[Link] The real end of science

From Gene Ex­pres­sion by Razib Khan who some of you may also know from the old gnxp site or per­haps from his BHTV de­bate with Eliezer.

Fif­teen years ago John Hor­gan wrote The End Of Science: Fac­ing The Limits Of Knowl­edge In The Twilight Of The Scien­tific Age. I re­main skep­ti­cal as to the spe­cific de­tails of this book, but Carl’s write-up in The New York Times of a new pa­per in PNAS on the rel­a­tive com­mon­ness of sci­en­tific mis­con­duct in cases of re­trac­tion makes me mull over the gen­uine pos­si­bil­ity of the end of sci­ence as we know it. This sounds ridicu­lous on the face of it, but you have to un­der­stand my model of and frame­work for what sci­ence is. In short: sci­ence is peo­ple. I ac­cept the re­al­ity that sci­ence ex­isted in some form among strands of pre-So­cratic thought, or among late an­tique and me­dieval Mus­lims and Chris­ti­ans (not to men­tion among some Chi­nese as well). Ad­di­tion­ally, I can ac­cept the cog­ni­tive model whereby sci­ence and sci­en­tific cu­ri­os­ity is rooted in our psy­chol­ogy in a very deep sense, so that even small chil­dren en­gage in the­ory-build­ing.

That is all well and good. The ba­sic build­ing blocks for many in­ven­tions and in­sti­tu­tions ex­isted long be­fore their in­stan­ti­a­tion. But nev­er­the­less the cre­ation of in­sti­tu­tions and in­ven­tions at a given mo­ment is deeply con­tin­gent. Between 1600 and 1800 the cul­ture of sci­ence as we know it emerged in the West. In the 19th and 20th cen­turies this cul­ture be­came pro­fes­sion­al­ized, but de­spite the ex­plicit in­sti­tu­tions and for­mal ti­tles it is bound to­gether by a com­mon set of norms, an ethos if you will. Scien­tists work long hours for mod­est re­mu­ner­a­tion for the vain hope that they will grasp onto one frag­ment of re­al­ity, and pull it out of the dark­ness and de­clare to all, “be­hold!” That’s a rather flow­ery way of putting the re­al­ity that the game is about fun & fame. Most will not gain fame, but hope­fully the fun will con­tinue. Even if oth­ers may find one’s in­ter­ests ab­struse or es­o­teric, it is a spe­cial thing to be paid to re­flect upon and ex­plore what one is in­ter­ested in.

Ob­vi­ously this is an ideal­iza­tion. Science is a highly so­cial and poli­ti­cal en­ter­prise, and in­jus­tice does oc­cur. Merit and effort are not always re­warded, and on oc­ca­sion machi­na­tion truly pays. But over­all the cul­ture and en­ter­prise mud­dle along, and are bet­ter in terms of yield­ing a bet­ter sense of re­al­ity as it is than its com­peti­tors. And yet all great things can end, and free-rid­ers can de­stroy a sys­tem. If your ri­vals and com­peti­tors and cheat and get­ting ahead, what’s to stop you but your own con­science? Peo­ple will flinch from vi­o­lat­ing norms ini­tially, even if those ac­tions are in their own self-in­ter­est, but even­tu­ally they will break. And once they break the norms have shifted, and once a few break, the rest will fol­low. This is the logic which drives a vi­cious pos­i­tive feed­back loop, and in­di­vi­d­u­als in their ra­tio­nal self-in­ter­est be­gin to can­ni­bal­ize the com­po­nents of the in­sti­tu­tions which ideally would al­low all to flour­ish. No one wants to be the last one in a col­laps­ing build­ing, the sucker who as­serts that the struc­ture will hold de­spite all ev­i­dence to the con­trary.

De­luded as most grad­u­ate stu­dents are, they by and large are driven by an ideal. Once the ideal, the illu­sion, is ripped apart, and eaten away from within, one can’t re­build it in a day. Trust evolves and ac­cu­mu­lates it or­gan­i­cally. One can not will it into ex­is­tence. Cen­turies of cap­i­tal are at stake, and it would be best to learn the les­sons of his­tory. We may de­clare that his­tory has ended, but we can’t unilat­er­ally abol­ish eter­nal laws.


Link to origi­nal post.