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Sunday, July 27, 2014

The End of Science

Charles Murray introduced me to the idea in Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. Now that the Periodic Table is filled out, and so many overarching theories are proven, what’s a producing scientist to do? 

Ever since I read that, I’ve noticed how few scientists are actually doing science. Most are teaching or opinionating, or manipulating policy. 

This week I read The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age by John Horgan, an ostentatious display of mastery by an author uniquely qualified to ask top scientists, “What is the future of Science?” 

For the last 25 years he has been interviewing noteworthy scientists and publishing those interviews, principally in Scientific American magazine. This book is a reordering of many of those interviews around a single premise, long on examples that lead to an optimistic, well reasoned conclusion. 

Along the way there are some valuable observations, after all, he has made a career out of talking with the best of the best. 

Earlier this week, I was involved with beer and the question came up, “What is the relationship between science and engineering, especially in education?” I know many busted scientists who look down at excellent engineering, glaring that if you have to ask, you are obviously too stupid to know.

So when I stumbled across this, I wanted to know.

Horgan records that the difference between science and engineering is that the scientist seeks what is true, while the engineer seeks what is good. p258

Or, as I see it, calling a tomato is a fruit is true. Not putting a tomato in a fruit salad is good. That’s useful.

Another useful point as I’m being bombarded with pseudo-scientific propaganda and opinion is:

“...verification and validation of numerical models of natural systems is impossible.” p202 Ooh, good one!

As I have written, a model is a simplified version of reality, useful when it allows you to predict what happens. Every sales manager I’ve ever known has confused the model with the reality. When the model is no longer accurate, build a better one.

A more elegant stipulation of model hysteria is No matter how hard you do the wrong thing, it never quite works.

Horgan is properly in awe of his subjects best thinking, and reverent when it has proven true and useful. He has a better grip on the role of irony and criticism than his subjects, and he knows that the big ideas seemed fanciful when first introduced.

When confronted with energetically delivered caca de vaca, he doubles down on reporting what was said, letting the subject fall on its own. Doing many major interviews gives Horgan confidence to trust the process.

The last few pages gave a new example of the future of science that was earned through all the interviews.

Many years previously he found himself in a rigorous thought experiment that showed the future of science. He was somewhat hesitant reporting the story, as he thought it was unique. 
As I read his story, the hairs on the back of my neck went up. I had had a similar experience forty years ago. I wonder how unique the experience really is?

The lesson for those considering the End of Science is that science has never been “out there,” but always “in here,” between the ears. Realizing that, I thought of Horgan’s interviews in the book of scientists who rued that they hadn’t had a good idea to follow in years.

Which explained the education, opinionating, and policy manipulation of so many former scientists. As Waylon said, “It ain’t love, but it ain’t bad.”

And for those wondering about that future? Well you can come back baby, science never forgets.