This Eugene Robinson column garnered some attention on my Facebook wall. Here’s the offending passage:
We can all applaud Chu’s accomplishment. But here’s the thing: Chu is a physicist, not an engineer or a biologist. His Nobel was awarded for the work he did in trapping individual atoms with lasers. He’s absurdly smart. But there’s nothing in his background to suggest he knows any more about capping an out-of-control deep-sea well, or containing a gargantuan oil spill, than, say, columnist Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel in economics. Or novelist Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel in literature.
In fact, Chu surely knows less about blowout preventers than the average oil-rig worker and less about delicate coastal marshes than the average shrimp-boat captain.
Strong words indeed. A couple of my friends naturally pointed out that Chu must have exceptional analytical and problem-solving skills that he can apply to the situation. This argument is all too typical and at this point is almost a truism. Of course scientists have spectacular analytical and problem-solving skills. And of course it carries over from their very narrow field to other problems. Surely this much is true, right?
One of the many problems with these assertions is the almost complete lack of supporting evidence. Has anyone actually studied how well scientists think and problem-solve outside of their field? Is your average space physicist more adept at analyzing economics, politics and policy merely on account of being a physicist? How do we separate the scientific component of Chu’s analytical skills from the fact that he’s really smart and driven? As far as I know there’s no data either way.
What I do know is that a search for “domain specific” on the PsycInfo database yields a few thousand results. And I also know that at least some research privileges content knowledge over analytical skills. The latter thesis especially undermines the idea of an amorphous scientific thinking that magically transfers to every problem.
None of this means that scientific thinking does not exist. It very well might. But before drawing any firm conclusions, we should first gather and analyze the available data. Doing otherwise would be pretty unscientific.