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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