempt to answer these open questions.

2 thoughts on “Fractionation and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge

  1. I read your blog entry about fractionation. It got me thinking about "zoom". What do I mean?Well, when you look at a map the level of magnification – of closeness to the ground – of "zoom" determines what details you do and don't see. When you're viewing the world as a whole, you miss the details of any given region.I think the same can be said of anything, including scientific progress or "science" or whatever cumulative term you want to give to capture the idea of scientific efforts being part of some unified whole (which raises a question in an of itself – i.e., is that really the case?). For the sake of having a common language, let's parsimoniously call it "science".The level of zoom with which I regard science will determine what details I can and cannot attend to. If we imagine the most macro, zoomed out view, the details of any specific discipline or sub-discipline are no longer accessible.Continuing from this perspective, if we looked at the grand clock and chronological process we'd see some nice evidence for the concept of fractionation. That is, over time, we would see new unique (but not necessarily unrelated) branches of disciplines and sub-disciplines emerge over time. As we regard this branching, we would probably observe an increasing speed as we progress closer to the present.However, like any set of data, we will have outliers to muddy and complicate our interpretation. In this particular set, I imagine two types of outliers. One is the "contrary case" and the other is the "mixed case".In the contrary case, we see exactly the opposite of what we predict – fractionation. Here, instead of the creation of diverging branches we see converging branches; certain disciplines that become amalgamated for a variety of reasons.In the mixed case, we see even more peculiar behaviour. We see branches that both converge and diverge over time; a fluctuation between a smaller and larger set of branches (disciplines and sub disciplines).So now we have three types of data; one we want and two we must now suddenly make sense of. And in this sense making process, I came to a question. Is fractionation a state or a process? Or is it both? Sort of like the wave and particle theory of light; where it depends how you look at it. Then I thought, well, perhaps the differentiating factor is the level of zoom.At the macro zoom, perhaps fractionation is a state. It is the result of some series of influences. The story would be something as follows. As a consequence of x,y,z, etc we now have 8 disciplines instead of 2.At the micro zoom though, perhaps fractionation is a process. Each influence causes a new crack and as time progresses cracks are both more numerous and larger until one whole unified piece is now several discrete elements. The story would be something as follows. As a function of the impact of x,y,z over time our original 2 disciplines has splintered into 8.It's hard to see the difference between them, which makes me confused about state vs. process vs. both.What do you think about all that?

  2. Pingback: Fractionation: A Late Reply | Harry M B Hurwitz

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