Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Science for sale: where we are and how we got here

Well, our flight to France was cancelled -- twice, and then finally rescheduled for so far into our trip that it didn't make sense to go.  So, you're stuck with us now for the duration -- but that's ok (sort of); science marches on, and we'll keep marching with it.  

For a discussion of the origins of our era of entrepreneurial science, in the context of the industrial revolution, listen to the first of a 2-part series of the wonderful BBC Radio program In Our Time. The second part will be aired the last week of December.  In Our Time, every Thursday except in summer, is a pleasure and educational wonder of our intellectually threadbare media time--listening regularly is like getting a college degree, without having to pay any tuition!  The discussion is usually calm and congenial, but the first installment on the Industrial Revolution in Britain got pretty steamed up....and not just about the role of the steam engine, or the inventors of the steam engine, but about contesting views of the nature of, and proper course of, society that we still see today in society, and in science as well.  The discussion is well worth listening to.

The industrial revolution, which mainly occurred in Britain, grew out of the Enlightenment period, of the overthrow of medieval and Classical concepts of a static universe that could be understood by thought and deductive reasoning. Led by the giants Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and many others famous and otherwise, this period ushered in an era of empiricism, an era in which we still live.  The Enlightenment, a largely Continental view that the new kinds of knowledge--that has morphed into institutionalized 'science'--could enable society's problems of suffering and inequity to be relieved through a better, more systematic understanding of the real, rather than ideal world.

Francis Bacon is credited with introducing the scientific method's reliance on induction--repeated, controlled observation.  In an In Our Time installment in 2009, Bacon's reasoning was discussed:  he felt that science could be put into the service of the nation, to exploit the colonies and gain international political and economic dominance.  We're living that legacy still, as many scientists argue --  believe -- that knowledge can only be called 'science' if it can lead us to manipulate the world.

Part of the debate is one that threads through the 19th century and exists still today:  did major advances come because of the stream of culture, or because of the genius of A Few Good Men?  Associated with that is the contrast between the view that cultural, including scientific advances belong to and are enabled by society, vis-à-vis the view that individual self-interest is the source and should receive the rewards of technological advance.  The industrial revolution led to great progress in many different areas of life, but also to great misery in many different lives.  In turn, that spawned the contest between capitalistic and socialistic thinking.  In its stream were Marx's view of history as a struggle between material interests, Darwin's of history as a struggle between individuals, and many more.

In the US, figures like Bell and Edison led the way in commercializing, and publicly hyping science, and in setting up  research laboratories aimed at industrial commercialization of ideas.  In our age, the comparable questions include whether genetic research should be publicly funded, and if so, should resulting royalties as well as new products go back to the public?  Should genes be patentable?  Who owns human embryos?  If the technicians, students, or other workers make the biotech inventor's work possible, why are they paid so little relative to him or her? Should research funds be put into areas that will yield commercial products at some vague future time, or should the funds--that come from taxes--be used to improve nutrition and vaccination of people here and now?  Should NSF and NIH be pressured to see that a criterion for the science they fund be that it can be quickly commercialized?

To what extent should science be for sale?  How much is owed to scientific discoverers?  Indeed, how much credit should discoverers actually be given individually, rather than being viewed in corks floating on the ideas of their time?  Should science be supported on the basis of its commercial potential?

The product of specific inventors, or the specific products of the times?
The industrial revolution involved many inventors, who improved technologies  including looms, shipping, iron, steam, rail, and other aspects of the mechanization and industrialization of life.  Step by step, innovators invented, tinkered with, and learned how to apply all sorts of new or improved techniques, machinery, and manufacturing technologies.  The explosive growth of machinery-based industry that resulted transformed rural populations to urban proletarians, who depended for their survival on the products of industry rather than their own plots of land.  Government made Britain's industrial advance possible through tax policy, the Royal Navy, the captive market of the Empire, import restrictions, banking laws, and in other ways.  These policies nurtured, stimulated, and enabled the individual incentives of countless major and minor tinkering inventors (the equivalent of today's biotechnology innovators) to make their ideas and market them intellectually and commercially to make their livings (and to dream of riches).  But how much credit actually belongs to the inventors and how much is owed to the workers who implemented inventions?

The debate over whether history is a cultural stream or whether it's transformed periodically by Great Men is a serious debate.  For most ideas credited to The Great Genius, others can be found who at the same time or earlier had similar ideas for similarly good reasons.  Darwin had his Wells, Wallace, Mathews, Adams, Grandfather Erasmus Darwin, and others.  Newton his Leibniz.  Einstein his Poincaré.  If you're in science and have an original idea, you can be sure that if you hunt around in the literature, you'll find others expressing the same insight.  It's a humbling experience many of us have had.  Without Watson and Crick, when would the structure of DNA have been discovered--eventually, never, or right away by Linus Pauling or Rosalind Franklin?

The cultural stream vs Great Man theories of history have been interesting questions in anthropology for a long time.  It's about how culture works as a phenomenon, and among other things how science works as a way of knowing the world, and about how moral decisions are made about social equity.  Maybe it's something appropriate to think about at this holiday time of year.

And if you want to know more, and didn't get a good book for Christmas, nestle down by a nice warm fire, with a brandy, and open a little story called War and Peace.   It asks how important Napoleon was to Napoleonic history.


Arjun said...

As you said, in the vestiges of the history of any 'great' scientific discovery we are wont to find stories of the giants on whose shoulders the discoverer stood as well as those of their competitors.

Taking a cultural approach to 'great' discoveries, we often see that the discoveries fulfilled some epistemic 'need' of the time.

A question which has dogged me in regards to these discoveries is their particular formulation.

When it came time for mathematicians of the 19th century to make calculus rigorous, they decided to formulate it in terms of limits (the idea that a function can be made as close as desired to a desired value by making its argument close enough, but not equal, to the value of the argument that would make the function equal to the desired value) as opposed to infinitesimals ("objects so small that there is no way to see them or to measure them") given Bishop Berkeley's vehement opposition to the concept of infinitesimals as outlined in "The Analyst."

One wonders whether 19th century mathematicians would have adopted the infinitesimal approach instead of the limit approach which is now taught to every undergraduate mathematics major. In fact, while the limit approach is referred to as "analysis," the infinitesimal approach, which lay fallow for almost 100 years, was finally given a rigorous basis in the second half of the 20th century and relegated to the label of "nonstandard analysis."

This raises the question as to whether in developing and refining our collective knowledge we are approaching some universal truth or merely developing one perspective on the world at a time and carrying forward its accompanying ethos. I believe the latter.

Ken Weiss said...

I'm not sure what you mean by an 'epistemic need' in this context, but since major ideas seem routinely to be 'in the air', with multiple anticipatory or independent discoveries, there must be some major component of societal context that leads to specific ways of viewing the world.

I certainly was taught calculus in terms of limits, but until your message did not see that this was different in spirit than infinitessimals of fluxion (Newton's approach). His figures show geometric shapes becomming ever smaller, which he sums to compute areas etc., as I recall.

I found Newton to be largely inscruitable, and then read that he made it that way on purpose, which may have helped Leibniz' approach to gain acceptance, even in Britain. But I don't know the history of that, nor was I aware of Berkeley's views or their effect.

I never heard of 'nonstandard analysis', so my mathematics education was lacking (I majored in it, but there was no 'history of mathematics' course, nor in our Philosophy department that I knew of).

As to your last point, I think most historians and philosophers of science have, ever since Kuhn (or, more properly, Fleck in the '30s and perhaps others I don't k

now of) viewed science in sociological terms. Most people, including Kuhn I think, have viewed science as getting more refined knowledge of a presumed universal truth, presumably with less and less left unaccounted for. But whether we're close or not, to that truth, is something we can't know....can we?

Ken Weiss said...

What I understand about Newton was that he was a credit hound like the most vainglorious of today's media-seeking self-promoting scientists, and he didn't want his ideas 'out there' for others to use or steal. I believe he wrote that in a letter to someone, or something like that, making the point clear to historians.

So that may help explain his losing out to Leibniz' approach. I believe I've read that Leibniz' notation and methodology were easier to use and hence to teach.

Arjun said...

In regards to "epistemic 'need'," I realize that I omitted part of my originally intended post. Whoops. It went something like this-- Calculus served to answer several of Western scientists' and mathematicians' major questions of the day: these included finding the tangent at any point along a curve, finding the area beneath a curve, finding the maxima and minima of a function, and determining the motion of celestial bodies.

To my earlier point, we see that had the vagaries of history played out a different course we may very well be _thinking_ about our world differently due to an alternative formulation of the _same_ descriptive theory.

Arjun said...

Rereading your original post, I find the following quotes from Ted Kaczynski pertinent (bear with me):

The motives of scientists
87. Science and technology provide the most important examples of surrogate activities. Some scientists claim that they are motivated by "curiosity;" that notion is simply absurd. Most scientists work on highly specialized problems that are not the object of any normal curiosity. For example, is an astronomer, a mathematician or an entomologist curious about the properties of isopropyltrimethylmethane? Of course not. Only a chemist is curious about such a thing, and he is curious about it only because chemistry is his surrogate activity. Is the chemist curious about the appropriate classification of a new species of beetle? No. That question is of interest only to the entomologist, and he is interested in it only because entomology is his surrogate activity. If the chemist and the entomologist had to exert themselves seriously to obtain the physical necessities, and if that effort exercised their abilities in an interesting way but in some nonscientific pursuit, then they couldn't give a damn about isopropyltrimethylmethane or the classification of beetles. Suppose that lack of funds for postgraduate education had led the chemist to become an insurance broker instead of a chemist. In that case he would have been very interested in insurance matters but would have cared nothing about isopropyltrimethylmethane. In any case it is not normal to put into the satisfaction of mere curiosity the amount of time and effort that scientists put into their work. The "curiosity" explanation for the scientists' motive just doesn't stand up.
88. The "benefit of humanity" explanation doesn't work any better. Some scientific work has no conceivable relation to the welfare of the human race—most of archeology or comparative linguistics for example. Some other areas of science present obviously dangerous possibilities. Yet scientists in these areas are just as enthusiastic about their work as those who develop vaccines or study air pollution. Consider the case of Dr. Edward Teller, who had an obvious emotional involvement in promoting nuclear power plants. Did this involvement stem from a desire to benefit humanity? If so, then why didn't Dr. Teller get emotional about other "humanitarian" causes? If he was such a humanitarian then why did he help to develop the H-bomb? As with many other scientific achievements, it is very much open to question whether nuclear power plants actually do benefit humanity. Does the cheap electricity outweigh the accumulating waste and risk of accidents? Dr. Teller saw only one side of the question. Clearly his emotional involvement with nuclear power arose not from a desire to "benefit humanity" but from a personal fulfillment he got from his work and from seeing it put to practical use.
89. The same is true of scientists generally. With possible rare exceptions, their motive is neither curiosity nor a desire to benefit humanity but the need to go through the power process: to have a goal (a scientific problem to solve), to make an effort (research) and to attain the goal (solution of the problem.) Science is a surrogate activity because scientists work mainly for the fulfillment they get out of the work itself.

Arjun said...

To continue the above:

90. Of course, it's not that simple. Other motives do play a role for many scientists. Money and status for example. Some scientists may be persons of the type who have an insatiable drive for status (see paragraph 79) and this may provide much of the motivation for their work. No doubt the majority of scientists, like the majority of the general population, are more or less susceptible to advertising and marketing techniques and need money to satisfy their craving for goods and services. Thus science is not a puresurrogate activity. But it is in large part a surrogate activity.
91. Also, science and technology constitute a mass power movement, and many scientists gratify their need for power through identification with this mass movement (see paragraph 83).
92. Thus science marches on blindly, without regard to the real welfare of the human race or to any other standard, obedient only to the psychological needs of the scientists and of the government officials and corporation executives who provide the funds for research.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, I would not want to agree with that guy per se, on general principles (though he did study with my own PhD mentor, Frank Livingstone, and Frank said he (Ted K) aced his course).

I think his generalizations have some truth, but our complex, specialized society means you can say that about most of us, not just scientists. While Newton was recovering from being beaned by that apple, blacksmiths were very interested in how well bellows worked, but not much in how species were related to each other, or how oxygen worked (if Boyle's and others' claims were even true!).

How contextual science is is of course debated. I don't know enough of the history to know why the problems that calculus addressed were those of the day, except that Galileo, Copernicus, Brahe, and others (Halley? I'm sure I'm forgetting some) had been able to take a new interest in planetary motion.

But why one version of calculus would grab differently than another, is something I'm not capable of responding about.

Clearly, whether we'd have come upon the equivalent of calculus by now had they not lived, science certainly takes a culture-dependent course.