Pharyngula

Kim Stanley Robinson at Duke

I haven’t had a chance yet to listen to the whole of Kim Stanley Robinson’s talk at Duke, but what I’ve seen so far is very good. I’m more posting this here so I have a reminder to watch the rest once I get home, but nothing is stopping you all from enjoying it now.

science is a Utopian project; it began as a Utopian project and it has remained so ever since, an attempt to make a better world. And this is not always the view taken of science because its origins and its life have been so completely wrapped up with capitalism itself. They began together. You could consider them to be some kind of conjoined twins, Siamese twins that hate each other, Hindu gods that are permanently at odds, or even just a DNA strand wrapped around each other forever: some kind of completely imbricated and implicated co-leadership of the world, cultural dominance–so that science is not capitalism’s research and development division, or enabler, but a counterforce within it. And so despite the fact that as Galileo says that science was born with a gun to its head, and has always been under orders to facilitate the rise and expansion of capital, the two of them in their increasing power together are what you might call semi-autonomous, and science has been the Utopian thrust to alleviate suffering and make a better world.

There is a bit farther in where I have to disagree — he equates science with a new kind of religion. I understand why he’s making that argument, but I consider it lazy thinking; it’s like saying a car is a horse, because they share some basic function, but at some point in the transformation of a concept, you have to stop and say, “Wait a minute…this is something new.” Both a car and a horse may be useful for transportation, but a car is not a horse: we have a very different relationship to the two, their prevalence bends culture in very different way, their differences are far, far greater than their similarities. In the same way, Robinson can say “It’s a religion in the sense of religio, it’s what binds us together. It’s a form of devotion: the scientific study of the world is simply a kind of worship of it, a very detailed, painstaking, and often tedious daily worship, like Zen,” but that glosses over the fundamental differences. Science changes the world and our understanding of it in ways that religion cannot.

Comments

  1. #1 Rorschach
    February 6, 2010

    science is a Utopian project; it began as a Utopian project and it has remained so ever since, an attempt to make a better world

    I don’t know about that. Science doesn’t have a purpose as such, it’s a method, it’s how humans made and make sense of the world they live in, I dont think it makes much sense to attribute some sort of ultimate utopian goal to better mankind and improve the world to it.
    Science is done by and through humans, and while it has given us Penicillin and the microwave oven, it’s also given us the nuclear bomb and Dolly.

  2. #2 Brian
    February 6, 2010

    There is a bit farther in where I have to disagree ? he equates science with a new kind of religion. I understand why he’s making that argument, but I consider it lazy thinking;

    I’d say it’s not so much lazy thinking as poetic license. He’s a writer; someone who isn’t “in the trenches” (so to speak) listening to people abuse that particular comparison, it’s an attractive metaphor.

  3. #3 frankosaurus
    February 6, 2010

    I’d say it’s not so much lazy thinking as poetic license

    Nah, lazy is more on the nose. There may be an oratorical flourish, but one could take poetic license and still have a tightly-knit composition. But I imagine scientists grimace when apologetics for science are given so sparingly. It’s just not necessary. Just like a speech can never defend the structure of a bridge better than the fact it hasn’t fallen down.

  4. #4 Phro
    February 6, 2010

    “It’s like zen.”

    no, actually it’s nothing at all like zen. I’m no scientist (Japanese lit), but even a surface comparison shows the absurdity of that thought…zen is basically inward movement (original enlightenment and what not) where as science requires evidence and proof. Things the zen Buddhist are perfectly happy to make up.

    Nothing ever is like zen. Not even zen.

  5. #5 krisrhodes
    February 6, 2010

    “…it’s also given us the nuclear bomb”

    … which was used by it’s inventors to try and make the world a better place.

    Really, science just amplifies the power of those using it. It just happens to be that the people who practice science are necessarily generally practiced in thinking about how things affect other things. Which, combined with the general morality ingrained in our species, has generally led to good (or at least well-intentioned) outcomes.

  6. #6 vanharris
    February 6, 2010

    The writer is conflating science with technology.

  7. #7 MolBio
    February 6, 2010

    Why do people still equate science to belief and religion?

    I’ve actually been having this conversation with a few friends. I’ve been trying to point out flaws in viewpoints with facts, yet they equate this to a belief with equal weight. Why can’t we shake off the view that people hold that it’s just a belief system?

    Ironically they still want more electronics, medicines, cars and hope we solve their problems. Maybe we should stop delivering technological products and starve them off through attrition. :p

    Attrition against superstition. :D

    Also, help me here a bit guys: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=286083255739&ref=mf

    Satirical take on censorship Christian groups keep demanding.

  8. #8 llewelly
    February 6, 2010

    Science is done by and through humans, and while it has given us Penicillin and the microwave oven, it’s also given us the nuclear bomb and Dolly.

    Did you know genetically engineered sheep have EATEN 200,000 HUMAN BEINGS?

    Well, that’s why Dolly is compared to nuclear bombs.

  9. #9 Rorschach
    February 6, 2010

    @ 5,

    “…it’s also given us the nuclear bomb”

    … which was used by it’s inventors to try and make the world a better place.

    Hiroshima residents might want to disagree.

    Which, combined with the general morality ingrained in our species, has generally led to good (or at least well-intentioned) outcomes.

    2 things I’d want to say to that : Science is done by humans, and while there might be some altruism or if you want, morality, hardwired into our brains species-wide, that doesn’t mean that individuals will act morally on every occasion.
    Secondly, there is a difference between scientists doing science and people applying or using science, and while the scientists might most often be well-meaning, enthusiastic people that love their field, apply morals and act responsible, the same isnt always true for the people that apply and use the science.

  10. #10 MolBio
    February 6, 2010

    @9 I disagree. Science and nationalism are a dangerous mix. They all wish to do something good, but in the name of what they wish to do the good for can have dangerous repercussions.

  11. #11 jerkemy
    February 6, 2010

    Haven’t read this talk yet, but from what I know about Kim Stanley Robinson, I’d assume the (slightly lazy perhaps) poetic license thing mentioned above. From his books, he seems to have a pretty firm grasp on what science is anyway.

    I got to meet him along with only about 8 other fellow geeks who showed up to a pre-talk get-together he somehow got roped into when he came to Portland State University last year. Good conversation; very nice, smart dude.

  12. #12 John Morales
    February 6, 2010

    I’m not a scientist, but I think of science as an evolved way to scratch the itch of curiosity about reality in a way that pragmatically works.

    Utopian? Perhaps, for those who use it as a means to an end.
    But I think many scientists would do it even if no benefit were expected, other than to scratch that itch.

  13. #13 'Tis Himself, OM
    February 6, 2010

    I don’t know Robinson except through his books. He’s a good writer with a decent grasp of economics (something very rare in most novelists). His “eco-economics” in the Mars trilogy is an interesting concept.

  14. #14 GJames
    February 6, 2010

    Yeah, Science was a Utopian project.

    Read Bacon. He conceived of science as sort of a collectivist program, everyone pooling together what they learn from the inductive method, so as to make the world a better place. His fans thought the same way. And hey, its proved to be the best utopian project by a long way.

  15. #15 David Marjanovi?
    February 6, 2010

    Comment 12 is right.

    Let’s face it, people: science is done to make nerds happy, and financed because occasionally something of a broader appeal comes out of it.

    Medicine and technology are applications of science.

    Surprises occur, but how probable is it that anything I have so far worked on (body size evolution of Mesozoic dinosaurs; family tree of the limbed vertebrates with special emphasis on the origin of the modern amphibians) will ever lead to an invention that will feed or heal anyone? Even the oil geologists can’t use it.

    Sure, if it’s not too wrong, it will give us a better understanding of our own origins and our relations to all manner of other animals. But if you’re interested in this stuff in such detail, you already are a nerd…

    Read Bacon. He conceived of science as sort of a collectivist program, everyone pooling together what they learn from the inductive method, so as to make the world a better place. His fans thought the same way.

    Till it dawned on them that induction is utter and total crap. I mean, it’s fine for generating hypotheses, as is dreaming, but it’s completely incapable of testing them.

  16. #16 hypocee
    February 6, 2010

    I’m sorry you’ve chosen to specialize in a field you think is meaningless…?

    Come on folks, let’s allow just a soupçon of poetry in our lives. Why does any of us care about science, or more precisely, the empiricism that underlies it? Why do we seethe when liars label demonstrable truth as just a point of view? Because understanding the world, knowing what is demonstrably true offers the best chance to make the world better.

  17. #17 Paul W.
    February 6, 2010

    I don’t know about that. Science doesn’t have a purpose as such, it’s a method, it’s how humans made and make sense of the world they live in, I dont think it makes much sense to attribute some sort of ultimate utopian goal to better mankind and improve the world to it.

    This is a wee bit simplistic.

    Saying that science is just a method, and doesn’t have a purpose, is rather like saying that cars are just vehicles, which are just tools, and therefore don’t have a purpose. Likewise science is “just a method,” which is a kind of tool.

    Tools have purposes. The purpose of a vehicle is transportation. The purpose of science is to find truth.

    The widespread adoption of that particular tool reflects a shared purpose by most of its adopters—finding truth.

    Surely, there are some who only want to find truth instrumentally, e.g. to make bombs.

    Even so, even that’s typically done with at least one eye toward making the world a better place, however misguidedly.

    Any very simple statement about “what science is” is going to be more or less wrong, because the word “science” is ambiguous. It refers to several related phenomena

    1) the supposed scientific method (which isn’t exactly a particular method),

    2) an underlying philosophy (which isn’t entirely shared by everybody involved)

    3) a relatively integrated body of knowledge (including doubts) pieced together by many people, and

    4) the relatively unified group of people engaged in the project, with more or less shared beliefs, practices, and philosophy about why they do it.

    It is kind of like religion; there’s a similar ambiguity in that term. (Is “religion” about beliefs, or about practices, or about communities, etc?)

    One thing about science is that in some ways it’s like religion, only it works better. It has a large global community of believers who share basic practices and generally agree on a vast body of things.

    It makes far more sense to talk about “the scientific community” than “the religious communitiy,” as if there was one.

    Likewise, it makes far more sense to talk about “the body of scientific beliefs” than it does to talk about “the body of religious beliefs.” There’s a unity in one that’s lacking in the other, both in terms of central ideas an in terms of peripheral workings-out of those ideas.

    Underlying all that is that you have a large community of people with some generally shared beliefs, particularly the belief that we’re all onto something, and basically going about the science thing in approximately the right way, and that it yields truth, on average, usually in the short run and more reliably in the long run.

    John is right that often, science is something individual nerds do to scratch the itch of curiosity. (Even that they may do instrumentally, e.g., to be a demonstrably smart nerd, for ego reasons.) Still, it’s important that there is a fairly unified community of nerds who choose basically the same tool for the same basic reason—it’s a good tool for satisfying curiosity, i.e., one that typically gives a true answer—and there’s a shared culture within which to do it.

    That’s one of the things that makes it a unified project, even when it’s not exactly Utopian. Most nerds value truth for one reason or another. Some value it because they think that it generally makes the world a better place; others may only for the equivalent of winning bar bets. Many are somewhere in between, thinking that science is typically a good thing, or having some doubt about that, but valuing truth highly enough that they don’t know, but hope for the best.

  18. #18 Paul W.
    February 6, 2010

    David is of course right that many of us are basically nerds and do it for the sheer nerdiness.

    But many of us have a nobler calling—to hang out with other nerds and win bar bets.

  19. #19 Rorschach
    February 6, 2010

    The purpose of science is to find truth.

    And again, I don’t know about that. Is it really ? Maybe in the broadest philosophical sense, but take the example of David M @ 15, in concrete everyday terms science is not about discovering some special truth that can then be used to improve mankind, it’s a practical enterprise to learn facts about the world, and that is an unguided process, in that it isn’t done with some utopian goal in mind, but is a very practical enterprise that in the end will yield results that might or might not support a given theory.

    Most nerds value truth for one reason or another.

    This bothers me a little, why is science a nerd thing ? And why should valuing truth be something that only nerds do ?

  20. #20 MolBio
    February 6, 2010

    Disagree John.

    Evolution, particularly when re-enforced by molecular evolution has allowed us to discover how similar life forms are. Therefore from a yeast cell we could determine how a stereotypical eukariotic (all plants, animals and fungi) genome could function and how genes could be regulated and expressed.

    It allows us to know how genes influence development.

    How we can detect hereditary gene defects, and possibly even gene therapies. There will always be applications, don’t be narrow minded about it.

  21. #21 MolBio
    February 6, 2010

    Wait, not meant for John, David.

  22. #22 strange gods before me, OM
    February 6, 2010

    I don’t know about that. Science doesn’t have a purpose as such, it’s a method, it’s how humans made and make sense of the world they live in, I dont think it makes much sense to attribute some sort of ultimate utopian goal to better mankind and improve the world to it.

    “Science” — like “academia” or “government” or “media” — here includes the institutions of science and the individual scientists who make up those institutions, and these do have purposes and goals.

    It is not the way we use the word here, but it is not an illegitimate use.

  23. #23 dan robinson
    February 6, 2010

    With regards to the relationship between religion and science, I think that it is hard to get to the Scientific Method without going through monotheism first. Monotheism sheds the idea that the world is somehow under the control of multiple competing deities. Monotheism implicitly posits that the world has order and that that order is knowable.

    Tying science to Utopian whatevers is just so much hot air. This is like trying to find an algebraic solution for a relationship that is best described by partial differential equations with weird boundary conditions. You can get a piecewise solution, but not the whole thing.

    Science is about truth. There are two kinds of truth: things that are defined to be true and things that are determined to be true. Two of the ways that we make that determination is by measurement and by logical inference. Truth in the case of logical inference is often context sensitive as the axioms used to establish the truth are true relative to time, people and place.

  24. #24 valayas-chosen
    February 6, 2010

    Science changes the world and our understanding of it in ways that religion cannot.

    Well, yes and no. Scinece changes the world in ways that Religion dare not; for if it did, religion would find itself either outmoded or turning into science.
    Which is exactly what did begin to happen sometime around the 1400s and has continued at an agonisingly slow, yet steadily increasing, pace.

    What remains now is simply to finish the process.

  25. #25 heddle
    February 6, 2010

    I’m surprised you fell for this kind of woo.

  26. #26 Pierce R. Butler
    February 6, 2010

    … science … its origins and its life have been so completely wrapped up with capitalism itself.

    [ahem!] Mr. Robinson – please sit down and read Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China before speaking on this history again.

    A little something on the Golden Age(s) of Islam would help too.

    Thankewverymuch.

  27. #27 Paul W.
    February 6, 2010

    Rorschach:

    The purpose of science is to find truth.

    And again, I don’t know about that. Is it really ? Maybe in the broadest philosophical sense, but take the example of David M @ 15, in concrete everyday terms science is not about discovering some special truth that can then be used to improve mankind, it’s a practical enterprise to learn facts about the world, [...]

    Actually, when I said that, I wasn’t talking about a broad, utopian goal. I was talking about narrow goals. When you say that “science is just a method,” that raises the issue of a method for what?.

    I was just saying that scientist generally think it’s a method for finding truth, irrespective of what they want that truth for. I think most care partly because they identify with the larger project of increasing scientific knowledge. Some may only care, or mostly care, because it lets them (say) build a WMD to advance the interests of their country or even their religion. (But even those may see that as a Good Thing for the world.)

    Most nerds value truth for one reason or another.

    This bothers me a little, why is science a nerd thing ? And why should valuing truth be something that only nerds do ?

    I didn’t mean “nerd” in a bad way. I just meant that scientists tend to be people with a higher than average interest in (or tolerance of) scholarship, painstaking work, and high standards of argument and criticism—the stuff that makes science work. (At least in their chosen fields.)

    I like such people, which is why I like hanging out with them and trying to win bar bets with them. (Which is a metaphor for a lot of stuff, including a lot of the wrangling that goes on here at Pharyngula.)

    I’d rather lose a bar bet with a knowledgeable person who thinks carefully and well than win one with an ignorant, intellectually lazy blowhard. At least it’s interesting. That’s the kind of thing I meant by “getting to hang out with nerds” being part of the appeal of science, and being part of the scientific community.

    For many of us, including myself, it’s part of our identity. We’re proud “nerds.” That’s one of the things that makes science like a religion, even though as PZ says, it’s something new and different. We’re part of a community in which certain beliefs and values are common, and we think that those beliefs and values are important, and that many other people don’t get it.

  28. #28 strange gods before me, OM
    February 6, 2010

    Tying science to Utopian whatevers is just so much hot air. … Science is about truth.

    And the hope, that through science we will live in a world of ever increasingly available truth, can be understood as a utopian hope.

    For a great many scientists, it is not merely about truth, but also the hope that their discoveries will contribute to an improvement in quality of life.

    We implicitly acknowledge this whenever we laud the results of science — and in fact we use rely upon this acknowledgment when we tell creationists that they should not use modern antibiotics — so we can hardly deny it now that KSR points it out.

    The only real counterpoint is that progress is not necessarily utopian, and many of us hope to push progress as far as we can with the understanding that the result will not be utopian. (Here I use “progress” only to mean actual improvements in quality of life, not the pursuit of resource-depleting technological sophistication for its own sake.)

    I would offer that counterpoint, but I see that KSR means “utopia” to include the assumption that we will be able to push progress so far. I don’t like this use of the term, but it has common currency and it’s an arguably legitimate use of the word.

  29. #29 Horrorshow
    February 6, 2010

    I confess I haven’t read any of Mr. Robinson’s work but I would have to say the excerpt above is just as wooey (that a word?)as something Deepak Chopra would write. Utopian?… began with capitalism? Please! But, I guess they both write fiction…

  30. #30 Pierce R. Butler
    February 6, 2010

    Horrorshow: … I haven’t read any of Mr. Robinson’s work …

    His Mars trilogy is amazing: he clearly soaked himself in everything to be learned about the Red Planet as he wrote, and the result is a deeply felt labor of love with an epic scope.

    His Washington trilogy (titles begin 40, 50, 60) reveals a painfully embarrassing naivete and ignorance of working politics – skip it twice.

    Most of his other works are in between, leaning towards the pretty-good side.

  31. #31 Paul W.
    February 6, 2010

    Dan,

    With regards to the relationship between religion and science, I think that it is hard to get to the Scientific Method without going through monotheism first. Monotheism sheds the idea that the world is somehow under the control of multiple competing deities. Monotheism implicitly posits that the world has order and that that order is knowable.

    I dunno. Think about the ancient Greeks presocratics, including the Atomists, and throught the Golden Age of Athens.

    The critical thing isn’t whether you have one or many gods, but whether you realize that even if there are gods and they meddle in human history, they don’t micromanage the universe; there are plenty of regularities to study that the gods don’t interfere with so quirkily that mere humans can’t make progress on some fronts.

    If things had gone differently politically, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rationalism of the Athenians had led to the rise of science a thousand years before it did.

    On the other hand, if the Roman empire had not collapsed due to “barbarian” invasions, the same thing might have happened in a monotheistic context. But again, that would have been most likely IMHO if Greek culture hadn’t been mostly lost, or ossified into dogmatic Aristotelianism, etc.

    The Athenians were on the right track in many ways, arguably because they were pagans, or at least not because they were monotheists.

    And really, the worst thing about some Golden Age Athenian thought was the idea of a single “God” above (or behind or somehow metaphysically prior to) “the gods”.

    The big inhibitor of scientific thought is simplistic essentialism. What allows science to happen is optimism that at least some things are amenable to reductive analysis, and a pessimism that hifalutin’ philosophy can figure it all out without excruciatingly careful attention to observables.

    The rise of science as it actually happened was largely in spite of religious views. Many important things were assumed by most scientists to be fundamentally mysterious supernatural stuff that were beyond human ken. That was not fatal because at any given time, some people were optimistic about some things being humanly accessible.

    Those very same people were at the same time mostly pessimistic about the other things—would they’d have been totally shocked and amazed to know that, for example, the human mind could be successfully analyzed as a machine, or that the laws of our universe might be reducible to a special case of deeper laws in another universe from which this universe sprang, or that morals and religion and the very concept of God could be scientifically analyzed as historical artifacts of physical and social evolution. Wow.

    Even the minority of scientists or “philosophers” who were atheistic mechanists—and there have been a few all along—were systematically pessimistic about the ability of humans to ever figure out many of these things. They couldn’t imagine thousands of people piecing it all together over hundreds of years, getting us to where we are now. It didn’t happen sooner largely because of systematic pessimism; if there’d been widespread optimism, it might have happened two thousand years sooner, IMHO.

    A huge problem all along was that until the last few hundred years, few people had the basic idea of progress as we have it now. Knowledge and technology advanced so pathetically slowly that most people didn’t notice that it was happening at all, and the people who noticed couldn’t guess how rapidly it could accelerate and how radical and complete the transformation could be. It was basically a Singularity that they couldn’t see coming or make a reasonable guess as to the outcome of.

    Instead you had mostly religious people who accepted the status quo, and a few nerds who thought it was a cool gentlemanly thing to do to try to decipher another page or two of “God’s book” of Nature.

    And even now, you have Ken Miller, Frank Collins, and their ilk, who think that certain areas of science will forever be beyond human ken. But science goes on anyway, because not everybody is quite so blinkered, and because following the evidence eventually undermines the cherished beliefs of people who would assume a priori that it can’t. They don’t realize that, and go ahead and saw off the branch they’re sitting on.

  32. #32 Sastra
    February 6, 2010

    I think that science and capitalism share some similar features (along with democracy and human rights), and so there’s a reason they all began to flourish in tandem with each other. As Paul W. points out, science is a collective enterprise. It’s also an open process — open not only to the empirical world outside of the mind, but open to outside criticism. It’s been described as a “search for consensus.” Scientists try to come to an agreement based on argument, demonstration, and a completely transparent method that tries to eliminate biases, and work only from common ground. You don’t vanquish your critics: you work with them, and try to persuade them over.

    Science then thrives on variety, and competition between diversity. It requires a system of communication, and it builds on itself.

    What are the alternatives? Gazing inward. Self-affirmation. Keeping to your people and their ways. Parochialism. Tradition. Isolation. A belief that real knowledge — ultimate knowledge — is derived from intuition and mysticism. And a belief that change is bad. The Other is not to be trusted. Their ways, are not to be your ways. The most important virtue, is obedience, and acceptance of your lot.

    If a culture has those features, they won’t have science. And they won’t be trading with other countries, trying to find something better than what they already had. They’ll be stuck in the same spot.

  33. #33 Paul W.
    February 6, 2010

    Strange Gods:

    And the hope, that through science we will live in a world of ever increasingly available truth, can be understood as a utopian hope.

    Yes. Even if you don’t think it will concretely make the world a better place, you may have a vision that is “utopian” in a narrower sense, if you think that knowing the truth is valuable, for whatever reason.

    I think I’m pretty representative of many scientists who think, and hope, that science is likely to make the world concretely better, or at least not worse overall, but are also motivated by an aesthetic valuing of truth.

    For example, the idea of people persisting in religious bogosity forever, despite and in the face of easily avaialable scientific truth, is just apalling to me.

    One of the reasons I’m an out atheist, as well as a scientist, is that I think the most interesting truths I know have to do with the nature of the human mind and the nature of religion.

    Of all the things I know, those are the ones that would be the biggest revelations to most other people, so naturally I want to share them.

    I have enough respect for truth—and for other people’s ability to recognize and appreciate truths—that I want everybody to know a few “astonishing hypotheses”:

    1. There’s probably no God, in any sense you’re probably very attached to

    2. You are the functioning of a computer made out of meat

    3. Morality doesn’t come from your (nonexistent) God, but from physiological and social evolution, but is nonetheless real and important.

    I know a metric fuckton of science, but as far as important stuff that people ought to know, those are by far the biggest.

    It may not actually make the world happier to know these things, but dammit, the idea of people living forever in a demon-haunted god-soaked, deluded world, oblivious to the most crucial facts about themselves and the universe, and everything they think is most important… well, yuck, just yuck!

    I do think the widespread acceptance of these things will probably make the world better in other ways, or not worse, or not much worse, and that’s important. If I thought the opposite, I’d keep my mouth shut and just be depressed about it, despite the fact that I know such utterly fascinating and important things…

    But what provides the motivation for actually sharing these fascinating truths is largely a gut sense that all other things beting equal people ought to know the truth. I’m a truth geek.

  34. #34 gerrycanavan
    February 6, 2010

    Thanks for posting this, PZ. I’m the one who posted the video, so I’m glad to see it getting so many eyes. In response to a few of the commenters above I’d say that the “science is a type of religion” thing, in the context of the entirety of the speech, is pretty much a rhetorical flourish designed to reference the theme of the symposium: “Intersections of Science of Religion.” I don’t think it should be understood as a substantive claim that science IS a religion except insofar as both are ideologies. KSR is very clear in the talk and the Q&A, and in his most recent book _Galileo’s Dream_ if you’re interested, which of them is “better.”

    As for whether or not science begins with capitalism, I wouldn’t necessarily take the same tact he does, but I think he’s talking specifically about modern scientific practice, especially the sort of reportage and discourse that you see in Europe beginning around the same time as the start of capitalism. (You see a similar sort of figuration made in the early episodes of the CBC series “How to Think About Science.”)

    I certainly don’t think he intends to slight in any way the Islamic Golden Age or other periods of scientific practice — for proof of this I’d direct you to another one of his books, _Years of Rice and Salt_, which details that period quite exhaustively — rather it’s just not on his mind in this particular moment.

  35. #35 Sastra
    February 6, 2010

    Paul W. #31 wrote:

    The critical thing isn’t whether you have one or many gods, but whether you realize that even if there are gods and they meddle in human history, they don’t micromanage the universe; there are plenty of regularities to study that the gods don’t interfere with so quirkily that mere humans can’t make progress on some fronts.

    Right. It’s also important that you don’t have a politically powerful priesthood interfering and controlling all the communication between different communities. It really helped that the Christian nations were all fighting each other.

    I think that one of the most important contributions Christianity made towards the growth of science was that its theology ended up separating The World Above, from the World Below. When spirituality is assumed to be infused into absolutely everything, then the secular is seen as sacred. You can’t — and don’t — learn to separate “types of learning” into different methods. It’s supposed to be interpreted as one spiritual whole.

    But in dualistic religions, there can be mysticism — and empiricism below it. The Church incorporated some Greek philosophy, and Science was then supposed to be Theology’s “handmaiden.” Natural theology. It ended up secularizing the sacred.

  36. #36 Sastra
    February 6, 2010

    Paul W. #33 wrote:

    But what provides the motivation for actually sharing these fascinating truths is largely a gut sense that all other things being equal people ought to know the truth. I’m a truth geek.

    Wonderful post.

    I would add that the motivation for sharing the Fascinating Truths is an underlying assumption that, all things being equal, people really want to know the truth. I don’t mean that people aren’t motivated to find an enchanted universe that cares deeply about them. That’s what they’d prefer. That’s what feels right.

    Instead, I mean that the pursuit of truth is still one of their values. It’s our common ground with most theists, or supernaturalists. People tend to have a disciplined edge to them. They have a hard time saying that they don’t care about whether or not God exists, or whether or not the Universe is a giant stream of consciousness, or whether or not homeopathy really works, because these beliefs are just so comforting and useful to them, binding them together in communities, giving them personal narratives, blah, blah, blah. No, they usually confess that they shouldn’t — and don’t — really want to give in to this. If their beliefs are not true, then they want to change their minds.

    They may not really follow this in practice, of course — but they understand the virtue of it. It’s the place to stand on, to bring them over. And it’s why we’re not just being mean ;)

  37. #37 MolBio
    February 6, 2010

    The problem with irrational beliefs is believers will always twist evidence, or deny it. Unfortunately they love the claim “science is just a belief, you can’t know everything.”

    I don’t think science came from capitalism, but science has always required funding, and an educated populace with more money helped fund the advancements. For instance through the 19th centuries if not earlier, scientists had to find a rich patron to pay for their science. Hence there was a link, but not one of philosophy.

    That being said, the educated traders of the Lombard cities of Italy did pay lip service to the church but wanted to be independent. But during the 2nd crusade (I think) the Venitians stuck it to the Pope due to a ship shortage and had him invade Constantinople to take the trade route off the Jews. There is a link, but it’s not philosophical in nature, just interested merchants seeking to split from theological influence.

    Unfortunately the Greeks were more into thought and metaphysics than empirical evidence. We owe a lot to people who split from quak woo practices like alchemy and decided to stick to observational practices.

  38. #38 raven
    February 6, 2010

    His Mars trilogy is amazing: he clearly soaked himself in everything to be learned about the Red Planet as he wrote, and the result is a deeply felt labor of love with an epic scope.

    Agree. Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars.

    Robinson presents a scientifically realistic program of how we could terraform Mars.

  39. #39 MolBio
    February 6, 2010

    Gravitation will be an issue. You’d need domes.

  40. #40 raven
    February 6, 2010

    Gravitation will be an issue. You’d need domes.

    To start with.

    Calculations show that Mars could hold a breathable atmosphere for hundreds of millions of years if you could provide one.

    wikipedia:

    Venus has an extremely dense atmosphere, which consists mainly of carbon dioxide and a small amount of nitrogen. The atmospheric mass is 93 times that of Earth’s atmosphere while the pressure at the planet’s surface is about 92 times that at Earth’s surface?a pressure equivalent to that at a depth of nearly 1 kilometer under Earth’s oceans.

    Venus has a gravity less than earth and a surface pressure of 92 bars. The amount of atmosphere and gravity aren’t well correlated.

    Even if an atmosphere on Mars isn’t indefinitely stable, in terms of human history that wouldn’t matter. Don’t forget that long ago Mars had rivers and running water.

    Robinson presents a scheme involving setting off a greenhouse effect and importing ice and nitrogen from the asteroid belt and outer planets.

  41. #41 Paul W.
    February 6, 2010

    I don’t think science came from capitalism, but science has always required funding, and an educated populace with more money helped fund the advancements. For instance through the 19th centuries if not earlier, scientists had to find a rich patron to pay for their science. Hence there was a link, but not one of philosophy.

    I mostly agree, I think, but I do think there was more to it than that, particularly with regard to the increasing optimism about progress.

    The gradual rise of trading and industry (and the middle class) made people increasinlgy aware that there are better way to do things.

    If you figured out a better way to rig a ship, or dig coal out of the ground, you could beat your competitors by a little bit in marginal cost, but win big in market share and make real money.

    A substantial amount of the patronage for scientists was driven by stupid little applications of technology—e.g., using telescopes to see ships coming into port before other people could see them, and adjusting one’s market trading to profit from knowing shifts in supply before other traders. (Who cares about the moons of Jupiter—there’s money in recognizing ships!)

    As science, technology, capitalism, and the rise of the middle class all fed back together, gentleman scientists found themselves rubbing elbows with grubby middle-class engineers, and inventors, and tradesmen with overlapping interests.

    (Folks like Wallace collecting biological specimens for for money, engineers working with scientists to build increasingly complex scientific apparatuses, scientists taking a very serious interest in thermodynamics because of issues in building steam engines for mining and milling, etc.)

    For a long time, there were many gentleman scientists who disdained anything of practical value—they weren’t mere laborers or tradesmen, after all—but also an increasing number who recognized that technology was cool and sniffy rich fucks like that were pretentious bores.

    One of the phenomena feeding back was the decline in importance of the clergy and the aristocracy relative to science, technology, trading, and the middle class. Middle class people had more and more of the money and clout, percentagewise at least, and idle landowning aristocrats and useless clergy had less and less.

    Even a lot of the aristocrats gradually clued into the fact that maintaining their wealth depended on being competitive with the grubby middle class, and could see that science and engineering mattered to exploiting their land wealth and the wealth of colonies. (E.g., accurate astronomy and timekeeping to keep get ships safely from port to port and keep the money rolling in, better arms to get and defend colonies, etc.) You might still disdain the lower classes, but you’d better not let that get in the way of making sure your money was working for you.

    I suspect that capitalism was a substantial contributor to the shift in worldview, beyond just funding things—people were increasingly aware that scientific and technological progress were possible, and that staying ahead of the other guys in that regard was crucial to getting rich or staying rich. Sticking to tradition would put you in the poorhouse, because modern ideas were often better than traditional ideas, and often because they were truer.

  42. #42 Ichthyic
    February 6, 2010

    Surprises occur, but how probable is it that anything I have so far worked on (body size evolution of Mesozoic dinosaurs; family tree of the limbed vertebrates with special emphasis on the origin of the modern amphibians) will ever lead to an invention that will feed or heal anyone?

    I’m really surprised to see you, David, making the “science is masturbation unless it has immediate pragmatic results” argument.

    you know that leads to the slippery-slope argument that there is no reason at all to fund basic science as opposed to applied, right?

    surely you understand the value of basic science??

    again, I find this a very strange comment coming from a grad student.

  43. #44 MolBio
    February 6, 2010

    Ichthyic I believed I covered that point. :p

    Science was primarily the pursuit of curious aristocracy who made it a hobby and pass-time to gain knowledge with a scientist in their employ. Things picked up from there.

    Inventors tended to have come from a different line, only recently have the two really begun to overlap.

    The Harrison Chronometer wasn’t taken up for 40yrs, and it wasn’t funded, the idea was devised to win a royal prize.

    Science and capitalism are not interlinked. These days more than ever we under value science.

    It’s a complex question, not black and white, but I don’t see the two as one. If anything science has only really begun to grow exponentially since Liberalism opened the lines of enquiry, even into areas that were previously unorthodox, bringing the closet naturalists out. These liberties also afforded merchants freer economic policies, hence the two are more likely confounded than correlated.

  44. #45 Knockgoats
    February 6, 2010

    I haven’t listened to the talk yet, but wanted to provide a footnote to Paul W.’s point about the Athenians: ancient Greek science did not end with their “golden age”: Alexandria and Syracuse among others were great centres of learning, including science, during the Hellenistic period. Consider the work of Archimedes, the Antikythera mechanism, Eratosthenes of Cyrene’s remarkably accurate estimates of the circumference of the Earth and its axial tilt.

    The rise of Christianity was, at least initially, disastrous for science: unless it could be twisted into a quasi-Christian shape (as was done with both Aristotle and Plato), pagan thought was despised in favour of absurd controversies over the nature of the “Trinity”, and many priceless manuscripts were destroyed along with pagan temples. Most of those that survived did so because Nestorian Christians fleeing their co-religionists, took them to Baghdad, where Haroun al-Rashid had them translated into Arabic. Western Christendom regained them, often in distorted form, with the recapture of Toledo in 1085 – probably a crucial step in the later medieval revival of learning. More later.

  45. #46 Ichthyic
    February 6, 2010

    Ichthyic I believed I covered that point.

    don’t care if ya did, frankly.

    regardless of the history of it, it boils down to one thing:

    If you believe the scientific method is the only thing that can produce usable knowledge of the world around us, one should be encouraging it’s application everywhere and at any time, as it’s the only thing that will generate useful information, period.

    the more basic research gets funded, the more raw, usable information we have to work with to ask and answer more questions.

    it’s as simple as that.

  46. #47 great.american.satan
    February 6, 2010

    Jesus Christ you cats are wordy. I don’t have all day to get to the part of the conversation where I get to talk! :-P
    I don’t know if anyone’s covered it (because I didn’t wake up with a burning desire to read the Iliad), but there’s a political reason to object to this guy’s thesis as well. In the popular imagination, Utopia is associated with failed ideals and oppressive states like the USSR. At least, it seemed that way when I was in high school.
    In the (admittedly kinda meaningless) song “Utopia” by Goldfrapp, there’s a reason the chorus goes, “Fascist baby, Utopia, Utopia.”
    BTW, I am a Utopian, all the way, but I like to think if I had a podium I’d be more careful about word choice.

  47. #48 MolBio
    February 6, 2010

    @ Icthic

    “Evolution, particularly when re-enforced by molecular evolution has allowed us to discover how similar life forms are. Therefore from a yeast cell we could determine how a stereotypical eukariotic (all plants, animals and fungi) genome could function and how genes could be regulated and expressed.
    It allows us to know how genes influence development.
    How we can detect hereditary gene defects, and possibly even gene therapies. There will always be applications, don’t be narrow minded about it.”

    I’m agreeing with you. I’m a friendly here, green smoke. :p

  48. #49 Pierce R. Butler
    February 6, 2010

    raven @ # 38: Robinson presents a scientifically realistic program of how we could terraform Mars.

    Well, sorta. He assumes glitch-free mass transportation between the planets, cheap small-scale fusion plants to produce unlimited energy, works-first-time genetic engineering to adapt terrestrial plants, fungi, micro-orgamisms, etc to Martian conditions – all sorts of hand-waving miracles to keep the story moving along.

    Fairly modest “miracles”, by sf standards, and a more than acceptable trade-off to keep the novels from bogging down, but calling KSR’s (borrowed) plans “scientifically realistic” counts as a stretch.

  49. #50 Sastra
    February 6, 2010

    great.american.satan. #47 wrote:

    Jesus Christ you cats are wordy. I don’t have all day to get to the part of the conversation where I get to talk! :-P

    And you say this on comment #47? Around here, that’s just getting started. Or, it’s a small thread.

    You eventually learn to skim and scan.

  50. #51 Ichthyic
    February 6, 2010

    I’m agreeing with you. I’m a friendly here, green smoke. :p

    I didn’t say we didn’t agree, I just wanted to point out it doesn’t matter to me if I am repeating something you already said, more or less, and would hope you don’t feel the need to comment on others comments simply because they reinforce your own.

    green smoke seen and acknowledged.

  51. #52 Ichthyic
    February 6, 2010

    Fairly modest “miracles”, by sf standards, and a more than acceptable trade-off to keep the novels from bogging down, but calling KSR’s (borrowed) plans “scientifically realistic” counts as a stretch.

    Indeed. To me the trilogy was in key part more about human sociology than the actual terraforming of mars.

    A fascinating extension of societal conflicts into a new arena.

    Unfortunately, many critics of the series seemed to think the focus on that was a flaw instead.

    *shrug*

    I still recommend them to anyone interested in how sci-fi authors view human conflict in a decently contrived sci-fi setting.

  52. #53 Owlmirror
    February 6, 2010

    The rise of Christianity was, at least initially, disastrous for science: unless it could be twisted into a quasi-Christian shape (as was done with both Aristotle and Plato), pagan thought was despised in favour of absurd controversies over the nature of the “Trinity”, and many priceless manuscripts were destroyed along with pagan temples.

    A nit, here: Richard Carrier — who would agree with you that Christianity did absolutely nothing to support science or the empirical investigation of the world, and was indeed caught up in absurd theological arguments — has said that pagan philosophy was also becoming more mystical at this time.

    I’ve linked to these dialogues on science in the classical world before, but:

    Richard Carrier, Part 1
    Richard Carrier, Part 2

  53. #54 Owlmirror
    February 6, 2010

    One of the things that anti-science-ists who come here do is bleat about Darwinism leading to Social Darwinism; to eugenics and oppression in the name of survival-of-the fittest, blah blah blah.

    And one of the best counterarguments to that nonsense is that science is necessarily descriptive, not prescriptive. Science in and of itself doesn’t say to do anything with the knowledge discovered by its methods.

    But if we’re going to be consistent, that has to be held when someone goes over the top and claims that science has some sort of goal in mind — “an attempt to make a better world”. No. If it’s utterly unfair to say that science leads to killing people, it’s also not fair to say that science necessarily wants or leads to “a better world”.

    And, really, is there any ideology that thinks that it will lead to a worse world? Every ideology — including religious ones — claims to want to make things “better”.

    I would say that if you do actually want to make a better world, an honest, empirical and science-based methodology is the only one that will provide the metrics (that is, to define what “better” means; the word is far too vague in and of itself) and methodology to get you there. But science would be a tool of the ideology that tries to get there; it is not the ideology itself.

    As with others above, I dislike the term “Utopia”. It implies, to me, something static and small-minded and overly-optimistic; the product of one human’s imagination that doesn’t take into account the wild variation there is among humans and in the changing world and its resources. It’s fundamentally short-sighted and narrow, implying that one solution is all that is necessary.

    Maybe that’s not what KSR meant by it, but that’s what I get from it.

  54. #55 Knockgoats
    February 6, 2010

    Owlmirror@53,

    Thanks, I’ll check those out. From my limited knowledge, it seems plausible that pagan philosophy was tending toward mysticism, but it was never a unified system of thought, let alone a centralised institutional system like Christianity. That’s one reason why paganism lost out; Julian the Apostate seems to have realised this – one of the more intriguing of histories “what-ifs”, along with “What if Athens had won the Peleponnesian War”, is “What if Julian the Apostate hadn’t been killed invading Persia?”. But I digress…

    Having now watched the video, it’s clear that KSR is talking about science as an institutional system (he says “system of governance” which doesn’t seem quite right to me); and in that sense he’s right, it did grow up with capitalism.

    (By an institution, I mean a set of coordinated norms; an institutional system is an evolving (in the broad sense) structure of institutions. A language, a firm, an army, a political party, marriage, a legal system, a sport, are all institutions or institutional systems.)

    A very interesting talk, which I’d like to read in transcript – thanks PZ. There was a lot to think about, particularly his notion of science as incorporating aspects of a gift economy, which very much strikes home – hell, we give our chief product, scientific papers, away to journals, in order to garner reputation. The “science as a religion” bit at the end was totally misconceived: seeing both science and religions as institutional systems, nothing could be further from the truth. I also think he’s wrong to imply that the humanities have to interpret science because science doesn’t want to; I believe there can and should be a (historical) science of institutional systems – but so far, it certainly lacks any central idea, such as natural selection is in evolutionary biology (memetics won’t do, and Latour’s anthropological approach ignores practically al the institutional features and relations to objective reality that make science unique).

    I had a couple of other niggles:
    1) The talk was excessively US-centric. The historic “moment” when science was largely American is already past, and inevitably so. Specifically, this led him to errors such as “the NSF is effectively the government of Antarctica”. No, it isn’t. Antarctic governance is the job of the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat.
    2) He said the very rich and the very poor caused most environmental damage – the latter in the form of soil depletion and deforestation. The great majority of these are caused by commercial-scale logging, ranching, farming and mining: the very poor, by definition, have very little land even if they are farmers. Although subsistence farmers contribute to deforestation, they mostly do so only once roads for loggers, miners etc. have been driven through the forest. The resulting “herring-bone” pattern of damage can be seen in aerial and satellite photography.

  55. #56 Knockgoats
    February 6, 2010

    I also agree with Owlmirror’s points@54.

  56. #57 raven
    February 6, 2010

    hell, we give our chief product, scientific papers, away to journals, in order to garner reputation.

    Give, hell, what fantasy world do you live in?

    Some journals have page charges. You pay them to publish your papers.

  57. #58 amphiox
    February 6, 2010

    PZ’s analogy to the horse and car is in fact quite apt, because when cars first appeared, they were compared to horses (horseless carriage, etc), and vestiges of that comparison remain even to this day (horsepower, etc).

    Science was/is compared/equated to religion because for most people see it as fulfilling the same psychological need that religion once did – the need for purpose and understanding.

    The fact that science goes about fulfilling this need in a very different manner (religion basically declares purpose by fiat, and understanding, such as it is, is derived after the fact, while science actually just provides understanding, leaving the individual to determine purpose afterwards on their own) is obvious and important to those of us intimately involved with the workings of science and/or religion, but for most people, that is a detail of minimal relevance, and so in their minds science will always be seen as a replacement for and competitor too religion.

    (This despite the fact that religion has a second purpose – the unification and organization of individuals into communities with shared goals, that science does not fulfill, and doesn’t even pretend to try.)

  58. #59 frankosaurus
    February 6, 2010

    To me, there is something that sets up many things as “ideological” in that they offer, for lack of a better word, “happy consciousness.” Meaning that they offer a vision of the world that not only is supposed to be better, but that the best world is also the one that we are likely to feel the most satisfied with.

    While science per se cannot be called an ideology, there is something along the lines of a “culture of science” that approaches this. It’s the stuff that unites people who take science courses, read science fiction, follow PZ Myers, and watch star trek – the thing a person can stake their pride in, like “reason, rationality, truth.” This is what I imagine the speaker in the excerpt getting carried away with. So there is a kernal of truth, I think, in talking about the ideology of science, or scientism.

    But again, as has been noted, there is nothing inherently utopian about science, just as there is nothing inherently utopian about many other areas of life that deal with problem solving. That many scientists have also been utopian is probably better explained by other things, such as whatever various social pressures have existed where there has been a perceived need to justify science to the public. Or, on a more realistic level, the day to day of science is probably quite dull, and we have to distinguish true utopianism from inspiration (I put Robinson in the latter).

    Interestingly enough, though, there seems to be an irony in much utopian thinking, in that it often rests on a fairly pessimistic view of the world as it is. One thing that can be levelled against most utopians is the failure of a fair assessment of the status quo, hence some of the absurd and heavy-handed solutions proffered (especially from the fringes).

  59. #60 Ichthyic
    February 6, 2010

    “culture of science”

    says the man duly following the “culture of idiocy”.

    Is there some reason you are sticking around?

  60. #61 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    February 6, 2010

    Is there some reason you are sticking around?

    He appears to be too stoopid to find his way out. That makes him a total loser. Which he already proved with his posts.

  61. #62 Owlmirror
    February 7, 2010

    Having now watched the video, it’s clear that KSR is talking about science as an institutional system (he says “system of governance” which doesn’t seem quite right to me); and in that sense he’s right, it did grow up with capitalism.

    This, by the way, reminds me of Alan Cromer’s book, which Sastra discussed in this guest post, and which I eventually read at some point afterward.

    I don’t remember it too well now, but I think Cromer emphasized the correlation between the free exchange of goods with the free exchange of ideas.

  62. #63 Knockgoats
    February 7, 2010

    Give, hell, what fantasy world do you live in?

    Some journals have page charges. You pay them to publish your papers. – raven

    True. Not many that I want to publish in, fortunately, and my employer has brassed up on the only occasion it arose. An article of mine published several years ago has just been selected for inclusion in a “Best of…” anthology, and those crooks at Elsevier are levying around £1300 to allow it to be reprinted. Again, my employer has agreed to pay half the charge (the anthology publisher will pay the other half).

  63. #64 Knockgoats
    February 7, 2010

    I think Cromer emphasized the correlation between the free exchange of goods with the free exchange of ideas. – Owlmirror

    I haven’t read the book – I’ve just reread Sastra’s post, and I’m sceptical, though certainly not dismissive. I’m not convinced the connections between capitalism, democracy and science are nearly as close as is often claimed, nor that science is as “unnatural” to human beings as Cromer, Wolpert and others suggest.

    On the first of these, Ancient Greek proto-science (more generally, rational investigation) arose in 6th century BCE Ionia, not Athens, and my impression is that Athens was never all that prominent in science or mathematics, as opposed to the arts, architecture, history, and moral and political philosophy – you may be able to correct me here. Cromer apparently links science to the great respect for debate in Athens – but we’ve discussed often enough here how poor a method oral debate is for deciding scientific questions – and Athens was a very oral culture. (Also, Athenian culture as a whole didn’t respect human rights, only citizens’ rights – those of free, male, native-born (or very rarely naturalised) Athenians.

    Proto-science flourished in the Hellenistic age, mainly in Alexandria and Syracuse, both ruled by powerful monarchs. Modern science was, initially, very much in the service of the state, and early modern scientists certainly did not share their results freely. In more recent times, I’ve already noted that Stalinist Russia and contemporary China have considerable scientific achievements (I forgot to mention the fine work done by Soviet psychologists, notably Pavlov, Luria and Vygotsky). I know very little of science under the Nazis, but while frankosaurus was certainly wrong in saying the Nazi regime was rational or scientific, this article that he linked to Was Nazi science good science? indicates that the relationship even between such an evil and irrational ideology and science is not a simple one.

    On how “unnatural” science is, it is well known (can’t be bothered to find references immediately, but I will if necessary) that traditional “shamans” often have a detailed knowledge of the properties of the plants that grow in their environment, whether they are poisonous, and what they can be used for – even plants introduced recently. This knowledge will typically be attributed to an ancestor, but in the latter case, must obviously derive from careful empirical investigation – examine the plant for similarities to known plants (and of course to other things suggested by ideas of sympathetic magic), smell it, crush its leaves, taste the smallest amount you can… Similarly, the sort of reasoning a skilled hunter uses when tracking possible prey is just what you need in the historical sciences – what sequence of events could have left these traces? These kinds of approach would clearly be highly advantageous, so the cognitive attributes enabling them would tend to be selected for. Part of the genesis of true science is becoming fully aware of what these methods are, and how they can be extended – and as I think you suggested, this happens when the rate of technological progress becomes fast enough to be noticed by an individual. In western Europe, I would think that the realisation that they and their contemporaries had in some respects surpassed the ancients would have been significant. This could have happened at least by the 13th century (gunpowder, clockwork, the compass), as some of Roger Bacon’s ideas suggest, and perhaps earlier, with the realisation that Muslims such as Ibn Haytham and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) had gained important knowledge not previously known. The voyages of exploration beginning late in the 14th century would also have been important.

    My opinion is that both capitalism and science arose as highly probable, if not inevitable, consequences of technological advance and intra- and inter-state competition for wealth and power in late feudal Europe (I think it no accident that Japan, which followed a similar trajectory to Europe from feudalism to a highly agriculturally productive centralised state, but somewhat later, was the non-European power that found it easiest to adopt both capitalism and science). If they had not arisen there, I suspect they would have done so elsewhere, and not very much later, probably in Japan. (The arrival of the Portuguese and their involvement in Japan’s 15th-16th century civil wars led to a closing of Japan to foreign influences once the Tokugawa triumphed, and this probably also stifled internal innovation. But these voyages were themselves part of the same upsurge of competitive innovation.) There are also reasons to believe they could have arisen earlier, in Sung China, if not for nomad invasions. Western Europe’s distance from the central Asian and Saharan centres of nomad power is one of the key geographical advantages I mentioned; even so, we were very lucky Ogdei Khan died in 1241!

  64. #65 shonny
    February 7, 2010

    Posted by: Ichthyic Author Profile Page | February 6, 2010 11:13 PM #60

    “culture of science”
    says the man duly following the “culture of idiocy”.

    Is there some reason you are sticking around?
    ————
    Posted by: Nerd of Redhead, OM Author Profile Page | February 6, 2010 11:20 PM #61

    Is there some reason you are sticking around?

    He appears to be too stoopid to find his way out. That makes him a total loser. Which he already proved with his posts.

    Ah, you guys are all but too kind &nbsp *chuckle*

  65. #66 Pierce R. Butler
    February 7, 2010

    Knockgoats @ # 64: … we were very lucky Ogdei Khan died in 1241!

    Read Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, and you may retract that statement. He makes a strong case for the Pax Tartarica having been one of the most culturally progressive eras in the world – even as he omits a few of its positive points.

  66. #67 Sven DiMilo
    February 7, 2010

    Many a tl;dr here, and in general I’d much rather read Paul W., Sastra, and Kg on subjects like this than chime in myself, but:

    the scientific study of the world is simply a kind of worship of it, a very detailed, painstaking, and often tedious daily worship

    I can certainly agree with the detailed, painstaking, and often tedious, but even poetically I’m not seeing the analogy to “worship” in any way that I understand that word. But then, I’m not very poetical.

    For a great many scientists, it is not merely about truth, but also the hope that their discoveries will contribute to an improvement in quality of life.

    True, yet for another great many it’s not about that at all. Not even a little bit.

    Even if you don’t think it will concretely make the world a better place, you may have a vision that is “utopian” in a narrower sense, if you think that knowing the truth is valuable, for whatever reason.

    “doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue”
    -Chas. Darwin

    surely you understand the value of basic science??

    Ick, this is stupid. One can acknowledge the importance and primacy of “basic research” in general and still have some confidence in denying the applicability of specific lines of research. Your slippery-slope is an argument from consequences. I happen to know that you have published on fish behavior, for example, and you cannot deny that your paper(s?) has/have not changed and will never change a damn thing for damn near 100% of humanity. I’m not picking on you, because I will say precisely the same for every one of my 20+ pubs. But these humbling facts about our research are completely irrelevant to the broader question of the value of basic scientific research.

    body size evolution of Mesozoic dinosaurs; family tree of the limbed vertebrates with special emphasis on the origin of the modern amphibians

    FFS, Marjanovi?, would you quit farting around with such utterly trivial effluvia and answer the goddamn turtle-origin question already? Some things are important.

  67. #68 Knockgoats
    February 7, 2010

    Read Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, and you may retract that statement. He makes a strong case for the Pax Tartarica having been one of the most culturally progressive eras in the world – even as he omits a few of its positive points. – Pierce R. Butler

    I haven’t read it, but then I haven’t read Scientology either. Seriously, look at what happened to the regions the Mongols conquered, notably south-west Asia, eastern Europe and China. Millions killed, cities destroyed, urban classes wiped out. Compare the subsequent history of Hungary and Poland – the most westerly countries to be blessed by a visit from the beneficent strangers from the east – with that of Germany and Italy, which were spared because of Ogdei’s death. Had he not died, the economic and cultural axis of medieval Europe, from the burgeoning cities of the low countries to the emerging Renaissance Italy, would have been trashed. Sung China (while already restricted to the south by earler nomad invasions), had recovered its prosperity, and was the most technologically and economically advanced state of the early 13th century. The great city of Baghdad, capital of Islamic culture, was razed, and its inhabitants massacred wholesale. China and Islam never again regained their predominance, which passed to western Europe. Which non-western country was best placed to deal with European expansion? Japan – which, by an odd coincidence, was never conquered by the Mongols. It’s true that once the era of conquest was over, trade across land between China and the west flourished for a while – but there was already, and had been for centuries, a thriving route for trade round the shores of the Indian ocean which carried far larger volumes – ships can carry more than camels, you see. Sorry, but you’ve fallen victim to a person with a truly enormous axe to grind.

  68. #69 https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawnb-E55g7vrnvH-3L1M6d7QuDYWoM_IDEM
    February 7, 2010

    its origins and its life have been so completely wrapped up with capitalism itself

    Utter tosh.
    Science had it’s genesis in ancient Greece, in an economy that ran mostly on war & slavery.
    Slaves in the normal sense, and female slaves that we call wives.

  69. #70 amphiox
    February 7, 2010

    China and Islam never again regained their predominance, which passed to western Europe

    But, if this argument is valid, Ghenghis Khan and the mongols really did make the modern world, since Western Europe’s domination is a key historical feature of the modern world (well, at least up to the moment when they chose to self-destruct in WWI and II, and their predominance passed to America and the USSR. Though again, of course, the U.S. is an offshoot culture of Western Europe. . . .)

  70. #71 Neil Schipper
    February 8, 2010

    Before writing off science as a “religion” on abstract philosophical grounds — and if by religion we mean a means of sustainably reacquainting members of the hive with our aspirations and weaknesses — consider if weekly sermons went something along these lines.

  71. #72 Knockgoats
    February 8, 2010

    amphiox@70

    Yes, indeed! I wasn’t explicit about that@68, but as I said @64, western Europe’s distance from the centres of medieval nomad power in central Asia and the Sahara was a key advantage. This wasn’t just about the Mongols – both Sung China and Islam had already suffered from earlier invasions (China from the Jurchens, Islam from the Seljuks and Almoravids – the latter already Muslim, but of a “fundamentalist”, anti-urban brand). Pastoral nomad invasions of settled lands were extremely destructive, because a principle aim was to acquire pasture, which meant killing or driving off the peasants, and the nomads had no use for cities. Of course, the Mongols were eventually “domesticated” by both China and Islam, but the damage had been done.

    Western Europe did profit from the “Pax Tartarica”, but did not suffer the earlier “Furor Tartarica” – because Ogdei died in 1241, while the Mongols were busy smashing up Poland and Hungary, and they withdrew to take part in the election of a new Great Khan; and the subsequent decline of the Pax Tartarica and hence overland trade in the 14th century was one of the motivations – though by no means the only one – for the European voyages of exploration.

  72. #73 David Marjanovi?
    February 8, 2010

    I’m sorry you’ve chosen to specialize in a field you think is meaningless…?

    What is this “meaning” you speak of? Is it something to eat?

    In any case, it’s not something about which I care.

    Come on folks, let’s allow just a soupçon of poetry in our lives. Why does any of us care about science, or more precisely, the empiricism that underlies it?

    Because it’s fun.

    That is the poetry.

    Tools have purposes. The purpose of a vehicle is transportation. The purpose of science is to find truth.

    Mmmmm… no, untruth.

    Untruth is demonstrable, truth is not. Science can disprove, but not prove.

    Suppose we discover the truth. How can we find out that what we’ve discovered is indeed the truth? By comparing it to the truth, which we don’t have?

    The closest thing to an alternative is Sherlock Holmes’ eliminative approach, and that’s what science is doing: searching for one falsehood after another. It has got us far, and will get us even farther, but ultimately it’s not terribly promising because there are usually lots more alternatives than anyone has ever thought of, and many of them are not even testable.

    Monotheism implicitly posits that the world has order and that that order is knowable.

    Really? It can just as well be said to imply that any order is entirely dependent on the unpredictable whims of a god who can perform miracles whenever he pleases, up to and including making 0 equal 1, and who most definitely is ineffable rather than knowable.

    It’s furthermore possible to go from polytheism straight to atheism. Happened at least once in ancient Greece and once in ancient India. Democritus: “Nothing exists save atoms and the void”… isn’t that an incitement to understand the movements of the atoms?

    And the hope, that through science we will live in a world of ever increasingly available truth, can be understood as a utopian hope.

    This is a very good point.

    It’s also a good point to stop; I have to go and haven’t read beyond comment 28 yet. :-)

  73. #74 David Marjanovi?
    February 8, 2010

    Yes. Even if you don’t think it will concretely make the world a better place, you may have a vision that is “utopian” in a narrower sense, if you think that knowing the truth is valuable, for whatever reason.

    “For whatever reason”?

    “Long ago, a storm was heading for the city of Quin’lat. Everyone took protection within the walls except one man who remained outside. I went to him and asked what he was doing. ‘I am not afraid’, the man said. ‘I will not hide my face behind stone and mortar. I will stand before the wind and make it respect me.’ I honored his choice and went inside. The next day, the storm came, and the man was killed. The wind does not respect a fool. Do not stand before the wind, Gowron.”
    ? qeylIS the Unforgettable

    The reason why understanding reality is valuable is that reality doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.

    I think that one of the most important contributions Christianity made towards the growth of science was that its theology ended up separating The World Above, from the World Below.

    That’s actually older, it’s right at the start of Genesis, where Elohim creates one thing after another, even the sun, none of which is divine, it’s all merely created?

    I’m really surprised to see you, David, making the “science is masturbation unless it has immediate pragmatic results” argument.

    I wasn’t making an “ought” argument about funding, but an “is” one about why scientists most commonly do science: out of hedonistic interest.

    you know that leads to the slippery-slope argument that there is no reason at all to fund basic science as opposed to applied, right?

    It doesn’t, because of how difficult it often is to foresee what applications could come out of what ? after all, I didn’t say “immediate”! Paleoclimatology, for instance, has suddenly become very important in very practical terms?

    Fund it all, make the nerds happy, and wait for applications to be discovered. Without a population of happy nerds, you won’t get half the applications you could, even though you’ll in hindsight end up having funded much that isn’t any more useful than art.

    (?which is funded.)

    A small, recent article on the value of basic research.

    Not surprising that working on how DNA works would lead to medical applications? even though it hasn’t yet?

    You eventually learn to skim and scan.

    Or you just steal the time to read the entire thread. That’s what I do.

    FFS, Marjanovi?, would you quit farting around with such utterly trivial effluvia and answer the goddamn turtle-origin question already? Some things are important.

    Patience, my dear Wallace. First the barnacles.

    <weeping & wailing in the distance, and gnashing of teeth>

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