Thursday 10 February 2011

The motivational (non-systematic) basis of real science


Science is a mystery - it happened by accident, unplanned, as a by-product of other cultural changes - and no sooner had people developed a recognition of what had happened, and devised some ideas obout how science worked - than it stopped working and transformed into just-another dishonest, self-serving futile bureaucracy.


But what was the basis of science?

The key was motivation, individual motivation - specifically the motivation to discover more of the truth of things in order to be able to do something.

Only when science is underpinned by the proper motivation of individual 'scientists' will it work.

(Obviously there will always be 'rotten apples' in science; but there cannot be too many nor at too high a proportion, else science will stop being science.)

There is only one proper motivation for science (i.e. truth-seeking), and an infinite number of wrong motivations, which point-off in every other direction than the proper one.


Specifically, each scientist will be motivated by a sub-goal (not to discover the truth about everything, of course; but a particular thing).

The specific motivation would be something like trying to discover something; to invent something like a theory or a device; to solve a problem - e.g. in measuring, predicting, performing some function; to do something like cure a disease, navigate, carry a load.

Something like that.


How much specialization should there be in science?

The answer is determined by motivation - by what each scientist is motivated to do.

There should be as much specialization as is judged to be helpful in doing that thing.

Social aspects of science also flow from motivation.

If the motivational goal can be achieved by a single person them obviously there is no reason for science to be a social activity; but a mutuality of interest may lead to cooperation, which would essentially be informal (based on mutual benefit). This will lead to the proper degree of the right kind of cooperation.


The rewards of science come initially from the intrinsic motivation and secondarily, when there are groups, from the status within the group and from the status of the group.

So that, although there is a pecking order within the group, which is a zero sum game; there is also a sense in which any group bound by mutual interest will award itself status, compared with those people who are not thus interested.

This means that all members of a group bound together by individual motivation may get psychological rewards from the group membership, based on them all making a contribution to that groups motivational goals - so even the lowliest member can feel a reward.


Science as a social process therefore happens when a task (coming from individual motivation) is too great for a single person to accomplish alone using available resources: for example when the making of a new kind of weapon requires the making of a new kind of material - the weapon maker and the material maker may cooperate to achieve this goal, which neither could do alone.


But if motivation is applied via a formal system, then scientists will (firstly) have their motivations re-shaped in order to satisfy system criteria; then (next) the actual selection of 'scientists' will cease to be on the basis of motivation and will instead be on the basis of system criteria - and it will stop being a science.

Because system demands are always partial and biased, and the fastest, easiest and most direct route to satisfying system demands will never be identical to personal motivations, and can be unconstrainedly different.

There is therefore no limit to how non-scientific real science can evolve-to-become, once personal motivation has been abandoned and replaced as the foundation.


Once motivation has been abandoned as the core of science and the principle behind its 'organization', the only thing standing in the path of complete corruption is inertia due to the overlap of generations.

So, all attempts to make science person-proof and independent of individual motivation will destroy real science - although typically the destruction will only become gradually obvious, as earlier generations of individually-motivated scientists lose influence, retire and die-off.


As usual, the benefits of impersonal systematization are immediate and short-term; while the harm is delayed and long-term.

Thus science becomes yet another victim of its own success.



Anonymous said...

It seems to me that science worked pretty well as a formal institution until politics and science became intertwined when the Cathedral became hegemon. As MM said, "If you add a drop of fine wine to a barrel of sewage you still have a barrel of sewage; but, if you add a drop of sewage to a barrel of fine wine you have a barrel of sewage."

Perhaps science as a formal institution or an amalgation of independent formal institutions would have worked fine had Science not put on the Ring of Power.

Bruce Charlton said...

[Please comment with a pseudonym - not anonymously]

Yes - things probably started going seriously wrong in the early 20th century as this intertwining started, or even in the late 19th century with the professionalization and career option of science; however, the resulting decline was concealed by inertia (due to overlapping generations) until the later 20th century.

During the mid-20th century science briefly thought it had the best of both worlds (independence and money) - but it was merely a transitional phase on the way to functionless pseudo-scientific bureaucracy (climate science etc).

dearieme said...

Do you know James Le Fanu's "The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine"? Are his views compatible with yours?

dearieme said...

Oh, I should mention a word I heard being deployed in a menacing manner shortly before I retired. That word was "mainstream", as in "His work isn't mainstream" or "His views aren't mainstream".

Naturally I heard it on the lips of the least intelligent of my colleagues.

Bruce Charlton said...

Yes - I know and value James Le Fanu's work, and often cite it e.g. here:

I recall reviewing this book, positively, in The Tablet I think it was (I did two reviews for them but wasn't asked to do any more! I don't have access to a copy).

HenryOrientJnr said...

I don't know if it is science, per se, that is in bad shape or whether it is the gigantic bureaucracies which employ (some) good scientists which are really at fault.

For instance, a prior post of yours posited that the Apollo Moon Landing represented the summit of Western capability. I agree that it seems the West is incapable of this level of organizational competence anymore, so that it cannot build nuclear power plants and Mars missions get cancelled even before the program ever really gets going. Even the Freedom Tower in New York (to replace the WTC) only recently got started.

However, the problem lies with the administrators, politicians and bureaucrats - not the scientists, technologists and engineers. These people are as good as ever - which is a good thing, since they are they only thing that is keeping our civilization from collapse.

When Britain starts experiencing rolling blackouts and brownouts because the electrical grid is over used I will not be blaming the people who build power plants for the problem. It is the usual suspects in government and the media who will be the true culprits.

It does seem, though, that truly breakthrough science, which starts whole new fields of study like relativity or quantum theory, is no longer being done. I am not sure if this is just because the low-hanging fruit has all been discovered or if it is a defect in the way scientific prodigies are allowed to develop.

If Aubrey de Grey manages to achieve functional immortality I would say this would be a pretty decent accomplishment though, even for our declining civilization.

Bruce Charlton said...

HOJnr: "However, the problem lies with the administrators, politicians and bureaucrats - not the scientists, technologists and engineers. These people are as good as ever - which is a good thing, since they are they only thing that is keeping our civilization from collapse."

Well, I disagree that these people are as good as ever - I think they are a lot worse.

They are worse at best and worse on average: - as a result of the best people being deterred from science and kept out of science (because they fail to get through training, or fail to achieve career goals); and they are worst on average mainly because the number of personnel in science has increase about tenfold, while may of the smartest people who in the 1940-50s would have gone into science have for several decades gone into medicine and other professions. So the average is very much lower than 60 years ago.

Since the best people in science (say the top 2 percent) are not as good (especially, they are much less creative) and since good people (at about the level of 60 years ago) are now outnumbered about tent to one by dull careerists - we find science is run by and for the mediocre, unimaginative and unmotivated majority.

And these people have been brought up and trained in a bureaucracy - so they are not motivated to do science but to satisfy the system.

There may be many reasons why we do not make breakthroughs any more, but one reason is that nobody is even trying; and you don't make scientific breakthoughs as an accidental by-product of pursuing a career in a bureaucracy.

Sadly, *nobody* is keeping our civilization from collapse: it is palpably collapsing, but gradually enough that we are distracted from it by our hourly absorption in the media, which fills our mind with attention-grabbing new stuff every day to the point of overflowing, and thereby pushes out any awareness of what is happening.

Bruce Charlton said...

Edited comment from James A Donald:

"Quoting bgc: "Because the secular right have this big advantage - they do not need propaganda, because they are (to a much, much greater extent than PC) simply accepting the judgments of spontaneous commonsense. So if PC goes too far (which it eventually will) and if the propaganda apparatus breaks down (which it eventually will) then people will, en masse, spontaneously revert to commonsense."

JAD: "You are predicting that my faction (secular right) is going to win - presumably since your faction (Christian religious right) is busily committing suicide by transforming into progressives and tranzis. The Christian religious right is merely that part of Christianity that has been slowest to transform.

"I wish it were so, but most people are by nature not rationalists. Observe the majority of Palestinians voting for holy war with a militarily superior power, the majority of Algerians voting for a party that considered most of them apostates deserving of death.

"The triumph of the secular right would be the triumph of rationalism: But our society is moving down JD Unwin's cultural scale, away from rationalism."


bgc reply: - I am not predicting that the secular right will win - if I had to make a prediction on current trends it would be that Islam will win. For Islam not to win would require the reversal of a century-long and still-strengthening trend - after only a couple of centuries dip - which followed a millennium of growth and consolidation.