PZ Myers at Pharyngula just generated an interesting thread, “we don’t have physics envy, but we still have to deal with physics snobbery,” about whether biology is regarded as a lesser discipline, compared with “harder” sciences like physics. PZ references this post at Biology in Science Fiction, which in turn references this excellent post at Northstate Science.
It’s quite true that non-biologists seem to feel qualified to hold forth on topics such as alien life, evolution, and medicine. . .why? Is biology really so much easier than other sciences, so you don’t even need a formal education in it? (Why the heck was I studying for all those years?)
I’m conflicted about this issue. If there is a hierarchy of sciences, I admit, I do think physics has an edge – simply because it’s more fundamental. Physics squeezes in closer to the cogs and cam-shafts of universal truth than biology can, which gives me a knee-jerk fascination with/admiration for physics (mdvlst is not allowed to comment on this issue).
But is biology “easier,” a soft science, teetering on some slippery slope to the – gasp – humanities? Hardly! The common idea that biology is mere “memorization of facts and terms” is complete baloney. No science consists solely of memorization. In biology, you do have to memorize lists of terms and structures and genes in order to proceed with hypothesis testing, because you’re dealing with complex, unique systems – a particular eukaryotic cell replete with proteins and organelles, an ecosystem with constituent organisms, etc. You have to know a sufficient number of parts before you can build meaningful predictions about the system. But such “naming of parts” does not make you a biologist.
Further, even “naming of parts” goes a lot deeper than people realize. Since I taught anatomy – a class almost entirely about naming parts – I’ve encountered many non-biologists claiming to “know” anatomy already, on the strength of a high school course. (They do not similarly claim to “know” physics.) Yet I’m certain these people would fail my easiest anatomy exams – they claim to know all the bones of the human body, but have no idea where or what the ethmoid or sphenoid are. They couldn’t begin to draw the circulatory system, or point out the cells on a slide of cartilage.
That’s ok – I didn’t know every single bone either; I learned them in order to teach them. But why do people so readily assume there’s no more to anatomy than they dimly remember? Why do they think biology is shallow and easy? Why do physics students arrive for the first day of class with paralyzed looks of dread, when my biology students arrive cocky and contemptuous, then grow astonished and resentful when biology turns out to be hard?
I realized way back in college that as a biologist I would never be considered a “real” scientist by many of my fellows. One friend made a point of reminding me frequently that chemistry was much more rigorous than biology – just in case I forgot my place in the hard science/soft science caste system. Whatever; I found biology more interesting and exciting than chemistry. Plus, biology is squishy!
But it’s not just about people disrespecting my field, or inventing biologically implausible alien races, or the regrettable case of Scully from The X-Files doing a Southern blot in an impossibly short time with an unamplified sample to prove she had alien DNA, or the aliens had human DNA, or whatever that storyline was. Unfortunately, the idea that biology isn’t an especially rigorous science reinforces all sorts of problems – from school boards that give equal weight to intelligent design and evolution, to uninformed decisions about health care (trust me, college students know laughably little about conception and contraception), to policies about scientific research (on stem cells, for example) made on unscientific, partisan grounds.
Why is biology so vulnerable to disrespect? Do people think “life” is not a sufficiently scientific concept, and thus the “study of life” is a fuzzy sort of science? Is it familiarity breeding contempt – we’ve all got bodies, after all? (We’re all made of atoms, but that doesn’t mean people think they understand atomic theory). Is it some sort of inborn affinity for macroscopic plants and animals, but not for the invisibly small, which gives people a proprietary sense of familiarity with “biology”? I just don’t get it.