Fractionation: A Late Reply

The following is a reply to Sean’s comment on “Fractionation and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge”, posted March 2011.

zooming2Two years is a long time to get an answer to one’s mail but it often takes even longer to think through the implication of a counter-proposal or expansion to one’s ideas. That said, let me answer Sean (March 29, 2011) who suggested that one could view the divisions within science that take place over time, and with increasing frequency as well severity, a case of zooming. *Zooming* is not a common term applied to the expansion of disciplines, but is itself a neologism. It means that when all our knowledge is taken as a whole it is possible to focus on a section of it, zooming on a speck of this to the exclusion of all else. The effect is to give this section clarity whereas other matters become in-articulated, nebulous, even frozen for the time being.

Now if this is the case – and we must keep in mind that we are speaking in analogies – the greater clarity of the focal area, on which we have zoomed, will be at the cost of increasing opaqueness of all neglected areas, those which lie outside the focus. From my viewpoint this has the net effect of creating a chasm between the focus of the zoom and matters lying on its periphery, that is, out of focus. As Sean states it so well and succinctly “the details of any specific discipline (lying out of focus).. .. are no longer accessible”.

This situation would create an enduring tension between different disciplines. If, for example, discipline A – the focus of our attention – relies on pressupositons borrowed from discipline B, changes in B would undermine some of the positions taken within discipline A.

I think this is what happens. At the present time the new discipline of neuro-psychology – call it discipline C – depends heavily of two areas of psychology and at least two in neuro-physiology. The areas of psychology are studies of cognition and studies of learning. Each of these are themselves fractionated, have their own theories, their own data and often are in stark conflict with each other. This state of affairs make discipline C much less firm than one would wish it to be, and the theories emerging within C, he field of neuropsychology, will be less staunch than is claimed.

So zooming creates problems for those who hold that scientific knowledge integrates and will ultimately achieve the end-result wished for by earlier advocates of the “unity of science”. The growth of knowledge therefore refers literarily to the increased understanding of smaller segments of our knowledge without guaranteeing that these can be completely integrated in manner which will yield a comprehensive “picture” of our universe.

The universe is an idealized picture of what could be – but isn’t.

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.