Wednesday 7 July 2010

Growth and the expectation of growth in scientific knowledge

We have become used to growth in scientific knowledge, and expect growth in scientific knowledge. This expectation at first shaped reality, then became reality, and eventually displaced reality. The link between expectation and actuality was broken and the world of assumptions took over.


The expectation that scientific knowledge will grow almost inevitably (given adequate 'inputs' of personnel and funding) is epitomized by the professionalization of scientific research (making scientific research a job) and the expectation of regular and frequent scientific publication – the expectation of regular and frequent publication would only make sense if it was assumed that scientific knowledge was accumulating in a predictable fashion.

We nowadays expect a growth in the number of scientific publications over time, and a growth in the totality of citations – these are fuelled by increases in the numbers of professional scientists and of journals for publishing science. We assume that there is an infinite amount of useful and new science waiting to be discovered, and an infinite pool of people capable of making discoveries.

The economist Paul Romer – and many others – have built this into theories of the modern economy – they argue that continued growth in science and technology fuels continual improvement in productivity (economic output per person) and therefore growth in the economy. And this is kept going by increasing the investment in science and technology. The idea is that we are continually getting better at scientific discovery, investing in scientific discovery, therefore modern society can continue to grow. (Yes, I know it doesn’t make sense, but...)


But how would we really know whether science was growing? I mean, who is really in a position to know this?

Who could evaluate whether change is science and increased amounts of self-styled scientific *stuff* actually corresponded to more and better science?

When – as now – scientific growth is expected, and when society acts-upon the expectation, we have an overwhelming *assumption* of growth in science, an assumption that science *is* growing – but that says nothing about whether there really is growth.

Because when people assume science is growing and when they think they perceive that science is growing, this creates vast possibilities for dishonesty, hype and spin. Because people expect science to grow, for there to be regular breakthroughs, they will believe it when regular breakthroughs are claimed (whether or not breakthroughs have actually happened).


But how if there is really no growth in scientific knowledge? Or how if the real growth is less than the assumed growth? How if there is actual decline in real scientific knowledge – how would we know?

Science – as a social system –resembles the economy. In the credit crunch of 2008 it was realized that the economy had not really been growing, but what we were seeing was actually some mixture of increasing inflation, increasing borrowing, and rampant dishonesty from many directions. (It is the rampant dishonesty that has prevented this from being understood – and this tactical dishonesty is itself no accident.)

So we discovered that we were not really getting richer, but we were living off ever more credit, and the value of money was less than we thought; and we (or at least I) discovered that we could not trust anybody to tell us anything about what was going on or why it had happened. They were not even trying to discover the truth, they were trying to build their careers (politicians, economists, journalists – all careerists). (To be fair, most of them are explicitly nihilists who do not believe in the truth – so why should we expect them to tell it?)

Truth about the credit crunch was something we amateurs needed to work out for ourselves, as best we could.


I believe that science is in the same bad state as the economy, but probably even worse.

In science, what masquerades as growth in knowledge (to an extent which is unknown, and indeed unknowable except in retrospect) is not growth in knowledge but merely an expansion of *stuff*, changes in the methods of counting, and so on.

Almost nobody in science is trying to discover the truth, and is embarrassed even by talking about the subject. Not surprising that they are embarrassed!

For instance, virtually every influential scientific article is now hyped to a variable but vast extent (the honest ones are buried and ignored).

Multiple counting is rife: progress in claimed when a grant is applied for and also when a grant is awarded, and even when the work is still happening – since scientific progress is assumed to be predictable – a mere function of resources, capital and manpower; credit for a scientific publication is counted for all of its (many) authors, for all the many forms in which the same stuff is published and republished, for the department and also for the university where it was done, and also the granting agency which provided the funds and for the journal where it was published – everyone grabs a slice of the ‘glory’.

Credit is given for the mere act of a ‘peer reviewed’ publication regardless of whether the stuff is true and useful – or false and harmful.

Thus the signal of real science is swamped utterly by the noise of hype.


Let us suppose that doing science is actually much *harder* than people assume; much harder and much less predictable.

Suppose that most competent and hardworking real scientists actually make no indispensible contribution to science – but merely *incremental* improvements or refinements in methods, the precision of measurements and the expression of theories. And if they personally had not done it, it would have slightly-slowed but would not have prevented progress, or somebody else would have done it.

If science is really *hard*, then this fact is incompatible with the professionalization of science – with the idea of scientific research as a career. Since science is irregular and infrequent, science could only be done in an amateur way; maybe as a sideline from some other profession like teaching, practicing medicine, or being a priest.

Professional science would then be intrinsically phony, and the phoniness would increase as professionalization of science increased and became more precisely measured, and as the profession of science expanded – until it reached a situation where the visible products of science – the *stuff* bore no relationship to the reality of science.

Professional scientists would produce stuff (like scientific publications) regularly and frequently, but this stuff would have nothing to do with real science.

Or, more exactly, the growing amount of stuff produce by the growing numbers of professional science careerists, whose use of hype would also be growing – the amount of this stuff would be so much greater than the amount of real science, that the real science would be obscured utterly.


This is precisely what we have.

The observation of growth in scientific knowledge became an expectation of growth in science and finally an assumption of growth in science.

And when it was assumed that science was growing, it did not really need to grow, because the assumption framed the reality.


But if science is as hard as I believe it is; then scientific progress cannot be taken for granted, cannot be expected or assumed.

Our society depends on scientific progress – when scientific progress stops, our society will collapse. Yet so great is our societal arrogance that we do not regard science as something real. Instead science is the subject of wishful thinking and propaganda.

Science is a way of getting at certain kinds of truth, but the way that science works is dependent on honesty and integrity. Our societal arrogance is such that we believe that we can have the advantages of real science but at the same time subvert the honesty and integrity of science whenever that happens to be expedient.

Our societal arrogance is that we are in control of this dishonesty – that the amount of hype and spin we apply is under our control and can be reversed at will, or we can separate the signal from the noise, and re-calculate the reality of science. This is equivalent to the Weimar Republic assuming that inflation was under control when prices and wages were rising unpredictably by the hour.

But we cannot do this for the economy and we cannot do it for science. In fact we have no idea of the real situation in either science or the economy, except that in a universe tending towards entropy we must assume that the noise will tend to grow and swamp the signal. The Western economy was apparently growing but in reality it was increased inflation and borrowing and deception; science has appeared to be growing but the reality is increasing hype, spin and dishonesty. The link between stuff and substance has disappeared.


When the signals of economics and science (money and ‘publications’ and other communications) lose their meaning, when the meaning is detached from underlying reality, then there is no limit to the mismatch.

The economy was collapsing while the economic indicators improved; and science can be collapsing while professional science is booming.

But if science is very difficult and unpredictable, and if the amount of science cannot be indefinitely expanded by increasing the input of personnel and funding, then perhaps the amount of real science has not increased *at all* and the vast expansion of scientific-stuff is not science.

If so, then the amount of real science (intermittent, infrequent, unpredictable) has surely not stayed constant but will have actually declined due to the hostile environment. At the very least, real science will be de facto unfindable since the signal is drowned by every increasing levels of noise.

So, the economy was a bubble, and science is a bubbles, and bubbles always burst; and the longer delayed the burst, the bigger the bubble will become (the more air, the less substance), and the bigger will be the collapse.


When the economic bubble burst, the economy was much smaller than previously realized - but of course the economy was still enormous. In effect, the economy was set back several years.

But when the scientific bubble bursts, what will be left over after the explosion? Maybe only the old science - from an era when most scientists were at least honest and trying to discover the truth about the natural world.

And, in an era of mindless technical specialization, will there be enough scientists even to understand what was left over?

At the very least, science would be set back by several decades and not just by a few years. But it could be even worse than that.