Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Science And The Modern World: The Trouble With Physics

What is science? What is it about the modern—Western—world that has historically encouraged or at least permitted science and  scientific institutions to flourish? These are two different but related questions.

The best answer to the first question, just now, can be found in Lee Smolin's deep analysis of the String Theory movement which threatened for a time—roughly the last quarter of the 20th century— to turn the study of physics in the U. S. into a purely theoretical science. (See The Trouble With Physics, 2006) Physics is not a purely theoretical or a priori science like mathematics; at some point its equations must have solutions that lead to experimentally verifiable predictions about the way things behave in the real world. The inability of String Theory to produce such predictions was bound to be fatal to its pretensions. What's surprising is how long it took the international scientific community to conclude that that this particular emperor had no clothes.

This story that will be painfully familiar to at least some of those who fought in the other academic culture wars of that same period; certain features of the String Theory saga remind me, at least, of the way Post-modernism politicised liberal arts curriculums during those years. These very different ideologies had similar causes (too many Ph.D.'s, relentless pressure to publish—ready or not—and too few jobs) and produced similar power struggles. There is a fundamental difference between String Theory and Post-modernism, however: physics is a science and therefore (unlike the Humanities) has built-in methods for rationally adjudicating the claims of theories

Science is an open, public, democratic enterprise, an institution, with its own rules and its own egalitarian code of ethics. There are no hidden procedures or secret evidence or private languages. All evidence is public, open to all, all claims must be verifiable by any qualified inquirer, all experiments repeatable. This is not a complete answer to the question, What is science? but it's a start.

Notice what my second question implies about the relationship between science, or knowledge, and power: knowledge is not power, as Francis Bacon and others have claimed; it is those who have power who decide what counts as knowledge. The Soviet State tolerated the science of physics for its own state interests—it wanted nuclear weapons; it destroyed the science of biology when it came into conflict with Marxist ideology.

So long as the Church was powerful, it controlled what counted as knowledge; when it began to lose power, it lost its control of knowledge.

Power, in the modern world—or at least in the constitutional democracies of the modern world—is not concentrated in a single office or institution but spread around. Science can flourish under such conditions because its findings don't threaten the interests of all of the people all of the time; just some of the people, some of the time.


  1. Science means being open minded. Science involves thinking, experimenting, and reconsidering. Science is inherently moral. Democracy is the political realization of the scientific method.

  2. If you can't speak to the point, George, if all you want to do is sound off, go get yourself a soap-box; start your own blog.

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