Software and Intellectual Lock-in in Science

In a recent discussion with a friend, a hypothesis occurred to me: that increased levels of computation in scientific research could cause greater intellectual lock-in to particular ideas.

Examining how ideas change in scientific thinking isn’t new. Thomas Kuhn for example caused a revolution himself in how scientific progress is understood with his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The notion of technological lock-in isn’t new either, see for example Paul David’s examination of how we ended up with the non-optimal QWERTY keyboard (“Clio and the Economics of QWERTY,” AER, 75(2), 1985) or Brian Arthur’s “Competing Technologies and Lock-in by Historical Events: The Dynamics of Allocation Under Increasing Returns” (Economic Journal, 99, 1989).

Computer-based methods are relatively new to scientific research, and are reaching even the most seemingly uncomputational edges of the humanities, like English literature and archaeology. Did Shakespeare really write all the plays attributed to him? Let’s see if word distributions by play are significantly different; or can we use signal processing to “see” artifacts without unearthing them, and thereby preserving artifact features?

Software has the property of encapsulating ideas and methods for scientific problem solving. Software also has a second property: brittleness, it breaks before it bends. Computing hardware has grown steadily in capability, speed, reliability, and capacity, but as Jaron Lanier describes in his essay on The Edge, trends in software are “a macabre parody of Moore’s Law” and the “moment programs grow beyond smallness, their brittleness becomes the most prominent feature, and software engineering becomes Sisyphean.” My concern is that as ideas become increasingly manifest as code, with all the scientific advancement that can imply, it becomes more difficult to adapt, modify, and change the underlying scientific approaches. We become, as scientists, more locked into particular methods for solving scientific questions and particular ways of thinking.

For example, what happens when an approach to solving a problem is encoded in software and becomes a standard tool? Many such tools exist, and are vital to research – just look at the list at Andrej Sali’s highly regarded lab at UCSF, or the statistical packages in the widely used language R, for example. David Donoho laments the now widespread use of test cases he released online to illustrate his methods for particular types of data, “I have seen numerous papers and conference presentations referring to “Blocks,” “Bumps,” “HeaviSine,” and “Doppler” as standards of a sort (this is a practice I object to but am powerless to stop; I wish people would develop new test cases which are more appropriate to illustrate the methodology they are developing).” Code and ideas should be reused and built upon, but at what point does the cost of recoding outweigh the scientific cost of not improving the method? In fact, perhaps counterintuitively, it’s hardware that is routinely upgraded and replaced, not the seemingly ephemeral software.

In his essay Lanier argues that the brittle state of software today results from metaphors used by the first computer scientists – electronic communications devices that sent signals on a wire. It’s an example of intellectual lock-in itself that’s become hardened in how we encode ideas as machine instructions now.

2 Responses to “Software and Intellectual Lock-in in Science”


  • In a way it is exactly like Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms. Ordinary science, the kind of science done within existing paradigms is the only science that can be done with those paradigms. Science outside those paradigms can’t be done within them.

    Science outside the hardware and software tools of “ordinary science” can’t be done with those ordinary tools. Ordinary scientists are unable to see beyond what their paradigms and their tools allow them to see.

  • Great point daedalus2u. Many of the questions now being addressed were simply not accessible before the computational machinery was available, so it doesn’t make sense to consider their progress slowed, since it was effectively zero before computers. I’m wondering whether we slow the advent of Kuhnian revolutions in scientific research as a whole with software lock-in, and what kind of constraints this places on our scientific thinking.

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