Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Disintegration of Science

In the 1990s, the science wars were fought between advocates of science and folks who saw flaws in science. Nowadays, the science wars underway are between folks claiming scientific support for wildly differing claims. Does our global use of fossil fuels for energy have significant impact on the climate? Are covid vaccines safe and effective? Of course scientific progress is driven by debate, so perhaps these disagreements are healthy.

A healthy organism is constantly fighting off infections and other disturbances. The integrity of an organism is constantly under threat. For a while, various homeostatic processes manage to preserve that integrity, but eventually those processes are overwhelmed, and the organism loses its integrity. Sometimes this lack of integrity means the death of the organism, but it can also mean division into multiple separate organisms. Presevation of integrity and subsequent loss of integrity can happen at many scales, from single cells to cell colonies to insect colonies to human societies.

Science nowadays, for the most part, maintains a very healthy level of integrity. A key component of this integrity is the vision of scientific knowledge as a coherent whole. All the bits and pieces of our scientific knowledge fit together somehow, or eventually will. We're always discovering inconsistencies, but our processes of research and mutual critique keep these inconsistencies under sufficient control that the overall integrity of the system is not under threat. The loud arguments over e.g. climate change are a sore point, but they are certainly at a small enough scale not to threaten the entire system.

And yet... these superficial rashes could be symptoms of a larger systemic problem. Is the rough coherence of scientific knowledge something inevitable? What processes maintain this coherence? What could threaten this coherence?

The coherence of science is maintained by a kind of circulatory system. Information circulates: researchers publish papers but also exchange preliminary results, critiques of draft versions of papers, and also text books and other coordinated summaries of scientific knowledge. People circulate: researchers meet to discuss their work, but also visit each other's laboratories to collaborate on research. Students are trained in one research organization and then get hired to work in other research organizations. Equipment and materials circulate: measuring devices can be calibrated to common standards. Experimental samples are exchanged between laboratories.

What would precipitate the disintegration of science would be the breakdown of this circulatory system. Circulation is supported by the larger social context. Freedom of the press allows research results to be published. Freedom of travel allows people to collaborate. Free trade enables the exchange of equipment and materials.

These freedoms are the hallmarks of liberal society. Science and liberal society have emerged together since early modern times. A free market of ideas allows the best ideas to emerge. Basing policy on effective ideas leads to success and growth, to progress. This progress provides a platform for further exploration, leading to better ideas, more effective policies, and further growth. We have been riding this feedback loop for four hundred years. It's not just science that is coherent, but our global society.

The general pattern in biological systems is that growth is followed by decline. Perhaps this time it will be different, but that is a position that requires a lot of faith! Just as science, liberalism, and progress supported each other in a feedback loop of expansion, there are signs that the same feedback loop may be picking up momentum in the direction of decline.

Of course one can pick a measure of prosperity to support whatever argument one wishes to advance. But it really seems like the financial crash of 2008 is one we have not really recovered from. The rise of vehement anti-liberalism is largely driven by the failure of liberalism. We were promised progress but that is not what we are experiencing. The underlying cause for the lack of progress is probably our reaching various ecological limits, but that's not a message that sells. Science and liberalism have built their castles on progress. As progress falters, so will liberalism, and so will science. Liberalism maintained the circulatory system on which scientific coherence depended.

Of course change is the nature of things. How science might best maintain itself in a new dark age, that is one worthy puzzle. It is valuable to step back a bit, to try to think strategically. How things will unfold in the coming decades and centuries, it is impossible to foresee with any accuracy. What is more feasible is to consider a range of possible trajectories, and to prepare responses across some plausible range. Insurance policies, diversified portfolios, hedged bets: these are effective approaches to dealing with uncertainty. We need to bring these approaches into our investments in scientific research programs.