The October 10 edition of the magazine Palladium published an item called The Transformations of Science. The following includes some of my thoughts on what the article stated, relating to the issue of trust in science. In 1660 the Royal Society was formed, and it adopted the motto Nullius in verba, which means take no one’s word for it. This was their version of how science should be carried out: check everything. The article notes that Thomas Hobbes objected, maybe because he was not a member of the Royal Society. Hobbes pointed out that not everyone could make such observations and stated claims should be derived mathematically from axioms. This raised a problem: who was supposed to make the relevant observations and who was supposed to rely on whom? Unstated was another issue: do we require procedures derived from axioms that allows calculations to get the results we need (the epistemic approach), or do we try to understand what is going on (the ontological approach)? This hounds modern quantum mechanics.
None of this produced benefit, however. Back then, science was a curiosity. There was public interest, particularly when the Leyden jar was developed. Apparently, a large number of people would join hands and one would touch the jar, when they would all get an electrical shock. Michael Faraday gave public demonstrations that filled halls and showed phenomena that probably seemed like magic. However, it would not be long before science got too complicated. People might come to see Faraday do some amazing things with electricity, but they would hardly come to watch the manipulation of Maxwell’s partial differential equations.
Nullius in verba implies everything should be re-examined and re-verified. That makes little sense. How many times do you have to check the melting point of benzoic acid? Accordingly, what we have now is settled science. This is the authoritative version, but that brings its own problems. Authority is a powerful resource, and before long politicians saw a point of using it to justify their decisions, and to maintain this, the state supplied money to keep it going. Science made an impact in WW I, and a hugely more important role in WW II. The provision of electrical appliances following Faraday and Maxwell, and the more startling appliances that depend on quantum mechanics, together with the development of modern medicine, have made us dependent on science. The problem with this is how is it “settled”? Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for daring to go against “settled” science. He supported Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, and how could anyone reject the settled conclusion that everything went around Earth? Fortunately for heretics like me, we have now developed a different approach: ignore the heresy.
Sometimes science is either not settled or does not give clean answers. The recent issue of mask-wearing is indicative. Politicians had to make decisions based on limited information. From the scientific view, if we restrict our thoughts solely to the virus, mask wearing cannot do harm (i.e. make viruses more likely to infect) as long as people handle the masks properly, whereas they might do good. They were, however, very unpopular and many people objected because the state made them do something. The reputation of science was also damaged.
We have a similar problem with climate change and the effect of greenhouse gases. The problem is the epistemic approach. You hear comments that the climate varies and the variations are due to “natural causes”. Worse, the population has expanded dramatically based on the availability of cheap energy, and in doing so it has locked in the need for it, at least in the short term. To stop burning fossil fuels today would lead to serious economic problems tomorrow; failure to stop today will lead to catastrophic economic problems for our great grandchildren. But politicians never think past the next election, or at least not sufficiently well to act on those thoughts. The scientists lose face because they cannot predict exactly what will happen. The population, however, cannot understand the concept of partial differential equations and cannot understand the consequences of a number of different effects that sometimes reinforce or sometimes cancel. The so-called Southern Oscillation is an example. The scientists know fine well what the causes are, but putting numbers to them and combining them well into the future is a probabilistic effort.
So, what does this article recommend? The first is a reconciliation between exploratory and authoritative elements. That requires changes in scientific practice and public comprehension. It argues some fields should disclaim authority partly or completely. It even suggests some scientific journals should ban authoritative articles. It suggests some parts of science should be shed off and rarely interact with other parts, thereby preventing premature consensus. It also suggests funding has to be restructured, with exploratory science removed from central funding, where authority and settled science resides.
So, what do I think this means. Feel free to offer your thoughts. I shall add more thoughts in a later post, mainly on the issue of “settled science”.