Original Discovery

It is the nature of physical science to discover “absolute” truths, the core of the matter, that which is created other than by human. This brings with it a sense of wonder, because what you find is not subjective, but infinitely objective – it cannot be different than what it is, even if you change your viewpoint. For example, the laws of motion are immutable, and their discovery, or even re-discovery, comes with an awesome aha! Even when we learn about discoveries of such type, it is as if we share in the spirit of the original scientist with whom it all began.

Being a social scientist inevitably comes with many cynical moments where one feels deeply the absence of “original discovery”. Our findings are clothes we decide to dress up our observations in, conceptual footprints, but not immutable, original. It is the nature of the social sciences to simplify, condense, and explain shifting human phenomena, but never to discover originally. And in those darkest moments, one has to ask, without original discovery, can there really be science? I am told that there is as much science as one wants provided we rigorously adhere to scientific method, but one is often not convinced. There remains the need to discover something that is exactly what it is, leaving nothing to interpretive license.

Interestingly, original discovery even exists in the so-called “softer” fields of literature and history where exact facts are uncovered about ancient times today, hundreds of years later (do you remember the movie “Possession” and the joy of Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhardt in uncovering the real life of poet Ash? – fiction it is, but original discovery plays out so well with full flavor in the movie). This meets the litmus test, the discoveries are at their basic level factual, not colored by interpretation. Certainly, literary academics and historians will, as a matter of course, clothe discovery in voluminous interpretive verbiage, but this does not detract from the original kernel of discovery embedded therein.

A world-renowned colleague in my field decided recently to eschew financial economics for history, and it might well be that his thirst for original discovery weighed overwhelmingly in his making this decision.

Original discovery seems to live in the domain of the Arts and Sciences, and not in the fabric of the social sciences. With passing time, the social sciences themselves are being bifurcated into areas of original discovery versus interpretive content. For instance, in psychology, fMRI (magnetic resonance imaging) based research comes closer to original discovery and is deemed more of a hard science; indeed, the very word neuroscience being used to describe it tells much of the story. Yet, much of the social sciences comprises “spin”, and less substance.

This is not to argue that social science is not important. Far from it. It is easy to make the case that interpretive knowledge does more to impact our lives than hard scientific fact, especially through politics and economics. But from a simple, naive researcher’s point of view, one hopes, even as a social scientist, to alight upon an original discovery one day. One is hard-pressed to imagine how and where this will happen, but keeping one’s eyes and mind open, as well as crossing over to the Sciences, must surely be useful.


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