observing natural experiments and applying methodologies appropriate to the field

Last week Guna Nadarajan, Vice-provost for research at MICA, gave an interesting talk to the faculty and mentioned that research, especially in the US, is not something most artists and designers feel comfortable with, or even able, or qualified to do.

I found this lecture (below) by Jared Diamond on, among other things, applying science to history, and I find this excerpt particularly interesting as mentions applying research methods suited to the field, not the lab, to gather information and increase knowledge.

Diamond talks about observing and comparing natural experiments – which I take to mean observing one’s environment closely and realizing that various events and variables are consistently interacting within the field without being governed, or prepared by a scientist. By comparing these naturally occurring experiments, Diamond argues, research is possible without laboratories or people in white coats.

The idea of developing methods appropriate to the field for increasing knowledge is very appealing to me as it encourages an empiric point of view – a heightened sense of critical awareness for events that are occurring all around us. Adopting a scientific approach to these events, i.e., developing a theory about them and then testing that theory by action and observation within the world at large seems to me something well within the capabilities of any artist or designer, and involves a practice of engagement with the world that is participatory, critical/skeptical, and based on what amounts to asking questions of one’s environment rather than prosecuting a specific argument through it.

I have seen a lot of art and design work lately that is built for the field but seems to lack any criticality, but that’s a subject for another post.

Here’s the Diamond quote:

Laboratory scientists such as molecular biolgists, and chemists, believe that science is something that has to be carried out in the laboratory as replicated experiments with controls. And can only be carried out by people wearing white lab coats. And that anything not involving replicated experiments carried out by people in white lab coats is not science, it’s just unprovable speculation. And yet the fact is that there are fields of science, that everyone acknowledges as sciences, historical sciences, in which replicated labratory experiments carried out by little people in white coats would be immoral, illegal, or impossible.

For example, everybody acknowledges that Astronomy is a science, although we cannot turn off particular stars, and then maintain other stars constant as controls. And everyone acknowledges that Geology is a science, even though we can’t stop and start the flow of glaciers, and turn on and off ice ages. And everyone acknowledges that Paleontology is a science, even though we cannot create 78 different kinds of dinosaurs, to compare them. And everyone acknowledges that Evolutionary Biology is a science, even though we choose not to exterminate different kinds of bird species in order to see the consequences of exterminating those bird species and yet all these areas, these historical sciences, sciences that involve a historical component have succeeded in obtaining knowledge not by laboratory experiments by little people in white coats but by methods appropriate to the field, namely, and especially by what is called the comparative method involving natural experiments.

People, scientists in the historical sciences resort heavily to comparisons of experiments of nature, that is to say, taking what nature gives us and comparing those different, natural experiments.

the quote above begins a few minutes into the video below: