The end of science... or of an epoch?
by Professor Shaun Lovejoy, Department of Physics
I must confess that when I saw the announcement for John Horgan's January 21st Beatty lecture entitled "The End of Science," I thought it was mostly a joke and went along for the discussion it was sure to provoke.
Horgan did indeed attract an unusually large crowd. His talk was primarily a witty mixture of anecdote and irony directed at what he called "scientific truth seekers," and was based on a series of 41 interviews with various world-renowned scientists carried out in the course of his work as staff writer for Scientific American.
Horgan's basic argument was disarmingly simple. First, science is fundamentally bounded by social, economic and cognitive factors. Second, science can't possibly progress much further precisely because--due to historically exceptional circumstances--it has already progressed so much. "All the great genuine paradigm shifts are behind us!" he proclaimed.
|Physics professor Shaun Lovejoy|
[ PHOTO: OWEN EGAN ]
He then gleefully went on to ridicule what he called "ironic science" epitomized by (but by no means limited to) the "superstring" theorists, who have devised theories that are so far removed from experimental verification that they would require accelerators a thousand light years across to test.
Horgan diagnoses ironic science, which he defines as "wishful thinking," as a symptom of the terminal illness to which the scientific enterprise has succumbed.
Given the overwhelming preponderance of scientists in the audience, Horgan, not surprisingly, succeeded in provoking a nearly unanimous and often howling reaction. During the question period, professors and students gave example after example of basic unsolved problems in field after field of scientific endeavour.
The consensus from the researchers speaking from the floor was that science has only started to scratch the surface. Horgan brushed off the physicists' arguments by claiming that the basic laws of physics--quantum mechanics and relativity--have been firmly in place since the 1930s. Since then, according to him, physicists have only been working out the "details."
As for the "softer" sciences--addressing notably questions from ecology and psychology--he was smug and condescending, even insulting, saying in substance to the former: "You can't even agree on your concepts" while to the latter: "You can't even cure depression."
Only one or two colleagues pointed out that--independent of the validity or otherwise of theoretical arguments about the end of science as a millennial human enterprise--in practice (notably in Canada), science in general, and fundamental science in particular, were definitely retreating--although talking about an "end" was premature. Ideologists such as Horgan were simply writing the scripts for government and business technocrats who were set on cutting science for their own reasons. To this, Horgan modestly (if somewhat disingenuously) replied that his book had been repudiated by various professional scientific societies and that to his knowledge it had not (so far!) influenced debate about science cutbacks in the U.S. congress.
After the talk was over, I realized that to a nonscientific outside observer, Horgan had emerged virtually unscathed from this 40-minute-long attack. The reason seemed clear: Horgan is a scientific outsider (he has a degree in literature), and in spite of appearances, had engaged the scientists in a historical and philosophical--not a scientific--debate. He and the audience were talking at cross purposes.
Before getting to my main point, let me first give my own brief answers to Horgan on his own turf. First, on his curious scientific Malthusianism: Yes, at any point in history, science is bound by social, economic and cognitive factors, but why assume that any of these are in themselves intrinsically and absolutely limited? Historically, each has evolved considerably, in large part thanks to the fruits of science itself. Science and its bounds are nonlinearly related!
As for Horgan's second argument, that there isn't much left to discover and that we are now in an epoch of diminishing returns, this is based on a primitive and inadequate notion of scientific truth. If by absolute truth, we mean a perfect concordance between theory/knowledge and reality, then science cannot yield it, if only because we can never exhaust all the objects in the universe, nor their interrelations. Science can nevertheless achieve an impressive degree of partial truth, i.e., theories which approximate reality very closely, partial truths which may come close to absolute ones.
However, the history of science has shown that the process of successive approximation is not linear; but rather occurs in jumps during which one paradigm displaces another. Contrary to Kuhn's (largely relativist) version of paradigms, when one displaces another, the new paradigm explains and deepens the original by clearly showing its limits.
To take the standard example: neither quantum mechanics nor the theory of relativity proves classical mechanics wrong; they merely circumscribe its domain of validity. The new paradigms are more truthful in that they transcend the old one by providing a more encompassing, more powerful theory capable of explaining a wider range of phenomena.
This process of successive approximation via qualitative change in our theories has no inherent limit, but yet does not contradict the fact that science does indeed obtain a converging series of partial truths about the world.
Since I suspected that to the right audience Horgan might resonate, I decided to read his book, also called The End of Science. The book is quite entertaining and is very well written, although at a theoretical level he adduces no significant new arguments in favour of his thesis. The book does succeed, however, in projecting a highly distorted but nonetheless recognizable picture of the state of science in the late 20th century.
At this level, the book represents a cynical, systematic, even pernicious attack. This aspect had not been quite so apparent from his talk, and it changed my mind about him: the man is dangerous.
His basic procedure is simple. In the fields of philosophy, physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, social science, neuroscience and chaos and complexity (the latter two are treated as interchangeable and lampooned under the term "chaoplexity"), he interviews world-famous practitioners.
Before each interview, the reader is given a brief synopsis of the interviewee's primary accomplishments (mostly according to Horgan's own reading of certain texts). He then allows the interviewee to expound his views (out of 41 interviews, only one was with a woman--Lynn Margulis).
This is usually followed by condescending comments, such as pointing out apparent self-contradictions, or supplying the criticisms of professional competitors and detractors. In his after-the-interview comments, Horgan takes particular pleasure in ridiculing the practitioners of ironic science. These obviously make easy targets and Horgan gives them a disproportionate amount of attention.
What Horgan has written is not a critique of science as a historical, social activity producing knowledge about the world, but a critique of certain scientists; at most a critique of a certain late 20th century mode of science. Nowhere does he attempt to scientifically survey even a single discipline, to critically define the main problems and the main lines of attack, to outline its history, or to give an inkling of its development.
His contempt for some areas of science is scarcely veiled. For example, in the chapter "The End of Social Science" he disposes of the entire field through interviews with merely three scientists: a biologist, a linguist and an anthropologist! Similarly, neuroscience is disposed of by interviewing a biochemist, an immunologist, three philosophers, a physicist and a computer scientist!
If Horgan's thesis had been that science is going through a period of unprecedented crisis, and that the proliferation of ironic science is one of its many symptoms, he might have been convincing. He might even have attempted to help understand the crisis (which scientists know is real enough) by analyzing the current collapse of industrial and military support for "big science," or the rise of irrational belief systems (astrology, pseudoscience, religious sects, etc.) or other factors.
Unfortunately, Horgan has left it to the scientists and other forward-thinking members of society to analyze (and hopefully fight!) the crisis. He has thrown in his lot with the technocrats who are currently scouting out plausible new pretexts for killing science (see e.g., "Let private sector fund research" by J. Koopman and C. Cook in the Globe and Mail, Jan. 9, and John Polyani's stinging rebuttal, Jan. 14).
But before underestimating Horgan, ponder this: 10 years ago, would a young science-bashing science writer really be given this kind of institutional recognition? An epoch has indeed ended.
See also Letters and coverage of Horgan's lecture.