After science: Has the tradition been broken?

Monday, April 26th, 2010

A few months ago I finally got around to reading A Canticle for Liebowitz, in part because Bruce Charlton mentions it while discussing the scientific tradition:

The classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller portrays a post-nuclear-holocaust world in which the tradition of scientific practice — previously handed-down from one generation of scientists to the next — has been broken. Only a few scientific artefacts remain, such as fragments of electronic equipment. It turns out that after the tradition has been broken, the scientific artefacts make no sense and are wildly misinterpreted. For instance a blueprint is regarded as if it was a beautiful illuminated manuscript, and components such as diodes are regarded as magical talismans or pills.

Charlton also cites Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a know-nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists.

Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred.

Nonetheless all these fragments are re-embodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid.

Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.

Charlton, as you might imagine, isn’t concerned about what might happen so much as what he believes has happened in the sciences:

A theme associated with philosophers such as Polanyi and Oakeshott is that explicit knowledge — such as is found in textbooks and scientific articles — is only a selective summary that misses that the most important capability derives from implicit, traditional or ‘tacit’ knowledge. It is this un-articulated knowledge that leads to genuine human understanding of the natural world, accurate prediction and the capacity to make effective interventions.

Tacit knowledge is handed on between and across generations by slow, assimilative processes which require extended, relatively unstructured and only semi-purposive human contact. What is being transmitted and inculcated is an over-arching purpose, a style of thought, a learned but then spontaneous framing of reality, a sense of how problems should be tackled, and a gut-feeling for evaluating the work or oneself, as well as others.

This kind of process was in the past achieved by such means as familial vocations, prolonged apprenticeship, co-residence and extended time spent in association with a Master — and by the fact that the Master and apprentice personally selected each other. The pattern was seen in all areas of life where independence, skill and depth of knowledge were expected: crafts, arts, music, scholarship — and science.
It is important to recognize that the discarding of traditions of apprenticeship and prolonged human contact in science was not due to any new discovery that apprenticeship was — after all — unnecessary, let alone that the new bureaucratic systems of free-standing explicit aims and objectives, summaries and lists of core knowledge and competencies etc. were superior to apprenticeship. Indeed there is nothing to suggest that they are remotely the equal of apprenticeship. Rather, the Master–apprentice system has been discarded despite the evidence of its superiority; and has been replaced by the growth of bureaucratic regulation.

The main reason is probably that scientific manpower, personnel or ‘human resources’ (as they are now termed) have expanded vastly over the past 60 years — probably about tenfold. So there was no possibility of such rapid and sustained quantitative expansion (accompanied, almost-inevitably, by massive decline in average quality) being achieved using the labour-intensive apprenticeship methods of the past. The tradition was discarded because it stood in the path of the expansion of scientific manpower.
It has now become implicitly accepted among the mass of professional ‘scientists’ that the decisions which matter most in science are those imposed upon science by outside forces: by employers (who gets the jobs, who gets promotion), funders (who gets the big money), publishers (who gets their work in the big journals), bureaucratic regulators (who gets allowed to do work), and the law courts (whose ideas get backed-up, or criminalized, by the courts). It is these bureaucratic mechanisms that constitute ‘real life’ and the ‘bottom line’ for scientific practice. The tradition has been broken.


  1. David Foster says:

    I think the replacement of tacit, experience-based knowledge with theoretical, education-based knowledge has gone very far in many areas of life, and definitely has its dangers. My post management mentalities excerpts some of Peter Drucker’s thoughts on this issue as it applies to business.

    Martha Lunken, a longtime pilot who has also worked as an FAA Inspector, wrote an interesting article raising some concerns about the increasing use of intensive simulator-based training programs for prospective airline pilots (typically first hired as commuter-airline copilots) as opposed to the traditional path of gaining extensive actual flight experience by flying freight, doing flight instruction, etc. I’ve been meaning to write a post expanding on her article.

  2. Isegoria says:

    David, I thought I’d already cited your piece sharing those Drucker anecdotes. I’ll have to get to correcting that oversight soon.

    As far as simulations go, I’m a tremendous fan, because they can provide quasi-experiential learning where only book-learning was possible before — but trading away real-life experience for simulated experience? That’s not an unalloyed good.

  3. Thanks for mentioning this heartfelt editorial of mine!

    It was, indeed, the second-to-last editorial which will appear in the real Medical Hypotheses; since the publishers Elsevier (apparently) intend to continue the title as a peer-reviewed, orthodox and censored imposter journal; and are sacking me from the editorship on 11 May 2010 for declining to cooperate with their plans.

    This whole shabby business has only served to confirm for me that we are now, indeed, living After Science.

  4. Isegoria says:

    Dr. Charlton, I’m delighted to hear from you personally, if saddened to hear about your predicament. I’ve mentioned your writing before, and I plan on mentioning your very last editorial soon.

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