This is an idea I’ve been chewing on for a while on how there seems to be two different modes of science which have a very hard time talking to each other because of their radically different approaches to problems. I’m going to call these two approaches big science and little science.

Big science is about wading into the thick of a big problem and working from a state of utter incomprehension, being satisifed with chewing off whatever nugget of comprehension they can take a hold of. They take hold of questions like “what is love” and grapple with it in it’s full complexity. Big science is like parachuting into the middle of the jungle, setting up base camp and gradually establishing contact with all the other little camps around you.

Little science is all about carving off a well definied, definite area of study and solving it. It asks questions like “How does Paxil bind with the serotonin receptors in the brain”. Little science is all about building the foundation, a solid ground of work on which other work can be based. The little science approach to colonisation is to bring in the bulldozers and clear and settle all the land directly adjacent to the settled land.

Big science and little science represent two fundamentally different ways of trying to understand the world and the approach of one can look bafflingly unscientific to the other. I can feel that frustration when I talk about my work to someone who does little science. My research thesis basically boils down to “How does design influence group behaviour in social software” but everything I talk about comes with the implicit caveat that it’s messy and there’s a lot more things going on than what I’m modelling. I’m not seeking to completely understand human behaviour, even if my work increased predictive power by 1%, I would view that as a major triumph.

Our tools and understanding about social psychology and design are primitive. That’s no excuse for not trying though.

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