Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The True Believer revisited....   posted by Razib @ 10/12/2005 10:22:00 PM

A few weeks ago I posted something titled I am a believer which disturbed some readers. Subsequently I had a conversation with Michael Vassar where he communicated to me that he thought most of science was wrong. Actually, I concurred (we both agreed physics was pretty accurate, but the action today is mostly in the bio world), and I think I hinted to this viewpoint in my post. The issue for me was not whether the hypotheses, theories and conjectures proposed by scientists were right or wrong, but that the process of science was perpetuated and facilitated, what we call 'the scientific method.' I'm not going to outline a heuristic here of how scientists go about forming hypotheses, testing them empirically and refining theories. To explore the details of how scientists do science, you can read the studies of sociologists, cognitive scientists and the essays of philosophers of science. Those of you who do science know that it is rather messy, often involving "massaging equations" and "coaxing data" and what not. Rather, I was trying to emphasize that even though the signal-to-noise ratio in science isn't very good, it is the best option we have in terms of trying to get a grapple on the world around us. Science is special. And yes, to some extent I do think scientists are a Chosen People, for ill or good.

Of course, any child has the basic minimal requisites necessary for science, the ability to form theories, some level of skepticism to prune those theories and the testing of those theories with evidence. Theories have been with us since the dawn of history, and they can be found in "primitive" tribes. People try to find evidence to confirm or reject their theories constantly. And there is a healthy skepticism that is innate in most people, that's why some are termed "gullible." But the peculiar socially mediated intersection of these traits that we find in modern science is not something that emerges felicitously out of the normal course of the daily activities of the human societies. Even though all humans have the cognitive buildings blocks that lead to science, other factors are I suspect necessary conditions to being a scientist. Today's science requires a minimal level of g. For the effort you put in (education) science usually doesn't pay. You can't chit-chat pretty ladies at cocktail parties about the new microarray technique you just perfected or your latest foray into number theory. To become a public intellectual to a large extent you have to debase and simplify your craft to a point where you become a caricature of what you truly are. On a more practical level a larger number of Ph.D.s are aimed straight for a very finite number of tenure track positions, and even most of those who do achieve tenure track positions don't really make any long term impact. A few weeks ago when I was reading American Catholic I noted a candidate for the priesthood who gave up a lucrative medical practice because he "felt the call." In some ways the religious analogy isn't totally inappropriate, what kind of adult never gives up the tendency to ask questions that don't relate to their personal life or financial security? What kind of adult spends 70-80 hours breeding flies, running simulations and derivings proofs rather than spending time with their families, watching sports or going to church?

But the individual characteristics of the proto-scientists, those who are a subset of the broader human species, is not enough. I think it can be reasonably argued that science as we understand it has been a one off invention. The ancient Greeks came close, but the pre-Socratics gave way to more explicit streams of ethical and metaphysical philosophers and technicians like Archimedes or Hero. Science needs a particular social context, and a scientific culture. The Lunar Society was simply an illustration of the general concept. It would be an oversimplification that children can't do science because they don't have journals, conferences and standard units of measurement, but that is certainly part of it. It is commonly held that only humans can generate culture, learning and improving on what we learn from conspecifics. Our culture has been on an ascending ratchet upward in complexity for millions of years now. But many aspects seem to me to be ahistorical. Religion for example is I think one of those. I've said before that if you set loose a bunch of amnesiacs on an island they would create a supernatural world-view soon enough. While children have the basic tools of science, it is a unintuitive social complex which they can not generate with ease. In contrast, I believe religion is "closer to the cognitive code" so to speak, like art, language or basic social pecking orders it emerges naturally, is evoked, from any random collection of human beings. Technology is something we associate with science, but some historians would make the argument that up until about 100 years ago technology was a matter of tinkering and testing by artisans and hobbiests, not a matter of implementation of scientific modeling. Certainly H. erectus had technology, but the stability of the Oldowan Culture does not seem to indicate too much innovation, and certainly doesn't resemble the explosive ladder of complexity and Mooresian geometrical rate of growth that is the characteristic of modern technological civilization driven by pure science at its root.

Humans can thread many strands into the edifice we term "culture," but some are intuitive, natural and "closer to the cognitive code." If the great French culinary tradition died tomorrow, in a century I suspect someone would taste those fine tastes again. If every systematic theologian was snatched from the earth by the hand of God, within a few generations systematic theology would reappear. But if every scientist disappeared from the face of the earth (engineers inclusive), then I believe civilization would collapse, after the lawyers had sued every company and individual who they could hold liable. If every biologist disappeared I believe the hole in science could be closed within a generation. As long as enough of the culture survived the fire would remain lit in the demon haunted world, but if the individuals who perpetuated the scientific culture disappeared it would become a thing of myth within a generation as civilization degenerated back into "gunpowder empires." And the culture is all in the end because it is necessary, the last step on the long journey. Psychologists like Kahneman and Tversky show us that scientists are generally biased, ignorant and intuitionally blinded individuals. For a specific example, consider the debate between the "Classical" and "Balance" schools of evolutionary genetics, they spent 30 years debating whether one or the other was right. When Lewontin and Hubby came out with their paper showing enormous levels of polymorphism the two "orthodox" rival theories were both rendered outmoded. Neutral Theory rose up to explain the high levels of polymorphism, and the proponents of the two older theories integrated the new data into their paradigms (many, like Richard Dawkins, quietly accepted defeat but declared they'd won!). Nature is always more clever than scientists, they are always catching up to her tricks after she's poked them in the ribs and run off.

So I suggested above that science and religion are very different, which to some extent seems to fall into line with S.J. Gould's Nonoverlapping Magisteria concept, which can be set against the war between science and religion. Like most things the truth is in the middle, it seems quite clear to me that some religious ideologues do think that their religion explains everything under the sun and the stars. On the other hand, I also tend to agree with cognitive scientists that no matter what religionists profess, in their heart of hearts they all worship the same supernatural agent(s) in the sky, which are really only glorified Faces in the Clouds. But there is a crucial difference between science and religion in that I believe that the former is contingent upon a particular culture, while the latter is universal. Which is why I used the allusions to Jews in my previous post, though I could have also made an analogy with the Roman Catholic Church, when it came to the camp of science. Specific world religions are highly institutionalized and often formalized, and like science they are contingent on cultur and history. The Jews have survived 2,500 years as a coherent ethno-religious group. The Roman Catholic Church is an institution that can date itself back to European antiquity. Religious organizations are powerful macrosocial entities, they are often powers who can shape their own destiny and hold their own against the powers that be. Like it or not scientists live in a world of esoterica, and non-scientists are going to be the ones who will fund them and sponsor them. A true scientific culture isn't really more than two centuries old. Who knows how long it can last?

Now, the truth is that I don't think it will have to last that long. I suspect that the end of technological civilization is near, within the next century or two (if that), either via sociologically induced collapse (i.e.; our cognitive software and biological hardware simply becomes too maladapted for our technological prowess and we immolate ourselves) or toward some sort of technological singularity. The key is that scientists are going to be necessary players in the generation of the singularity. Scientists don't have to preserve their institutions and culture for more than a few centuries. So there you have it. I think the stakes are high, high enough that I stooped to using religious language and somewhat unhinged rhetoric. Dare I say, my science, right or wrong?