Limits...
On disciplinary fragmentation and scientific progress.

Balietti S, Mäs M, Helbing D - PLoS ONE (2015)

Bottom Line: We found that fragmentation critically limits scientific progress.Strikingly, there is no effect in the opposite causal direction.What is more, our results shows that at the heart of the mechanisms driving scientific progress we find (i) social interactions, and (ii) peer disagreement.

View Article: PubMed Central - PubMed

Affiliation: Professorship of Computational Social Science, ETH Zurich, Switzerland.

ABSTRACT
Why are some scientific disciplines, such as sociology and psychology, more fragmented into conflicting schools of thought than other fields, such as physics and biology? Furthermore, why does high fragmentation tend to coincide with limited scientific progress? We analyzed a formal model where scientists seek to identify the correct answer to a research question. Each scientist is influenced by three forces: (i) signals received from the correct answer to the question; (ii) peer influence; and (iii) noise. We observed the emergence of different macroscopic patterns of collective exploration, and studied how the three forces affect the degree to which disciplines fall apart into divergent fragments, or so-called "schools of thought". We conducted two simulation experiments where we tested (A) whether the three forces foster or hamper progress, and (B) whether disciplinary fragmentation causally affects scientific progress and vice versa. We found that fragmentation critically limits scientific progress. Strikingly, there is no effect in the opposite causal direction. What is more, our results shows that at the heart of the mechanisms driving scientific progress we find (i) social interactions, and (ii) peer disagreement. In fact, fragmentation is increased and progress limited if the simulated scientists are open to influence only by peers with very similar views, or when within-school diversity is lost. Finally, disciplines where the scientists received strong signals from the correct answer were less fragmented and experienced faster progress. We discuss model's implications for the design of social institutions fostering interdisciplinarity and participation in science.

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The effect of the strength of social influence α on the average distance from the ground truth at time point 20,000.The U-shaped relationship depicted in Fig. 5 disappeared, and only low values of alpha cause a slower scientific progress. Error bars represent standard errors of the mean.[R = (0.03; 0.3), α = (0.01 − 0.99), τ = 1, σ = 0.01, ε = 0.1]
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pone.0118747.g006: The effect of the strength of social influence α on the average distance from the ground truth at time point 20,000.The U-shaped relationship depicted in Fig. 5 disappeared, and only low values of alpha cause a slower scientific progress. Error bars represent standard errors of the mean.[R = (0.03; 0.3), α = (0.01 − 0.99), τ = 1, σ = 0.01, ε = 0.1]

Mentions: Panel B suggests that the strength of social influence had a non-linear, U-shaped, relationship with scientific progress. As explained in Section Model Dynamics, social influence leads to a reduction in the absolute exploration speed through a process of reciprocal adjustment of the approaches of the agents in the same cluster. Therefore, when social influence is very weak, it is not surprising that scientific progress is slower. However, that also very high values of the parameter α can retard scientific progress was completely unexpected. This apparent anomaly can be explained as follows. A very strong social influence create very cohesive clusters very early in the simulation. We measured the average pairwise distance between agents in the biggest cluster, and it turned out to be significantly lower for very high values of α. The difference is small, but it counts for about one third of the size of the small interaction radius (R = 0.03). It is therefore enough to significantly reduce the process of merging of clusters at the beginning of the simulation. This leads to a lower average cluster size at the beginning of the simulated discipline, which in turn is the cause of the accumulated scientific retard measured after 2,000 iterations. On the other hand, such a gap is actually not permanent. If we let the simulations run for 20,000 iterations, we observe an approximately homogeneous degree of scientific progress for any value of α > 0.1 (see Fig. 6). Therefore, only a very weak social influence can slow down progress in a scientific field for an extended period of time.


On disciplinary fragmentation and scientific progress.

Balietti S, Mäs M, Helbing D - PLoS ONE (2015)

The effect of the strength of social influence α on the average distance from the ground truth at time point 20,000.The U-shaped relationship depicted in Fig. 5 disappeared, and only low values of alpha cause a slower scientific progress. Error bars represent standard errors of the mean.[R = (0.03; 0.3), α = (0.01 − 0.99), τ = 1, σ = 0.01, ε = 0.1]
© Copyright Policy
Related In: Results  -  Collection

License
Show All Figures
getmorefigures.php?uid=PMC4366147&req=5

pone.0118747.g006: The effect of the strength of social influence α on the average distance from the ground truth at time point 20,000.The U-shaped relationship depicted in Fig. 5 disappeared, and only low values of alpha cause a slower scientific progress. Error bars represent standard errors of the mean.[R = (0.03; 0.3), α = (0.01 − 0.99), τ = 1, σ = 0.01, ε = 0.1]
Mentions: Panel B suggests that the strength of social influence had a non-linear, U-shaped, relationship with scientific progress. As explained in Section Model Dynamics, social influence leads to a reduction in the absolute exploration speed through a process of reciprocal adjustment of the approaches of the agents in the same cluster. Therefore, when social influence is very weak, it is not surprising that scientific progress is slower. However, that also very high values of the parameter α can retard scientific progress was completely unexpected. This apparent anomaly can be explained as follows. A very strong social influence create very cohesive clusters very early in the simulation. We measured the average pairwise distance between agents in the biggest cluster, and it turned out to be significantly lower for very high values of α. The difference is small, but it counts for about one third of the size of the small interaction radius (R = 0.03). It is therefore enough to significantly reduce the process of merging of clusters at the beginning of the simulation. This leads to a lower average cluster size at the beginning of the simulated discipline, which in turn is the cause of the accumulated scientific retard measured after 2,000 iterations. On the other hand, such a gap is actually not permanent. If we let the simulations run for 20,000 iterations, we observe an approximately homogeneous degree of scientific progress for any value of α > 0.1 (see Fig. 6). Therefore, only a very weak social influence can slow down progress in a scientific field for an extended period of time.

Bottom Line: We found that fragmentation critically limits scientific progress.Strikingly, there is no effect in the opposite causal direction.What is more, our results shows that at the heart of the mechanisms driving scientific progress we find (i) social interactions, and (ii) peer disagreement.

View Article: PubMed Central - PubMed

Affiliation: Professorship of Computational Social Science, ETH Zurich, Switzerland.

ABSTRACT
Why are some scientific disciplines, such as sociology and psychology, more fragmented into conflicting schools of thought than other fields, such as physics and biology? Furthermore, why does high fragmentation tend to coincide with limited scientific progress? We analyzed a formal model where scientists seek to identify the correct answer to a research question. Each scientist is influenced by three forces: (i) signals received from the correct answer to the question; (ii) peer influence; and (iii) noise. We observed the emergence of different macroscopic patterns of collective exploration, and studied how the three forces affect the degree to which disciplines fall apart into divergent fragments, or so-called "schools of thought". We conducted two simulation experiments where we tested (A) whether the three forces foster or hamper progress, and (B) whether disciplinary fragmentation causally affects scientific progress and vice versa. We found that fragmentation critically limits scientific progress. Strikingly, there is no effect in the opposite causal direction. What is more, our results shows that at the heart of the mechanisms driving scientific progress we find (i) social interactions, and (ii) peer disagreement. In fact, fragmentation is increased and progress limited if the simulated scientists are open to influence only by peers with very similar views, or when within-school diversity is lost. Finally, disciplines where the scientists received strong signals from the correct answer were less fragmented and experienced faster progress. We discuss model's implications for the design of social institutions fostering interdisciplinarity and participation in science.

Show MeSH
Related in: MedlinePlus