Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Autumn of Modern Science

The World of the Spiral Arm

Buy early and often
In The January Dancer, Up Jim River, and soon In the Lion's Mouth, the world is shown as no longer having science.  Yet they travel by interstellar tunnels, use artificial gravity, etc.  Some have wondered how this can be so.  But medieval China is a case in point.  China never did have what we could call natural science; but during Ming times she certainly had a high technology.  Facts, but no Theory

The planets of the Periphery and the Central Worlds likewise have a black-box technology.  They know which Xs produce which Ys.  They just have no idea how or why.  Ancient gods like Einstein have bestowed these things on them and they work.  What more do they need?

But how did matters come to such a pass?

The Modern Ages were the Age of Science.  By this, we mean something very particular, and nor merely the study of nature.  For one thing, people in other ages and in other civilizations studied nature.  Some of them.  Some of the time.  But there was a Modern way of doing science distinct from the ancient and medieval ways -- and from the post-modern way we are entering.  

The Great Pyramid of Geeks
What Science is Not
Henri Poincare famously said that just as a house is not simply a pile of bricks, science is not simply a pile of facts.  People in all cultures have discovered facts and collected curiosities.  But this sort of serendipitous ingathering is not science-with-a-capital-S.  One may gather pragmatically a great many facts without forming any coherent world picture.  

Nor is science the formulation of rules of thumb.  These are haphazard, fortuitous, traditional, the sort of lore that tinkerers and craftsmen develop informally.

Physical Theory
While scientists must gather facts and really ought to formulate laws (in mathematical terms, if possible), what distinguished Modern Science was the use of physical theory.  These are quasi-metaphysical narratives that "make sense" out of a body of facts, and from which the laws can be deduced and the facts predicted.  Facts do not explain themselves, and have meaning only in the light of a theory.  

The demonstrative regress: a posteriori induction from
sensible singulars to intellectual universals; then
a priori
deduction from the universals back to the singulars.
In late medieval times, Robert Grosseteste formulated what he called reduction-and-composition to connect the quiae (facts) and the propter quid (reasons or theory).  This was taught to Galileo by his Jesuit instructors as the "demonstrative regress."  An example is proceeding from the quia "the moon has phases" to the propter quid "the moon is a sphere."  

ASIDE: We can see immediately what is unsatisfying about evolutionary just-so stories.  They employ only the a priori half of the loop.   

This is also what is wrong with ancient Greek "science."  They never let the quiae get in the way of a really cool propter quid.  Or they wouldn't have if they had spoken Latin instead of Greek.  But the ancient Greeks had Theories, but no Facts.  At least not in the modern sense of deliberate and measured observations. 

(Fact, from factum est: "that which has the property of having been accomplished."  In German: Tatsache: lit. "deed-matter."  Fact is cognate with "feat."  Rather than passively listening to nature, the moderns went out and interrogated her with deliberate data collection and experiment.  Facts are made, not found.)

Aristarchus did not suggest a heliocentric earth because of a close study of the facts of planetary motions, but because fire was nobler than earth and the center was a nobler position than the periphery.  Ergo...  There are many names for that kind of reasoning, but "scientific" is not one of them.  Democritus' "atoms" were an assumption, not a conclusion based on or confirmed by observable facts.  Lucky guesses are not science, either. Otherwise, we would credit Jonathan Swift with the discovery of the Martian moons. 

The Chinese had facts without theories; the Greeks had theories without facts.  If you don't have both a posteriori and a priori, you don't have your science yet.

Billy Ockham, OFM
Billy Ockham Takes a Shave
Ockham's Razor states "Don't have too many terms in your models, or else you won't understand your own models."  It was not that the simplest explanation is more likely to be true, as some think.  Bill specifically said that the Real World™ could be as complicated as God willed.  It was our models of the world that had to be simple.  Don't explain Y with X1, X2, and X3 when X1 and X2 will do nicely.  (But don't neglect X3 when there is too big a gap between the model and the world.  Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.)

(*) razor.  The medieval used a straight razor to scrape the ink off the surface of a parchment so that it could be used again.  Hence, eraser.  Ockham famously "erased" several terms from what he called the "old way" of modeling cognition to create the "modern way."

The Collapse of Modern Science
There are a number of markers of this collapse.  Quantum mechanics and general relativity stomped all over the mechanistic Newtonian universe of absolute space.  The emergence of Government as the primary funder of scientific research compromised the independence of science, as Eisenhower warned it would in his Farewell Address.  The perverse incentives inherent in the Baconian-Cartesian model of science elevated goals (Racial Hygiene, Save the Planet™, New Product, etc.) above the actual science.  The feminist-environmentalist critique took some of the bloom off the rose and the Modern mythos of “progress, science, and industry” gave way to a Postmodern mythos of oppression and pollution.  The old slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry” began to seem a sick joke.  (cf. the 1989  Smithsonian exhibit called “Science in American Life," which presented American science as a series of moral debacles and environmental catastrophes: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Silent Spring, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and the explosion of the space shuttle. (Christina Hoff Sommers,  “The Flight from Science and Reason," Wall Street Journal, 7/10/95)

Physicist complaining
(After physicists complained, some changes were made to the exhibit.)

Even in Science Fiction, dystopias began to replace the Scientist-Heroes of the 1940s and 50s.  Enrollment in science, math, and engineering courses began to plummet.  Everyone wants to be America's Next Top Model, not her Next Top Organic Chemist.

About "40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree."  (60 percent if pre-med students are included.)  Some universities are trying to teach science and engineering without so much math.  Wonder how that will work out.  ("Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It's Just So Darn Hard)" New York Times, Nov. 4, 2011)

These are mostly sociological factors.  But now add one more:  There's too much damn data.

Après Moi le Déluge de Données
In "To Know, but Not Understand" an article in The Atlantic excerpted from a forthcoming book, Too Big To Know, David Weinberger points to the explosion of data in the sciences.
In 1963, Bernard K. Forscher of the Mayo Clinic complained in a now famous letter printed in the prestigious journal Science that scientists were generating too many facts.  Titled "Chaos in the Brickyard," the letter warned that the new generation of scientists was too busy churning out bricks -- facts -- without regard to how they go together.  Brickmaking, Forscher feared, had become an end in itself.   "And so it happened that the land became flooded with bricks. ... It became difficult to find the proper bricks for a task because one had to hunt among so many. ... It became difficult to complete a useful edifice because, as soon as the foundations were discernible, they were buried under an avalanche of random bricks."
If science looked like a chaotic brickyard in 1963, Dr. Forscher would have sat down and wailed if he were shown the Global Biodiversity Information Facility at   Over the past few years, GBIF has collected thousands of collections of fact-bricks about the distribution of life over our planet, from the bacteria collection of the Polish National Institute of Public Health to the Weddell Seal Census of the Vestfold Hills of Antarctica. is designed to be just the sort of brickyard Dr. Forscher deplored -- information presented without hypothesis, theory, or edifice -- except far larger because the good doctor could not have foreseen the networking of brickyards.
What's in itSchrödinger's cat
And there you have it.  Back to the black box of the pre-scientific age.  Bricks without Poincare's edifices.  Facts without theories.  There are too many Ockhamite entities for the human mind to grasp. 

Among other things, the low expense of storing data now means that crappy data gets saved along with the good.  The tares are gathered up along with the wheat.  The flip side is the high cost of editing such massive amounts of data, so much of the editing and adjusting is done by automated algorithms, facilitated by computational speeds that make the data easier to share.  We need no longer think about the data.  It's all numbers in a data base.

All this has, as Weinberger says, "led us to science that sometimes is too rich and complex for reduction into theories.  As science has gotten too big to know, we've adopted different ideas about what it means to know at all." Systems biology, he says, simply was not possible in the Age of Books. (And recall that the Modern Ages were also the Age of the Book.  And stop by Borders to see how well that's going.)
The complexity of the world
Models this complex -- whether of cellular biology, the weather, the economy, even highway traffic -- often fail us, because the world is more complex than our models can capture.  But sometimes they can predict accurately how the system will behave.
Looks like Billy Ockham called it right, and the scientific method is headed for the ash-heap of history.  Or at least the Modern scientific method.  Welcome to Postmodern Science.  The quasi-Ming China facts-without-theory world of science-less technology that permeates the Spiral Arm in the January Dancer and its sequels. 

Weinberger goes on to show that he may have heard of the Demonstrative Regress:
This marks quite a turn in science's path. For Sir Francis Bacon 400 years ago, for Darwin 150 years ago, for Bernard Forscher 50 years ago, the aim of science was to construct theories that are both supported by and explain the facts. Facts are about particular things, whereas knowledge (it was thought) should be of universals.
Except he gets ahead of himself.  The distinction might be between knowledge and understanding.  You can know the facts; but you cannot understand them.  A theory, you can understand.  

Weinberger has a particularly nice paragraph that sums up the old Modern Science (although TOF can quibble with the use of "random"). 
We therefore stared at tables of numbers until their simple patterns became obvious to us. Johannes Kepler examined the star charts carefully constructed by his boss, Tycho Brahe, until he realized in 1605 that if the planets orbit the Sun in ellipses rather than perfect circles, it all makes simple sense. Three hundred fifty years later, James Watson and Francis Crick stared at x-rays of DNA until they realized that if the molecule were a double helix, the data about the distances among its atoms made simple sense. With these discoveries, the data went from being confoundingly random to revealing an order that we understand: Oh, the orbits are elliptical! Oh, the molecule is a double helix!
But now, there is just too much data to stare at, and there never comes the moment of Oh!  Perhaps there always was too much data -- but we just didn't have it all; and that was why one theories kept getting falsified.  But maybe, too, we needed the incremental theories precisely because things were "too big to know."  

Too much data?
Weinberger tells of a computer program called Eureqa that seines the ocean of data and iteratively constructs equations which adequately predict the outputs.  This sounds like orthogonal factor analysis by way of step-wise regression - on steroids.  But the resulting equations will be heuristic and not built on any insight into the problem.  "After chewing over the brickyard of data that Suel had given it, Eureqa came out with two equations that expressed constants within the cell. Suel had his answer. He just doesn't understand it and doesn't think any person could."  But that is probably because the various Xs in such equations need not correspond to any physical factor in the system.

That is, a bunch of inputs -- X1, X2, ..., Xn -- are put into the black box and out comes one or more formulae: Yi = g(F1, F2, ..., Fk).  But a factor Fj might not represent any of the various X1, X2, ..., Xn.  The equations "work," just like old rules of thumb, but provide no understanding of the process. 
when Sir Francis Bacon said that knowledge of the world should be grounded in carefully verified facts about the world, he wasn't just giving us a new method to achieve old-fashioned knowledge. He was redefining knowledge as theories that are grounded in facts. The Age of the Net is bringing about a redefinition at the same scale. Scientific knowledge is taking on properties of its new medium, becoming like the network in which it lives.
Let's not give Frankie Bacon too much credit; but that story is part of the Origin Myth of the Modern Ages.  Weinberger is telling us that the Modern Ages are indeed over and along with the Book, the School, Industry, Europe, and the rest, the Modern way of doing science is as dead as the Medieval way.  Well, it had a good run.

That doesn't mean no one will study nature any more.  It does mean that they won't do so in the same way.  Compare reading.  The end of the Age of the Book does not mean no one will read.  It means they will not read in the same way.  The manner in which readers grasped the contents of a scroll differed from the way their successors grasped the contents of a manuscript codex, a printed book, or a computer screen (back to scrolling?)  The expectation of an understandable physical theory may fade, to be replaced with direct "mechanical" grappling with the forest of facts with no expectation that they "make sense."  That is the world of the Spiral Arm series.    

God ordering the world "by number,
weight and measure"
One of the "memes" of the Middle Ages was that since the world was created by a rational God who "ordered all things by number, weight, and measure," the world could be understood by reason through numbering, weighing, and measuring things in the world.

It would seem that the opposite is true.  Having abandoned the belief, we are about to abandon the conviction.   

So, What Next?

Well, let's see.  We're back to black-box rules of thumb.  People will take the outputs of the oracle-computers without understanding what they really mean, and apply them successfully or not.  But causal principles that are not known ("manifest") are hidden ("occult").  And the attempt to manipulate physical matter by use of occult powers was called "magic."

It's not just that the technological fruits of the advanced science will seem to be mirabilia ("marvels," "miracles") it's that the scientist-priests themselves will not understand the principles behind them, either.  So perhaps Arthur C. Clarke was far more right than he knew when he said that a sufficiently advanced science would be indistinguishable from magic.

 edited 15 Jan for length, typos, and excessive digression, even for me.


  1. In my day job, I look at data from financial transactions and try to tease out usable information (it's even less sexy than it sounds). We've got computer programs that do nice financial analysis on lease and loan transaction, calculate the 'return' however defined - then, we can aggregate them into massive piles and do the same sorts of things, reports, etc. This is all pre-statistical analysis - we're just doing some algebra, adding stuff up, sorting according to various characteristics - nothing remotely fancy, not even correlation analysis.

    Out in the wild, there's massive piles of data from which useful tidbits could be gleaned, using the analysis we do, and from the obvious statistical tools that, so far, few of our customers seem all that interested in.

    2 points, to echo what you've written above:

    - my job largely consists of finding people in the companies we work for who can even understand what we're doing, and see the potential value in it enough to pay us for it. Mostly, business people assume a certain 'black box' attitude about their own businesses - it cranks out money, but who knows, really, how it does so? They have a whole bunch of heuristic rules that worked well enough for them to put their kids through college and pay the mortgage - why should they care to test those rules against the actual world?
    - Google has popularized the notion that ignorant but ever-so-powerful sifting of data without any idea what you're looking for is, in fact, a virtue: that Google, unbiased about how your business works or what the data even means, can just plow through mountains of data and give you useful ideas back.

    Put these 2 things together, and you have a recipe for magic, even in the presumably hard-headed business world. Eventually, if it hasn't already happened, managers will have Google look for correlations without any theory about why those correlations exist, and without really caring about why - does it work? Do I make more money? If so, who needs a theory?

  2. "the low expense of storing data now means that crappy data gets saved along with the good. The tares are gathered up along with the wheat. There's just too much there there, and it would cost too much to wade through it and edit the stuff. In addition, it is now easier to share; and computational speeds have made data dredging simpler. We need no longer think about the data. In fact, the global temperature models have been used and analyzed without actually going out and checking the weather stations or looking at the tree rings. It's all numbers in a data base."

    I can more-or-less attest to this first-hand. I've spent the last few years building a two-color terawatt laser system. It seems like every time we make some little change (read, every time we turn on the main laser system used to generate this process), the postdoc insists upon capturing literally thousands of mode (and spectral profiles, almost none of which will i ever look at again, but all of which are stored (and backed up) on so many hard-drives. Then we go to give a presentation (or write a paper) on our results, and we pick the best two or three modes or spectral profiles or autocorrelations of energies and call these "typical results" (with a wink and a grin which the scientific community largely understands and even jokes about, since this has become common practice).

    Yet at the end of the day the Raman process we are using to generate this second color is so complex (and nonlinear) that we are no closer now than we've ever been to really understanding why the Raman laser system behaves the way that it does. We have virtually no useful model to describe why a certain combination of seed and pump-energy plus seed size and expansion rate (it's a focusing/defocusing geometry) gives a "good" result and another one which is minutely different does not. Our system is in effect a black box which we've characterized from the outside but not so much the inside. And all of this to build the tool which i will use to do my *actual* thesis project.

  3. This goes way back to the beginning of your essay, where you said, "Some have wondered how they can have advanced technology without science..."

    Wondering the same myself, I wondered how many people I could find(not employed the industry that does this) who could explain the following bricks:

    1) How is electricity generated at the plant?
    2) How do magnets work?
    3) How does a plasma TV work?
    4) How does a cell phone receive a microwave signal?
    5) Where do grocery store shrimp come from?
    6) Why does boiling an egg make it hard?
    7) Why must gasoline be compressed before it ignites?
    8) Why can you put out a lit match in a bucket of gasoline with a fan blowing over it?
    9) What does a defibrillator do? (You cannot use the root word in the explanation!)
    10) Why does a defibrillator work?

    None of these questions are esoteric; none of these questions regard something outside of the experience of the average American who falls in any class from Independently Wealthy to Homeless. They're also only small bricks of a larger block that would be used to construct a massive pyramid.

    Yet a very, very limited number of people could explain the BRICKS. Even fewer would be able to offer up a general Theory to explain their answer (even if it IS correct). On a level even more general than the ones listed above, we are a civilization of brick carriers waiting only for a Pharaoh to employ a Foreman to organize those bricks into blocks to create a structure of his or her choice...

  4. > Democritus' "atoms" were an assumption, not a conclusion based on or confirmed by observable facts

    Not quite. Atomism was *forced* by observed facts, specifically that the lucid and rational Parmenidean arguments were completely and utterly wrong, because we do observe time, motion, and change.

    Therefore Parmenides must have been wrong about vacuums not existing, and once you allow that vacuums/not-matter-filled-spaces exist, atomism is one of only two possibilities (the other being that matter is infinitely divisible, which is pretty paradoxical itself).

    (Longer version: )

    1. As I understand it, the Parmenidean paradoxes stemmed from an atomistic approach to time: that the flow of time could be reduced to discrete "moments."

      Of course, Dalton's atoms turned out to be divisible, and the protons and neutrons in turn are now believed to be made of quarks; and since quarks are distinct from one another (up, down, top, bottom, etc.) they too have parts that distinguish them and are in principle divisible. So right now we have yet to discover a Democritean "atom" and matter is looking pretty divisible. And as for the vacuum, perhaps they did not know about dark matter and dark energy, the quantum zero-point energy, or Einstein's relativistic ether.

      IIRC, the solution to Parmedides' paradoxes came with Aristotle's potency and act. But if Brandon is around reading this, he may be able to instruct us.

    2. It's a tricky issue, because we don't actually have any more than scattered clues and guesswork what the original point of the paradoxes were. (We know about most of the thought of this era from later sources; and the later sources can in some cases have very different interests than the people they are summarizing or quoting.) It is indeed true that one way to handle the paradoxes interpreted in one way would be to posit atomism; the paradoxes do treat time, etc., as if they had discrete moments, but it's the combination of this with infinity that causes the problems -- if you hold that division can only be finite, you get over the obvious ones. That it's not actually a forced inference is shown (1) by Aristotle's solution;(2) by the fact that even before then the Parmenidean position is itself perfectly consistent with the observation of time, motion, and change, because Parmenidean monists argued against the claim that observation gave knowledge (an analogy to this latter would be people in the twentieth century who argued that the directionality of time is an artifact of the way we experience the time dimension, which has no direction -- obviously such a view is consistent with the claim that we experience time as having a direction; and (3) the atomists seemed at the time to run into a logical contradiction: Parmenides argued against a void, a what-is-not, and the atomists committed themselves -- in several cases explicitly -- to saying that the what-is-not is. I'm not an expert on the pre-Socratics by any means, but what I've read of the fragments of the atomists on this subject is truly perplexing, and not very easy to make sense of; and from what I've read this is still true for most experts.

      It's difficult to pin down the origin of atomism, too. It would make sense for it to have begun originally with responses to the Parmenidean paradoxes, and this is the prevailing hypothesis, and one that fits facts pretty well, but this is a speculative reconstruction.

      So gwern's right about the basic points -- they probably did have reasons, and we can reconstruct an anti-Parmenidean origin that fits the facts we know. A lot of this is speculative, but it's not unreasonable. It's certainly right, though, that they weren't basing anything on deliberate and direct measurements, which I take it was the original point -- Lucretius's later appeal to empirical facts, thoughtfully and charmingly presented thought it may be, is very indirect -- he did not isolate atoms, but merely argued that they made sense of things like drying cloths and the fact that things still existed despite always decaying. And it's the same thing with the anti-Parmenidean reconstruction -- if this was, as it may be, Democritus's thinking, it's pretty indirect and speculative as well. We don't usually label this kind of reasoning 'scientific' even when we take it seriously.

    3. I hope that's helpful anyway. Like I said, I'm not expert on the pre-Socratics, but as far as my understanding goes, I think you are actually both largely right, when we look at the evidence we have; and there are regions that can genuinely be interpreted in more than one way.


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