Field of Science

The Heat Death of Science

Several years ago, I was fairly up-to-date on dyslexia research. A couple colleagues and I were writing a comprehensive review of the literature. Several drafts of the pape were written, but for various reasons that project got put aside and was never finished.

I'm currently preparing to overhaul that paper and update it based on recent research. To put this in perspective, 147 papers on dyslexia were published in 2007 alone (according to PsychInfo*).

Like the physical universe, the universe of knowledge has been expanding at an accelerated rate. It's hard to be current in several fields. By the time you are current in psychology, sociology has moved on. With time, it seems increasingly difficult to stay on top of multiple subfields (e.g., autism and dyslexia).

I wonder how long it will be before it is impossible to stay on top of even a single, narrow topic. This postulated moment would be the equivalent of heat death for science. Or not. Perhaps science will end in a big crunch instead.

Or will we find ways of dealing with massive amounts of information. While our technologies in this arena have improved, I take it as self-evidence that they have not improved as fast as information has increased.


*If anybody for some reason wants to check for themselves, I searched for papers with the word "dyslexia" in the abstract. If you search for "dyslexia" in any field, you get 177.


derekjames said...

You could say the same for non-scientific publication. I think the result is an increase in overall information, with the noise-to-signal ratio remaining roughly the same (I don't imagine all those dyslexia studies are of the same quality).

But I do think there will an increased emphasis on smart searching and culling of irrelevant information, because the amount will continue to grow. I'm not sure about the content outstripping the ability to search through it...why do you think that?

coglanglab said...

Is content outstripping the ability to search through it? I could very well be wrong, but I think it's reasonably clear that more people were current on a wider range of disciplines a century or two ago than is the case now. I don't think people have become smaller-minded, so I take this as evidence that people aren't doing this because they can't. But I'd be very interested in hearing arguments the other direction.

R N B said...

I have no fear that the scientific process itself will get heat death. More articles should be balanced by better searching.

But there are circumstances that will give a big crunch. Though I guess you did not want to bring up censorship or theocracy ...

Camilo said...

To be 'on top of a field' I interpret as being an expert on that field. And an expert in a field is only defined with respect to other people that work in that field.
As it is now, too much info is available for anyone to know everything that is written and is relevant to pretty much any scientific topic. Even if only 700 articles come out when you search for dyslexia, it doesn't mean that those are the only articles relevant to dyslexia research. In fact, I would think that someone that has read all the papers that mention dyslexia, but only those, wouldn't be much of an expert in dyslexia, since he'll lack much of the conceptual background to the understanding of that condition.
All this is to say that i don't think anyone is on top of any field in the wider sense of the frase, but lots of people are experts in their fields, giving them a relative 'on top-ness'. And this won't change with more available information.

Hank said...

"I could very well be wrong, but I think it's reasonably clear that more people were current on a wider range of disciplines a century or two ago than is the case now. "

I am in more the general science community arena as opposed to a specialized group but I am baffled at how much more everyday people know now (regarding science) than even 10 years ago.

Virtually everywhere I go people want to talk about science, and these are not science people by trade or occupation.

Lots of us talk about that confluence of science and culture and it certainly seems to be happening.

I can't speak to 200 years ago either but certainly compared to when I was younger people are a lot more up on science topics.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts. I wrote a long post on my blog last September on this very topic. I'm considering expanding it into a theme for a documentary. Care to be interviewed?

jasony3131 (at yahoo)

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