No evidence for scientific thinking

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.


  1. While I agree with his last comment about knowing less about blowout preventers than the average oil-rig worker, I would venture to say he probably knows more about it than Krugman, Morrison, and Robinson. Two points, why does Robinson have any leverage to say that Chu knows less? What gives Robinson the evidence to say that. I would further say that Toni Morrison probably would do a better job at analyzing medieval literature than Chu even though it isn’t in her field. Chu is an experimentalist, he understands at some, admittedly low, level how complex systems work, especially those involving natural phenomena.

  2. Geez, Praj, you have never been trained as a psychologist, yet you know about going to PsycInfo, using some relevant search terms to pull up research that you are looking for, and marginally interpret it. Well, you shouldn’t know how to do that, should you? But yet, you did it, and I bet you didn’t think of the irony. 😉

    There is actually a lot of cognitive psychology that backs up my (and others’) point earlier. The first question here is whether problem solving skills transfer at all. We in the field call it positive transfer. Transfer to a new context is called far transfer, and there is evidence for that as well. The answer from many years of research (Chen and Klahr, 2008, and heck, that is for kids!; Barnett and Ceci, 2002) is yes, these things definitely happen. I will send you the PDFs.

    The second question here is whether Chu, or what I think we may agree on is an expert in his field, can do it better than a novice (I think a novice could be a non-scientist, i.e., politicians, Paul Krugman, and Toni Morrison). Again, cognitive psychology research says yes, experts have the advantage. The approach problems completely differently, do not have the learning curve that novices would in building up that skill set (and in this oil crisis, I think we probably agree that not wasting time learning is important), and they also have more space for creativity (a couple of landmark studies are Larkin, McDermott, Simon, Simon, 1980 and Sweller, 1988, lots of more recent ones). There are surprisingly a lot of studies that look specifically at physics problems and physicists as well so I don’t know how you can claim that there is no evidence or data for this! We’ve already agreed that there are probably people who are more expert in this problem than Chu, but Chu can quickly acquire the knowledge that he needs and his job as Secretary of Energy has given him some practice at that. There are probably lots of other qualities that Chu has that may make him more desirable in this situation, including a broader, more creative perspective by not being entrenched in this problem, lots of connections to get him the right expertise, and political backing. Again, I’m not arguing he is the best person in the world for this job, but he is a pretty good one and certainly better than Robinson gives him credit for.

    1. Thanks a lot for the great response and articles you sent! Will try respond later tonight or tomorrow. Hope all is well.

  3. Sending Chu down to the Gulf to roll up his sleeves and solve this thing is political theater, period. It’s no different from Obama going down there. Political theater is useful to the Obama administration, and it might even be helpful to the people down there in certain ways. But let’s not kid ourselves about the reasons for it.

    They are taking advantage of the myth of the heroic individual scientist–of the idea that scientists are different kinds of people. (See this editorial by Bruce Alberts for an example of such silliness, and then be sure to read the rebuttal)

    I think the last commenter is right that Chu is probably better equipped than, say, Toni Morrison or Joe the Plumber, but that’s not really the point, is it? It’s not a question of “experts or non-experts?” It’s “which experts?”

    I think some the work of Herbert Simon would actually suggest that Chu is unlikely to be very helpful, compared with other experts. Good solutions are likely to come from people who not only have vast knowledge of these complex technologies, but also have enough experience with them (i.e. decades) that they understand them intuitively.

    Who knows, maybe Chu is a phenomenal team leader, or has some uncanny ability to get other people to think outside of the box or something. But none of that has anything to do with trapping atoms with lasers. It’s social skills and management. But you don’t hear anyone talking about that. It’s all about the Nobel Prize.

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