I was talking with a friend of mine who is an economist about science, and the great productivity in modern societies which allows for the perpetuation of narrow specialties in scholarship. I repeated to him my own hunch that if all scientists who were alive today disappeared and the next generation of aspiring scholars had only books and other instructional materials to go on, science would simply disappear as an enterprise. The point I was trying to get across is that scientific ideas are contingent upon a particular cultural framework. That is, science is a culture. And that culture is embodied in living human beings.
To make this intelligible you have to understand that my own opinion is that science as we understand it really began in the 17th century. Though the ancient Greeks and various other peoples had pieces of the puzzle, the confluence of skepticism, empiricism and rationality which crystallized in the world of Galileo, Descartes and Newton seem sui generis, and we see its fruits around us today. Whereas quite often ancient science was an abstract and philosophical enterprise at some remove from engineering, modern science has become the handmaid of practical innovation, in particular from the 19th century on. Instead of being the pursuit of leisured gentlemen science has broken out of its intellectual ghetto and permeates our culture via the artifacts which it produces. This culture was seeded early on because men like Galileo and Newton were collecting the low hanging fruit, the age of the lone geniuses was possible due to their subject matter. Today science has become an industrial enterprise of immense complexity and scale, converging upon the most minute details and aiming for extreme precision as it models the world around us. An army of thinkers tackle problems like String Theory.
But even though science has scaled upward to be a mass phenomenon, I still believe that there is a critical element of mentorship and cultural wisdom which is passed outside of the texts or manuals. Like ancient artisans scientists build up a repertoire of quick & dirty heuristics and short-cuts which smooth the path of discovery and make day to day life more bearable. All the books in the world can’t replace the transmission of this information from senior to junior. Sometimes what is known outside of the texts can be clarified because it is acknowledged that it is being lost, I recall a professor of mine observing that with the rise of molecular biology a great deal of knowledge about specific organisms simply was left behind. His adviser had a wealth of information which was never going to be imparted to the next generation because the rise of molecular methodologies simply absorbed all the marginal time the graduate students and post-docs. This is something clear and distinct which we know is being lost, and which was not full documented in the literature (which is often generally forgotten in any case under the mound of data which doesn’t make an impact).
As I was talking to my friend all of a sudden I realized that in some ways I was applying to science the mentality of the Traditionalist School, which held that there was a perennial philosophy from which all traditions derived, and that that ancient wisdom was passed along via a change of adepts who initiated acolytes into the transcendent mysteries. Now, I don’t need to exposit in great deal the nature of Traditionalism, and I certainly don’t believe in a “perennial philosophy” (I assume that the convergences we see across cultures is due to invariant aspects of environment and human psychology). Rather, I do suspect that the culture of science is sustained in large part through the socialization of the old with the young, and of the young as a peer group. When I say that if all scientists disappeared that science would disappear, I am alluding to the possibility that scientific culture can not be created de novo from books, but must be absorbed implicitly via the milieu and through knowledge imparted by mentors. That science as we understand it today is an organic product of centuries of historical development (this might explain why attempts to induce scientific revolutions in many nations don’t take route, consider 19th century Egypt for example under Muhammad Ali).
This brings me to the specialness of science: I believe that the emergence of a true scientific culture only once in the history of our species indicates the peculiarity of the scientific method and the strangeness of the values which scientists hold high. I do not mean here to imply that scientists are demi-gods who have no biases, political impulses or low motives. Rather, despite the common violation of scientific ethics, from data fudging to undermining rivals in the interests of personal aggrandizement, the system ends up generating models which beat expectation. Science is a noisy process, most hypotheses are junk, and most results will be forgotten. The vast majority of practicing scientists leave as much mark upon the world as a plumber or accountant. Nevertheless, there are those few who through sheer brilliance or luck, or a combination, succeed in finding a precise mapping of a abstraction to reality. The typical scientist is one of the most underpaid occupations in relation to how many years of education are expected. And as I stated most scientists will leave a minimal impact on the body of knowledge, treading water and grasping toward tenure. Yet somehow young people are still inspired to try their hand at the enterprise. I have stated before that religion derives from conventional cognitive impulses which derive naturally from our mental architecture. In contrast, most scientists must struggle against their instincts as they attempt to grapple with the strangeness of their fields, from the bizarre implications of quantum mechanics to the unimaginable time scales of evolutionary science. But just as religions inspire people to dream and do the irrational, so does science, with the promise of enchantment, and possibly even everlasting immorality in the memories of one’s fellow man.