Seasonal science

By Razib Khan | August 28, 2007 8:55 pm

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.

  • Hisham Zubi

    The first question that springs to mind is: “Who would you include as a scientist?”
    Is it someone who’s received a related degree? Made their living by participating in research? Basic and/or Applied?
    Are you including only those involved in the hard sciences or is there a broader scope that includes the social sciences?
    Do professionals (doctors, mechanics, etc.)that apply scientific discoveries on a daily basis count ?
    Do amateurs count?
    The reason I ask is that the broader the definition, the more likely I would find part of your thesis to be accurate ,that the “culture of science” would disappear if all “scientists” disappeared. However, the larger the group of defined scientists, the less convinced I am that the culture is any more removed from the general population than some other professions.
    Don’t get me wrong. Even if only the scientists (however you define them) from a single area of study were wiped out, I would think the loss of practical knowledge irreplaceable. I just wouldn’t find it fatal.

  • bigTom

    I would tend to agree with Hisham. Assuming the following generations can summon the motivation for the hard work, they could rebuild the missing culture (I’m assuming some history of science, as well as philosophy of science has also survived alongside the specialist text-books). Considerable effort would be wasted by the first generation, but we would be able to get back on track.
    I too have wondered why, given several advanced cultures, only one stumbled into what I think of as the scientific/technological breakout.
    Now instead of the scientists being removed, for another thought experiment, what if we retained the experts, and the knowledge, but had to start with no technological base, as if the experts plus books were transplanted onto a primitive world. There would be no metal, until they figured out how to mine & smelt ore etc. This seems a much tougher challenge to me. How much progress could they make before the knowledable generation, and the books were lost?

  • razib

    re: who counts as a scientist, that’s a moving target. obviously there really weren’t professional scientists in 1750 in the sense we have today. even in the 19th century men like darwin were gentlemen of leisure. so that’s a moving target. but, i would tend to exclude most engineers and doctors because engineering and medicine have always been professions which have existed in all cultures. the special aspect in the modern age is that both these disciplines have been ‘scientified,’ but obviously that isn’t a necessity. in any case, to give an example, it seems that many muslim countries have been far more successful producing engineers and doctors than they have of producing scientists of any innovative capacity.
    Assuming the following generations can summon the motivation for the hard work, they could rebuild the missing culture
    but this is why i brought up muhammad ali’s egypt of the 19th century: there was a concerted effort to “catch” the west via imitation of its science, and it failed. even japan has been more productive in engineering than basic science. it isn’t just a matter of knowing that it can be done, there seem to be necessary interlocking necessary conditions. of course in a culture where scientists were magically excised by possess those conditions indefinitely…or, they might not longer possess them. who knows?

  • John Wilkins

    While I agree with you about the social nature of science (and the contingent historical circumstances that brought it into being), the reason why science would die if all its practitioners did is because science is an apprenticeship. It involves what Polyani called “tacit knowledge” – things like how to get that piece of lab equipment to work, how to hold a pipette, and so on. Little of this is included in the books, even when it is supposed to be.
    I do think that there was science done before the 17th century. I am familiar with some work done in the 13th century that is extremely empirical and done by a mix of skepticism and trial and error. But it didn’t get shared around or students trained, so it had little effect.

  • Dan tdaxp

    Don’t forget the loss of ongoing research programs — much non-paradigmic science is worthless, because it appears to be brute findings from brute facts.

  • razib

    It involves what Polyani called “tacit knowledge” – things like how to get that piece of lab equipment to work, how to hold a pipette, and so on.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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