Scientific 'Purity' in the 'Connected Age'

By Daniel Chen

March 14, 2016

I just started reading Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age by Duncan J. Watts. It’s a book on network theory and related to the Multi-Agent Neural Network project I’ve been working on.

The first chapter, “The Connected Age”, reminded me of this XKCD comic:


When first saw the comic as an Psychology / Neuroscience undergrad, I found it extremely amusing – I wasn’t on the bottom! To my delight, the book chapter further highlights the need for “less pure” disciplines.

In the section on “Emergence”, a topic I’ve become familiar with since applying applying Complexity Science to population health, Watts references a quote from Nobel laureate, Phillip Anderson’s 1971 paper, “More is Different”:

… physics has been reasonably successful in classifying the fundamental particles, and in describing their individual behavior and interactions, up to the scale of single atom. But throw a bunch of atoms together, and suddenly the story is entirely different. That’s why chemistry is a science of its own, not just a branch of physics. Moving farther up the chain of organization, molecular biology cannot be reduced simply to organic chemistry, and medical science is much more than the direct application of the biology of molecules. At a higher level still – that of interacting organisms – we encounter now a host of disciplines, from ecology and epidemiology, to sociology and economics, each of which comes with its own rules and principles that are not reducible to a mere knowledge of psychology and biology

This juxtaposition depicts why studying complexity science and understanding system dynamics is crucial. Watts uses the 1996 blackouts in the United States as examples of how optimizing local infrastructure makes the entire system more fragile.

The more I progress academically and professionally, the more I realize the importance of Mathematics. As a statistician in training, I wish I wasn’t so focused in the life sciences in the past – then again I had entirely different goals then. However, working backwards from Psychology to Biology and Epidemiology, I now have greater appreciation for purer disciplines and a drive to learn them.

Happy Pi day.

Posted on:
March 14, 2016
2 minute read, 352 words
research complexity science 6 degrees xkcd quote reflection
See Also:
A 'Simple' Neural-Network Model
Expanding the Watts Model
A Simple Model of Global Cascades on Random Networks