What if science doesn’t work? What if it is all just an exercise in useless speculation that is never right? That may seem like an odd question for me to ask as I type on a digital computer to make data go over copper wires and glass fibers to be stored on magnetic disk, possibly one day to be delivered on electromagnetic waves via an orbiting satellite–but it’s a serious question. Modern technology is often taken as proof that science works, but is it? Clearly something works, but is it science or is it something else that science takes credit for?
I bring up the question now after reading about the latest project to attempt to reproduce important psychology experiments (found here). The project found only half of the previous results to be reproducible. These are important, widely cited experiments whose results have found their way into all the standard textbooks. In other words, this was settled science a few hours ago, but today the results cannot be reproduced. Nor is this unusual; there have been a number of attempts to reproduce experiments in various fields over the last few years (see here and here), and 50% is actually a good result compared to some of the others.
When people talk about these failures, they often frame their responses in terms of bad science and good science–the unreproducible results are bad science, and that should not cast any doubt on good science…or should it? I ask because science has a rich and varied history of failure. The science of Classical Greece was overthrown in the Scientific Revolution, where a collection of mathematicians and engineers showed that the science of the day was all wrong. The troubles of Galileo are often framed as a battle between science and religion, but that is not correct; it was really a battle between scholastic science and engineering, with the Catholic Church on the side of science–the losing side.
The humiliating defeat of science by engineering led to a new science that tried to copy the ancient methods of engineering and mathematics. Because of the profound success of mathematics as demonstrated by the new dynamics, they claimed mathematical certainty about their deterministic clockwork universe. Newton–the mathematician–formed no hypotheses about the nature of gravity, but his followers–the scientists–were not so reticent. Among other errors, they insisted that action at a distance was impossible and so they came up with imaginative schemes to explain gravity, electricity, and magnetism with invisible substances. Descartes (more a predecessor than a follower of Newton) postulated tiny invisible hooks that would shoot out of a charged bit of matter to pull in other pieces of matter. Keep in mind, this was the work of modern scientists who rejected the scholastic science for their foolish speculations.
And then all of this new and improved science was overthrown in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in another scientific revolution. Science apologists try to blunt the force of this new failure by arguing that the science before Einstein was an approximation of the “true” science, but that account ignores a crucial fact: THEY WERE WRONG. That account works for engineers, but not for scientists. Engineers don’t claim to be delving into the mysteries of the universe; they are only doing what works. When they find something that works better, that doesn’t make the previous theories wrong, just improved upon.
That does not work for science, because science has a far more substantial claim. Science claims to be about the underlying truths of nature. The Newtonians were certain that they had keyed in on the mathematical secrets of the universe–as certain as scientists are today–and they were wrong. It was not just in the laws of relative motion that they were wrong; it was in the deterministic nature of the universe, in the nature of light, in the nature of atoms, in the past and future of the universe… According to today’s science, they were wrong about all of the most important questions, just like the scholastic scientists before them were wrong about all of the most important questions. And just like the scholastic scientists before them, the Newtonians were certain they were right. Does anyone else see a trend here?
Nor did this happen in physics only. Newton’s grand success was used to buoy up the credibility of such charlatans as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and other social tinkerers who followed the discredited methods of the Classical Greeks (that is: observe a phenomenon and speculate freely about its hidden causes and effects). Never mind that their methods had nothing in common with Netwon, the archetype of the new scientist; never mind that whereas Newton declined to speculate, they had nothing but speculation; they were scientists like Newton and so they should be listened to. The horrors that have been visited on mankind by scientific social tinkerers is incalculable.
But this time for sure, right? This time, science got it right. Or did they? Well, today we have the Standard Model in physics, an inconsistent cobbled-together set of theories, some of which gained prominence through historic accidents. For example, the microwave background radiation was predicted both by Big Bang theories and by steady state theories, and the steady state predictions were much closer to the number actually found, but through an accident of history and a bit of opportunistic scientific politicking, the discovery of the radiation was presented as evidence for the Big Bang when it was more logically viewed as evidence of the steady state. To this day, that evidence is exhibit number one for the Big Bang theory. And then there is the speculation about multiple universes, hidden dimensions, the effect of conscious observers on quantum superposition, and other untestable hypotheses. It doesn’t look much different from the Newtonians and the scholastics.
Well, what about all of science’s successes? What about the steam engine and the electromagnet and vaccinations, not to mention all of the miracles of the twentieth century? Don’t those prove that science works? No, they don’t, because those things did not come about from science. They were the result of the same sort of technological innovation that led to the the catapult, the waterwheel and the printing press. They were the result of seeing a need and trying things out to see what worked.
The only contribution of science to modern technology was from a small subset of science that was once called natural history. Natural history is the practice of observing nature and recording your findings. The centuries of research that led to the discovery of the electromagnet and the magneto were an amazing exercise in natural history, but after those discoveries, the telegraph, the electric motor, and the electric generator came from traditional engineering practices. It is also worth pointing out that the men who did the natural history of electricity and magnetism often engaged in speculative science such as Descartes’s story about little hooks that shoot out of charged matter, but those speculations contributed nothing to the advance of technology. Only the observations ever mattered.
As you can see, there is good reason to doubt that science–by which I mean speculation about hidden causes and processes–has ever worked. So, what if science doesn’t work? What does this mean for government funding? What does it mean for government policies that are based on speculative science? What does it mean for the philosophy of knowledge, which has become all twisted around, trying to explain how we can know things about the unobservable?
I’ll leave the answers to those questions as an exercise for the reader. Feel free to leave your answers in the comments.