Would you notice if science died?

Would you no­tice if sci­ence died?

Science is a big deal. It would be worth know­ing if it stalled, re­gressed, or died out, whether the body of knowl­edge or the tech­niques for gen­er­at­ing more knowl­edge. You could prac­tice by re­view­ing his­tory and look­ing for times and places where it stum­bled. In this ex­er­cise you have the ad­van­tage of hind­sight, but the dis­ad­van­tage of much less di­rect ac­cess to the raw data of the sci­en­tific prac­tice of the time. But re­gard­less of how it com­pares to the real task, this is prac­tice. This is an op­por­tu­nity to test the­o­ries and meth­ods be­fore com­mit­ting to them. There is a limited amount of his­tory to prac­tice on, but it’s a lot more than the real event, the pre­sent.

Many say that they would no­tice if sci­ence died be­cause en­g­ineer­ing would grind to a halt or even regress. What does this heuris­tic say when ap­plied to his­tory? Does it match other crite­ria?

Many say that the Greeks were good at sci­ence and the Ro­mans at en­g­ineer­ing (per­haps also the Han vs the Song). This is not re­ally com­pat­i­ble with the heuris­tic above. What op­tions do we have to draw a co­her­ent con­clu­sion? Either sci­ence did not die, or en­g­ineer­ing did not ad­vance, or sci­ence is not so nec­es­sary for en­g­ineer­ing; Either we are bad at judg­ing sci­ence from his­tory, or we are bad at judg­ing en­g­ineer­ing from his­tory, or en­g­ineer­ing is not a good heuris­tic for judg­ing sci­ence. None of these are com­fort­ing for our abil­ity to judge the fu­ture. The third is sim­ply the re­jec­tion of the pop­u­lar heuris­tic. The first two are the re­jec­tion of the ex­er­cise of his­tory. But if we can­not judge his­tory, we have no op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice. Worse, if we are un­able to judge his­tory, the pre­sent may be no eas­ier.

One re­course is to posit that the past is difficult be­cause of sparse in­for­ma­tion and that the fu­ture we ex­pe­rience our­selves will be easy to judge. But many peo­ple lived through the past; what did they think at the time? In par­tic­u­lar, how did the Ro­mans think they com­pared to the Greeks? Did they think that there was progress or regress? Did they agree with mod­ern hind­sight? They thought that the Greeks were good at sci­ence. Pop sci­ence books by Pliny and Seneca are re­ally ac­counts of Greek knowl­edge. Similarly, Varro’s prac­ti­cal book of agri­cul­ture is based on dozens of Greek sources. And the Ro­mans were proud of their en­g­ineer­ing. Frot­inus urged his read­ers to com­pared the Ro­man aque­ducts to the idle pyra­mids and won­ders of the Greeks. Maybe he should be dis­counted for his pro­fes­sional in­ter­est. But Pliny de­scribes the Ro­man aque­ducts as the most re­mark­able achieve­ment in the world in the midst of ac­count of Greek knowl­edge. In­deed, the mod­ern con­ven­tional wis­dom is prob­a­bly sim­ply copied from the Ro­mans. Did the Ro­mans en­dorse the third claim, that sci­ence was a pre­req­ui­site to en­g­ineer­ing? I do not know. Per­haps the they held that it was nec­es­sary, but could be left to Greek slaves.

I think that this ex­am­ple should make peo­ple ner­vous about the heuris­tic about sci­ence and en­g­ineer­ing. But peo­ple who don’t hold any such heuris­tic should be even more ner­vous.

I think I know what the an­swer is. I think that en­g­ineer­ing did regress, but the Ro­mans did not no­tice. They were too im­pressed by size, so they made big­ger aque­ducts, with­out oth­er­wise im­prov­ing on Greek tech­niques; and they failed to copy much other Greek tech­nol­ogy. Per­haps the heuris­tic is fine, but it just passes the buck: how much can you trust your judge­ment of the state of en­g­ineer­ing? On the other hand, I think that sci­ence re­gressed much more than en­g­ineer­ing, so I do not think them as cou­pled as the heuris­tic sug­gests.

Would you no­tice if sci­ence died? How would you no­tice? Have you tried that method against his­tory?


Some his­tor­i­cal test cases: the tran­si­tion from Greece to Rome; Han vs Tang vs Song; the Re­nais­sance.