Gene Expression

Scientists are rational?

A quick rebuttal (of sorts) to my post Science is rational; scientists are not:

Peer review and the scientific community is not what distinguishes science from other areas of knowledge. After all history community decides what is good history knowledge, theology community decides what is good theological knowledge and the law community decides what is good law knowledge. Since they have similar process for publication and dissemination of knowledge, why are they not also “a superior method of extracting information about the world”?

What distinguishes science from other fields of knowledge is empiricism. Production of scientific knowledge occurs when we use our personal experience about the world to form predictive theories and we attempt to verify them. When Galileo looked through a telescope and saw dots circling Jupiter and him realizing they were moons was a scientific achievement. Since there was no community, it is clearly false to say the community is necessary to progress science.

Referring to the scientific community as this monolithic truth machine is not helpful considering that good science is decided by a very small subsection of the community who have the relevant background knowledge to review cutting edge research. In some fields, everyone knows the other researchers by name. I will admit that science has progressed more quickly because collaboration and teamwork is more efficient than solo working. But teamwork it is not necessary for science to occur.

Fair points are made. To some extent these arguments are like the ones which suggest that the West fostered the Industrial Revolution and not China because of the difference in writing systems. Interesting, but there are so many differences that you can have your pick, can’t you? A minor issue with the rebuttal is that the author does not defend rationality as the hallmark of science and scientists as much as they defend empiricism. The two are associated, but not synonymous. By rationality I mean abstract formal modes of thought and systems. Empiricism has to do with exogenous sense experience. Rationality, empiricism and skepticism are all part of the scientific mode of thinking, but they are not exclusive to science.

There is though an important point in regards to the production of geniuses who existed before the scientific community. For example, Galileo. To a great extent my post is historically contingent, and describing science today. I agree that figures worked in greater isolation in the past, but I have to wonder if the printing press and “Republic of Letters” were not critical to the productivity of men such as Galileo and Newton? Newton’s comment about standing on the shoulders of giants might have been offered sarcastically, but this was a man whose grandfather was likely illiterate. The world in which he was born certainly offered particular opportunities for men of modest means but exceptional brilliance. In any case, I might reformulate what I asserted in the previous post like so: the scientific community is necessary for the perpetuation of scientific knowledge. What could a man such as Archimedes have done if he was embedded within a more robust Republic of Letters? What did he do, and think, which we are not aware of, because his discoveries were not perpetuated and extended by peers?

Finally, there’s the point that only a small subsection of scientists produce real science which will be remembered. The productivity in the broad context has a “hockey stick” distribution. If you removed 90% of scientists from the world how much science would disappear? I doubt 90%. I suspect that on the order of 1% of scientists produce half of the great discoveries. Are the others necessary as “support staff,” or, is it evidence of bureaucratic sclerosis in modern science? Nevertheless, even 1% of scientists in the world is an enormous number compared to the world lit by candle….


  1. #1 Roger
    September 7, 2008

    “When Galileo looked through a telescope and saw dots circling Jupiter and him realizing they were moons was a scientific achievement. Since there was no community, it is clearly false to say the community is necessary to progress science.”

    …except that there was a community- two in this case, the astronomical observers and the people working with optics. It may have been an invisible community, unknown to its members, much more irregular and slower in contact, but Galileo’s predecessors and their writings and his readers formed just such communities.

    If you removed the “1% of scientists [that] produce half of the great discoveries” I think most of those discoveries or similar discoveries would be made anyway and not much more slowly. Many discoveries are made by the lucky ones out of many people looking at the same problem. This is a modern phenomenon probably. If Galileo or Newton had not made their discoveries and put forward their theories they might never have been put forward at all but- as Watson himself showed in The Double Helix- the scientific commmunity is so large now that most people know what the important questions are in their fields and are looking at them.

  2. #2 John Emerson
    September 7, 2008

    Giordano Bruno also was empirical, but his theorization was in the alchemy-astrology area and was rejected by the embryonic scientific community. Galileo and Descartes (I think) corresponded about Bruno and decided to ignore his work. There definitely was a scientific community at that time.

  3. #3 John Emerson
    September 7, 2008

    Steve Shapin has written some very interesting things about how the early modern scientific community was formed and how it functioned.

  4. #4 Clark
    September 8, 2008

    While early science was empirical let’s not kid ourselves that Newton’s contemporaries let alone Bruno were empirical in the way scientists today are. There were some pretty odd arguments made by folks like Kepler going on.

  5. #5 Clark
    September 8, 2008

    To his main point about community. Certainly one can have empirical knowledge without a community. But I don’t think this is scientific knowledge. Science is much more than empiricism. (Something that it is sometimes inexplicably hard to communicate to scientists or worse practitioners of scientism) I think all the community effort over Newton’s mechanics and its relationship to the calculus and then the split between English and Continental scientists shows that more was going on. There was a lot of too and fro that was essential to understand the meaning of the theories at the time let alone to understand the community.

  6. #6 John Emerson
    September 8, 2008

    Scientists today are more empirical than Bruno because of centuries of debate, and because of disciplining by the scientific community.

  7. #7 John Emerson
    September 8, 2008

    But my point is, Bruno did use data and make observations.

  8. #8 mike_from_nc
    September 9, 2008

    I think Anti Citizen One has a good argument.

    Science requires a system of reasoning (logic and mathematics), theories about reality, and a reality check. One can be logical as all get out but still wrong. The empirical comparison to reality is indispensable – and is, I think, the really key attribute that distinguishes science from other activities. Literary criticism has theories and various modes of reasoning – what it doesn’t have is external reality as a subject and a yardstick.

    The scientific community is important to science because 1) more workers generate more testable theories and (mostly) test them faster 2) the self interest of competitors overcomes the natural human difficulty of critically testing one’s own ideas 3) synergy is real. Peer review and the other artifacts of scientific culture tremendously expand scientific productivity, but are not required.

    Scientists are – on average – better (through both inclination and practice) at reasoning and testing theories against reality than other groups. They get into difficulties when they try to apply scientific methods in situations where there is no underlying objective reality – art, politics, metaphysics.

  9. #9 razib
    September 9, 2008

    Scientists are – on average – better (through both inclination and practice) at reasoning and testing theories against reality than other groups. They get into difficulties when they try to apply scientific methods in situations where there is no underlying objective reality – art, politics, metaphysics.

    this comes close to being tautological. obviously an optical physicist is better at doing experiments in optics than a solid state guy, right? but not because the former is better at reasoning and testing theories in some fundamental sense, just cuz they’re specialists in optics.

    obviously scientists are better at testing against reality than non-scientists, but the reality that scientists study is clear and distinct to a greater extent than non-scientists. i grant that the average scientist is smarter than the average literary scholar, but, the main predictive variable is i think the nature of the reality being studied (nature vs. text). scientists happen to be those scholars who specialize in the study of the natural world. that makes their job a lot easier than a biblical scholar when it comes to grappling with something with fewer moving parts.

  10. #10 Kurt
    September 9, 2008

    Somewhat aside from the main thrust of this thread, I think that mike_from_nc raises an interesting point about literary criticism being different from science in that it doesn’t have an external reality as its yardstick. This may be true of literary criticism, but I don’t think it’s necessarily true for literature itself or art in general for that matter. Successful art is subject to a similar, though much less organized, process of peer review as is science. Over decades, centuries and millenia I would argue that the art that survives–like the good science that survives–is that which conforms to reality (or at least our experience of reality). Art that doesn’t resonate with one’s experience of reality doesn’t survive: no one will remember the romance novels of Nora Roberts in 100 years, but they will still be reading Jane Austen–because she captured the reality of relationships much more precisely. And artists’ consensus on reality is constantly shifting as is that of scientists. See realism evolve to expressionism and then to pure abstract art. This is close to Jonah Lehrer’s thesis in his book “Proust was a Neuroscientist,” which I think is worth everyone’s time.

  11. #11 Roger
    September 9, 2008

    Another important difference between science and art is that science is cumulative. Science is directly dependent on what came before and follows from it in a way that the arts and some kinds of philosophy aren’t. Picasso could be inspired by cave painting, Auden by Anglo-Saxon verse, Heidegger by pre-Socratic philosophers, but scientists must work from the work of their immediate predecessors. The same is true of the way we learn sciences: I was seriously ill for some time at school and so did not understand quite a lot of science when I came back- it’s only since I retired I’ve begun studying science properly- whereas I could move back into artistically-based subjects- even languages- with little difficulty.
    Perhaps that’s why there’s debate about the status of social sciences: if William James’s or Max Weber’s work are still of more than historical interest then psychology and sociology aren’t sciences in the same way that physics or biology are.

  12. #12 Kurt
    September 10, 2008

    Have to disagree with you, Roger. Is Newton or Einstein of more than historical interest to modern physics? Is Mendel, Darwin or Cajal worthy of the modern student of biology’s attention? Of course they are. Now certainly physicists and biologists have taken their work and moved it forward, emphasizing some concepts and not others, but even those at the very frontiers of modern science use the work of these giants of the past as guiding principles in their search for the next set of guiding principles. It is not only our immediate predecessors that will inspire the next great scientific revolution. Likewise, as you point out, Picasso was inspired by cave paintings. But, as with scientists, he couldn’t rely solely on that to produce his art, he also built on the concepts and techniques of his immediate predecessors, such as Cezanne.

    I think most people conceive of the arts in an unfortunately naive way. When we here talk about scientists we talk about and revere the people that are at the frontiers of their fields at this very moment. But for art we can only converse about the greats of the past or the middling artists of today–the pop music scene or hollywood, and this causes us to fail to realize that there are artists pushing the boundaries of their fields just as modern scientists. If you engage in conversation with these artists, they will describe the same difficulties as scientists in trying to keep up with rapidly evolving disciplines (although they’re even more likely to talk about their lack of funding–sound familiar?). Whether in music, visual art or literature, they are toying with new techniques, employing new technologies and materials, creating new vocabularies, and engaging grandly new concepts of how to represent our universe. If this isn’t the exact same thing that scientists are doing, then we’re in the wrong business.

  13. #13 Roger
    September 10, 2008

    Newton and Einstein- or, rather, their work- are “guiding principals”, but no physicist would think it worth working from their discoveries and ignoring their successors’ work or think that there was no need to consider others’ work. Artists of any kind can and do do that. There have been great naive artists, but- unless you consider some mathematical prodigies like Ramanujan comparable- there have been no naive scientists- which ties in with the question of whether maths is a science.
    I think you could say that the more scientific a field of study is, the less the need for individual genius; it is the logic of the subject that drives discovery. Geniuses are useful and will discover things more quickly, but they aren’t as essential. Imagine what music would be like without Schoenberg, whose influence- direct, indirect or deliberately disregarding his work- has dominated much of classical music in the last century, or modern poetry in English without Pound, whereas the important thing about Einstein is that he produced so many astonishing theories. All the same, other people were close to them snd comparable theories would have come from other physicists. On the other hand, you could argue that Einstein’s personality did have a direct influence on physics because he made nonphysicists interested in it because they were interested in him. How many children, I wonder, became interested in physics because Einstein seemed such an interesting man?