How Social Science Is Like Microbiology

I’m almost finished reading Michael Pollan’s latest, Cooked. It’s a terrific book about food, but it’s also steeped in science, and I wanted to share a passage from the part of the book on fermentation that really resonated with me. Pollan is writing about microbiology, but the developments he identifies in that field could (or should) apply just as well to the social sciences. The passage starts like this:

In the decades since Louis Pasteur founded microbiology, medical research has focused mainly on bacteria’s role in causing disease. The bacteria that reside in and on our bodies were generally regarded as either harmless “commensals”—freeloaders, basically—or pathogens to be defended against. Scientists tended to study these bugs one at a time, rather than as communities. This was partly a deeply ingrained habit of reductive science, and partly a function of the available tools. Scientists naturally focused their attention on the bacteria they see, which meant the handful of individual bugs that could be cultivated in a petri dish. There, they found some good guys and some bad guys. But the general stance toward bacteria we had discovered all around us was shaped by metaphors of war, and in that war, antibiotics became the weapon of choice.

Cholera_bacteria_SEMThe “habit of reductive science” Pollan describes should be familiar to social scientists, too. We often sort the objects of our analysis into binary categories of helpful and hurtful, assume the objects we see are all there really is, and then design interventions to try to kill the bad without harming the good. Where microbiology has traditionally drawn a sharp line between pathogens and cells that belong, social science has neatly distinguished rebel groups and criminal gangs and patronage networks from bureaucracies and political parties and civil society. Where medicine has antibiotics, development practitioners have aid.

What we’re now learning, though, is that these lines are really much blurrier than we’ve assumed. Pollan goes on:

But it turns out that the overwhelming majority of bacteria residing in the gut simply refuse to grow on a petri dish—a phenomenon known among researchers as “the great plate anomaly.” Without realizing it, they were practicing what is sometimes called parking-lot science—named for the human tendency to search for lost keys under the streetlights not because that’s where we lost them but because that is where we can best see. The petri dish was a streetlight. But when, in the early 2000s, researchers developed genetic “batch” sequencing techniques allowing them to catalog all the DNA in a sample of soil, say, or seawater or feces, science suddenly acquired a broad and powerful beam light that could illuminate the entire parking lot. When it did, we discovered hundreds of new species in the human gut doing all sorts of unexpected things.

This, to me, is the promise of what Gary King calls the “social science data revolution.” Exponential growth in the production and distribution of information to and from all parts of the world, and in our collective capacity to store and process and analyze that information, are to the social sciences what genetic batch sequencing is to microbiology. Our libraries and limited professional networks were our petri dishes, and now they’ve been shattered—in a good way.

Pollan then describes where microbiology’s version of the data revolution has led:

To their surprise, microbiologists discovered that nine of every ten cells in our bodies do not belong to us, but to these microbial species (most of them residents of our gut), and that 99 percent of the DNA we’re carrying around belongs to those microbes. Some scientists, trained in evolutionary biology, began looking at the human individual in a humbling new light: as a kind of superorganism, a community of several hundred coevolved and interdependent species. War metaphors no longer made sense. So the microbiologists began borrowing new metaphors from the ecologists.

I’d say a comparable gestalt shift is occurring in some corners of social science, with similarly dramatic implications. For decades, we’ve cranked out snapshots and diagrams and typologies of objects—states, parties, militaries, ethnic groups—that we’ve assumed to be more or less static and distinct and told just-so stories about how one thing changes into another. Now, we’re shedding those functionalist assumptions and getting better at seeing those objects as permeable superorganisms embedded in ecosystems, all of them continually coevolving in ways that may elude our capacity to narrate, or even to understand at all. The implications are simultaneously thrilling and overwhelming.

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  1. Oral Hazard

     /  June 6, 2013

    From orbit we sure do look like bacteria colonies:

    Primate behavioral research is so fraught with subjectivity. (cf. Marc Hauser)

    Always liked Daniel Dennett’s famous TED talk about “killer memes” and how they are contagious. I think what we are on the cusp of creating, through social media exhibitionism, the recording capabilities of developing tech like Google Glass, is an ability to capture massive amounts of lifelong individual-level data, both biological and behavioral. In the aggregate, it is already allowing the mapping of the complex webs of social networks. See, ahem, today’s news about NSA/FBI Verizon data collection.

    There will be unavoidable collisions with taboo areas of inquiry: linking DNA to behavioral tendencies — not just individual pathologies like addiction or psychiatric diagnoses — but propensities toward developing into adults with turns-of-mind that create dis/inclinations toward “benign/harmless” behaviors we label as being within the “normal” range in the realms of “political” or “religious.” Because Dennett and others share an atheist worldview that models the human being as more or less a biological robot.

  2. As a wanna-be anthropologist and nuance-appreciator, I really enjoyed this. But my brother, a former microbiology major and current MD/PhD student, had this to say: “There’s one major difference: The complex interaction between social groups doesn’t make you gassy after you drink milk.” 😉

  3. Grant

     /  June 8, 2013

    Off topic unfortunately, but I remembered you doing a brief look at Venezuela a while back (perhaps near the time of Maduro’s election) while I was looking over recent government actions in Venezuela (particularly their currency devaluation and the recent rationing mess in the state of Zulia). Do you know of any research done on how coordinated government policy is and the strength and lifespan of that government?

    I would say it’s only logical to assume that a well coordinated government will outlive an uncoordinated one and will have greater strength, but specifically is there anything to suggest that the Venezuelan government can muddle through current troubles or could we be looking at the possibility of the collapse of the Maduro government?

    • I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “coordinated,” but the possibility that the Maduro government might collapse certainly seems like a live one to me. Not the likely outcome, I’d say, but a plausible one.

      • Grant

         /  June 9, 2013

        I should have been more clear. For the purposes of this brief exchange I’m using ‘coordinated’ as a loose term for ‘public political unity on government policies’ and in the case of Venezuela at this current time ‘public unity in the ruling political party on government policies’. By ‘public’ I’m talking about statements to the press, laws passed and any other political activities that have to be done without being legally kept out of public sight.

        From the unscheduled decision to devalue their currency (which ran counter to statements made only days earlier) and the confused issue of food rationing (even if they want to avoid calling it that) in Zulia it seems to me that we’re seeing more than just miscommunication, but possibly elite fracturing at the top.

        So I was curious if there was anything written on how much unity politicians from the same faction have in what they publicly do and a regime’s lifespan. I’d expect the Maduro government to (in my own words) muddle through but I remember that many political shocks have happened in the past that in retrospect seemed obvious.

      • Okay, got it. The main thing that comes to mind is the adage from “transitology” that all transitions from authoritarian rule begin with elite splits. I’ve written that that’s virtually true by definition, and the important question is what causes those splits. But it does underscore that the fracturing you mention is necessary, if not sufficient, condition for significant political change, and statistically speaking, that kind of change is more likely to happen during the few years after a change in regime leadership.

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