Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

How Science Has Changed — notably since World War II

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2017/01/01

The way science is usually mentioned, including its history, seems to imply a fundamental continuity in the development of modern science from its origins around the 16th-17th centuries (Galileo, Newton) to the present time, via the understanding of heredity (Mendel, much later DNA), of evolution (Darwin, Lynn Margolis, many others), of atomic structure and chemical bonding, of relativity and quantum mechanics, and much else.

One can certainly discern a continuity in these discoveries and accumulations of facts and the development of ever-better, more encompassing explanations. But the nature of scientific activity — who does science and how they do it — is best understood not as a continuum over this period but as three clearly distinguishable stages in which the interaction of science with society as a whole is significantly different: what the social place of scientists is, how their work is supported, how the fruits of science are disseminated and how they are accepted (or not accepted) outside science itself.

To understand the role of science in today’s worlds it is essential to understand this history.

The birth of “modern” science is credited uncontroversially to “The” Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, but there is not equally general recognition that there have been three distinctly and significantly different stages of scientific activity since then.

In the first stage, a variety of people — clergy, craftsmen, aristocrats, entrepreneurs —were seeking to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works; truth-seeking was effectively in the hands of amateurs, people doing it for the sake of doing it, truth-seeking was their chief controlling interest. Missteps taken at this stage resulted chiefly from the inherent difficulty of making discoveries and from such inherent human flaws as pride and avarice.

The second stage, roughly much of the later 19th century and first half of the 20th, saw science becoming a career, a plausible way to make a living, not unlike other careers in academe or in professions like engineering: respectable and potentially satisfying but not any obvious path to great influence or wealth. Inevitably there were conflicts of interest between furthering a career and following objectively where evidence pointed, but competition and collegiality served well   enough to keep the progress of science little affected by conflicting career interests. The way to get ahead was by doing good science.

In the third and present stage, which began at about the middle of the 20th century, science faces a necessary change in ethos as its centuries-long expansion at an exponential rate has changed to a zero-sum, steady-state situation that has fostered intensely cutthroat competition. At the same time, the record of science’s remarkable previous successes has led industry and government to co-opt and exploit science and scientists. Those interactions offer the possibility for individual practitioners of science to gain considerable public influence and wealth. That possibility tempts to corruption. Outright fraud in research has become noticeably more frequent, and public pronouncements about matters of science are made not for the purpose of enlightenment on truths about the natural world but largely for self-interested bureaucratic and commercial motives. As a result. one cannot nowadays rely safely on the soundness of what authoritative institutions and individuals say about science.

For a full discussion with pertinent citations and references, see my article “Three Stages of Modern Science”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 27 (2013) 505-13.


2 Responses to “How Science Has Changed — notably since World War II”

  1. Frank said

    Interesting article on what’s gone wrong with mathematics:

    This idea is at the heart of O’Neil’s thinking on why algorithms can be so harmful. In theory, mathematics is neutral – two plus two equals four regardless of what anyone wishes the answer was. But in practice, mathematical algorithms can be formulated and tweaked based on powerful interests.

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