From Dawn to Decadence: The Three Ages of Modern Science
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2012/12/03
[I’ve snitched my title from the book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life — 1500 to the Present, Jacques Barzun’s cultural tour de force published in 2000. It happens to fit for what’s happened to science in virtually the same period. Hardly surprising, since science has played such a prominent role in Western society during these centuries.]
The popular view of science isn’t historically informed, but it is based on the past. It doesn’t recognize that the activity we call “science” has changed in important ways over the centuries, that it continues to change, and that today’s “science” is not at all like the popular view.
Much of the conventional wisdom about science reflects notions discussed a century or so ago and long abandoned by scholars of science, like “the scientific method”, thought up by philosophers trying to understand why science had been so successful. Popular icons of science also date to a century or so ago or even further back —Darwin, Einstein, Galileo, Newton. In reality, of course, most scientists are not at all like the famous few, but public discourse doesn’t have exemplary figures of what most scientists are like nowadays — technological analogues of Babbitt or men in grey flannel suits, performing banal routines more than producing inspired creativity. Just about everything associated with science in the 21st century is significantly different from what it was a century ago, even half a century ago.
The First Age of Modern Science:
Curious Amateurs Seeking Authentic Knowledge
Historians are in reasonable agreement that modern science had its beginnings in about the 17th century, marked by such figures as Galileo and Newton, and such events as the founding of the Royal Society of London. Some discrete, isolated bits of science and even more bits of technological skill from earlier times were incorporated, but what historians call “The” Scientific Revolution of about the 17th century was the beginning of an integrated venture using both theorizing and experimenting, and sharing the results in a somewhat organized way so that something like a coherent community of knowledge seekers formed. The people involved were said to be doing “natural philosophy” — seeking to understand Nature. Some of them were clergy who wanted to do it in service to God, as a way of understanding his ways better, while others were doing it just because they wanted to, whether out of sheer curiosity or in the hope of finding materially useful things. The essential point is that they were amateurs, doing what they loved. Their direct aim, unsullied by external conflicts of interest, was just to understand how the world works.
In this first age of modern science, flaws stemmed purely from human characteristics. People naturally took pride in their discoveries and wanted to be recognized for making them, and to be acknowledged as having made them first, and they could be heavily invested in their own theories and believing themselves to be right and others wrong. So there were arguments, sometimes quite bitter, typically over who had priority for a discovery. But those arguments were not exacerbated by interests external to science and knowledge-seeking.
That first age of modern science has left its mark on the contemporary view. Many people imagine that scientists nowadays are just self-driven by curiosity, that discovering the truth is their only interest. That can be accurate for some scientists, but it isn’t overall: most scientists nowadays are employees doing what they’re paid to do, no doubt wanting to do honest work but influenced by a variety of conflicts of interest, whose consequences I’ll discuss below or later.
The Second Age of Modern Science:
Science as a Career
By the early 19th century, natural philosophy had accumulated a respectable amount of trustworthy knowledge about and understanding of Nature, enough to inspire confidence that even more could be learned in the future.
The term “science” was becoming used in something like its modern form; William Whewell is generally credited with first use of the term “scientist” in the 1830s. So the professional identity of scientist came into being, and the possibility of making it a career, a way to earn a living: at first primarily through teaching, doing research as a sideline, but soon also through carrying out applied research, beginning with the dye-stuff industry based on the synthesis of new and better dyes to replace the earlier use of dyes derived, expensively, from plants. In the later 19th century Germany pioneered what have become “research universities” where the teaching of undergraduates tends to play a subsidiary role.
Now it became not just a matter of personal satisfaction to get there first and to be acknowledged for it and to be right while others were wrong, it was henceforth a way to succeed in practical terms, rising to better positions. Making great discoveries could even lead to high social status, for example being inducted into the British peerage like William Thomson who became the first Baron Kelvin, or Ernest Rutherford who became the first Baron Rutherford of Nelson (New Zealand).
During the first World War, Germany lost access to the previously imported nitrates needed for explosives as well as fertilizers, and Ernst Haber found out how to synthesize the needed chemicals from the atmosphere’s nitrogen. Many other fundamental discoveries turned out to have practical applications. Industrial scientists could sometimes benefit from making patentable discoveries. But, by and large, the rewards from being a scientist came from the satisfaction of doing the work and being able to earn a decent living from doing something interesting.
In this second age of modern science, from about mid-19th century to about mid-20th century, science was in many ways an attractive career, but it was not a path one would choose if seeking wealth or an entrée into the halls of power.
The New Age of Modern Science:
Money and Politics
The Second World War introduced the present age of science, in which research can lead to great wealth and to considerable influence on those who construct national and international policies. Science is thereby subjected to strong external conflicts of interest. The funding and control of research are enmeshed in bureaucracy and competing interests. The aims of research may be purely profit-seeking rather than truth-seeking. Applications of research may be determined by personal or private or corporate interests even to the exclusion of the public good. The distinction between “pure” science seeking basic understanding and “applied” science based on trustworthy fundamental knowledge has become largely meaningless as more research is funded by patrons interested only in profitable outcomes rather than new understanding gained.
Something like a perfect storm ensued as these changes coincided with an inevitable change from seemingly endless expansion of scientific activity to an essentially zero-sum game where the total resources available for research can no longer grow appreciably.
From growth to steady state:
Derek Price, ground-breaking historian of science, had recognized that every available quantitative measure of science had increased exponentially, doubling about every 15 years since the 17th century: numbers of articles published, numbers of scientific journals, numbers of people who could be called “scientists”. The ethos of scientific activity was consonant with that, an expectation that every promising avenue could be explored, every graduating potential researcher would find employment doing science, every new result could find publication. Increasingly insiders as well as outsiders would look to numbers as gauges of success: numbers of articles published, numbers of students mentored, and especially in the New Age of modern science, numbers of grants collected and total amount of money raised.
The reality Price also saw was that by about mid-20th century, developed societies were devoting something like 2-3% of Gross Domestic Product to science, broadly defined as “Research & Development” and funded by private, public, and corporate patrons. That proportion could not continue to grow exponentially, to ~5% in 15 years, ~10% in 30 years, and so on. Science had reached its limit of growth relative to the rest of society, and would have to adjust to a steady state: doing one thing would mean not doing another; the numbers of prospective researchers graduated should be the numbers needed to replace retiring researchers; no new journals would need to be established. Measures of success would need to be more qualitative than quantitative. The traditional ethos of scientific activity would need to be replaced by different criteria or characteristics.
Those changes are needed, have been needed for decades, but they have not yet occurred.
John Ziman, distinguished physicists turned STS scholar, detailed the necessary changes in ethos in Prometheus Bound (Cambridge University Press, 1994). The classic norms, whose definition is generally credited to Robert Merton, were that science was a universal public good characterized by disinterestedness and organized skepticism, to which Ziman added “originality”. These norms apply to something like the first age of science: curious people seeking understanding for its own sake, skeptical of new claims since experience had shown them to be fallible; Ziman’s addition of originality recognizes the value of creativity and progress.
In the second age, personal careerism and institutional interests sometimes interfered with disinterestedness or with organized skepticism; but in the third age, the new age, the norms of scientists’ behavior are entirely different. Ziman pointed out that research is now largely a matter of authoritative professional experts hired to produce wanted results, and the traditional universality of science is often subordinate to local demands.
What Ziman did not emphasize is that, under the new regime, the media and the public may be fed “scientific results” that are nowhere near as trustworthy as they used to be since they may be promulgated for institutional, bureaucratic or profit-making purposes, not because of a wish to disseminate genuine knowledge.
The enormous expansion in numbers of researchers has inevitably diluted their average quality, and the possibility of wealth and political influence has also brought a difference in the personalities of those who self-recruit into research. Increasingly science is being done not out of the inherent curiosity of disinterested knowledge-seekers; rather, as Gordon Tullock put it (The Organization of Inquiry, Duke University Press, 1966; reprinted, Liberty Fund, 2004), their curiosity is induced by offers of rewards.
The new zero-sum steady-state funding of research together with more potential researchers than the resources can support has had seriously deleterious consequences: cutthroat competition, dishonesty, and consequent unreliability of public pronouncements by researchers and their patrons or employers.
What the media and the public and the policy makers hear about matters of science has become untrustworthy to a dangerous degree, on such important matters as HIV/AIDS and global warming — see my Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012.