Is Science in as Good a Place as it Might Be?

Most people probably think that science progresses through all scientists diligently seeking the truth but that illusion was was shattered when Thomas Kuhn published “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Two quotes:

(a) “Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.”

(b) “Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. And perhaps that point need not have been made explicit, for obviously these are the men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.”

Is that true, and if so, why? I think it follows from the way science is learned and then funded. In general, scientists gain their expertise by learning from a mentor, and if you do a PhD, you work for several years in a very narrow field, and most of the time the student follows the instructions of the supervisor. He will, of course, discuss issues with the supervisor, but basically the young scientist will have acquired a range of techniques when finished. He will then go on a series of post-doctoral fellowships, generally in the same area because he has to persuade the new team leaders he is sufficiently skilled to be worth hiring. So he gains more skill in the same area, but invariably he also becomes more deeply submerged in the standard paradigm. At this stage of his life, it is extremely unusual for the young scientist to question whether the foundations of what he is doing is right, and since most continue in this field, they have the various mentors’ paradigm well ingrained. To continue, either they find a company or other organization to get an income, or they stay in a research organization, where they need funding. When they apply for it they keep well within the paradigm; first, it is the easiest way for success, and also boat rockers generally get sunk right then. To get funding, you have to show you have been successful; success is measured mainly by the number of scientific papers and the number of citations. Accordingly, you choose projects that you know will work and shuld not upset any apple-carts. You cite those close to you, and they will cite you; accuse them of being wrong and you will be ignored, and with no funding, tough. What all this means is that the system seems to have been designed to generate papers that confirm what you already suspect. There will be exceptions, such as “discovering dark matter” but all that has done so far is to design a parking place for what we do not understand. Because we do  not understand, all we can do is make guesses as to what it is, and the guesses are guided by our current paradigm, and so far our guesses are wrong.

One small example follows to show what I mean. By itself, it may not seem important, and perhaps it isn’t. There is an emerging area of chemistry called molecular dynamics. What this tries to do is to work out is how energy is distributed in molecules as this distribution alters chemical reaction rates, and this can be important for some biological processes. One such feature is to try to relate how molecules, especially polymers, can bend in solution. I once went to hear a conference presentation where this was discussed, and the form of the bending vibrations was assumed to be simple harmonic because for that the maths are simple, and anyhting wrong gets buried in various “constants”. All question time was taken up by patsy questions from friends, but I got hold of the speaker later, and pointed out that I had published paper a long time previously that showed the vibrations were not simple harmonic, although that was a good approximation for small vibrations. The problem is that small vibrations are irrelevant if you want to see significant chemical effects; they come from large vibrations. Now the “errors” can be fixed with a sequence of anharmonicity terms, each with their own constant, and each constant is worked around until the desired answer is obtained. In short you get the asnswer you need by adjusting the constants.

The net result is, it is claimed that good agreement with observation is found once the “constants” are found for the given situation. The “constants” appear to be only constant for a given situation, so arguably they are not constant, and worse, it can be near impossible to find out what they are from the average paper. Now, there is nothing wrong with using empirical relationships since if they work, they make it a lot easier to carry out calculations. The problem starts when, if you do not know whyit works, you may use it under circumstances when it no longer works.

Now, before you say that surely scientists want to understand, consider the problem for the scientist: maybe there is a better relationship, but to change to use it would involve re-writing a huge amount of computer code. That may take a year or so, in which time no publications are generated, and when the time for applications for further funding comes up, besides having to explain the inactivity, you have to explain why you were wrong before. Who is going to do that? Better to keep cranking the handle because nobody is going to know the difference. Does this matter? In most cases, no, because most science involves making something or measuring something, and most of the time it makes no difference, and also most of the time the underpinning theory is actually well established. The NASA rockets that go to Mars very successfully go exactly where planned using nothing but good old Newtonian dynamics, some established chemistry, some established structural and material properties, and established electromagnetism. Your pharmaceuticals work because they have been empirically tested and found to work (at least most of the time).

The point I am making is that nobody has time to go back and check whether anything is wrong at the fundamental level. Over history, science has been marked by a number of debates, and a number of treasured ideas overthrown. As far as I can make out, since 1970, far more scientific output has been made than in all previous history, yet there have been no fundamental ideas generated during this period that have been accepted, nor have any older ones been overturned. Either we have reached a stage of perfection, or we have ceased looking for flaws. Guess which!

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