Quo Vadis, Science
by Stanislav Sýkora, Extra Byte, Via R.Sanzio 22C, Castano Primo, Italy 20022
in Stan's Library, Ed.S.Sykora, Vol.I. Completed August 1970, first published April 15, 2005
Permalink via DOI:  10.3247/SL1Epis05.001
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Abstract

Though this Essay was written a long time ago, I believe that much of it is still applicable. It may be a bit too passionate but, on the other hand, that very feature helps it to pinpoint the delusions of many idealistic Scientists of late sixties and early seventies. Delusions which had to be real, considering the subsequent fall in the enrollment in mainstream Sciences (Math, Physics, Chemistry) which occurred in the subsequent decades. The essay tracks those delusion to the post-war distortions in the fabric Science which started primarily by the development of the atom and hydrogen bombs and were further amplified by the passage to mass education in Sciences and by the institutionalization of Science as a permanent socio-economic factor.


Introduction

Many scientists got recently into considerable financial troubles because of the spreading wave of disbelief in the humanistic potential of Science. Nevertheless, I am convinced that in a long run the recent financial cut-offs in Science will prove very healthy. There are many negative features in the current organization of scientific work and it seems to me that, on a philosophical level, Science itself is becoming ever more sterile.

But, perhaps, I should first specify what I mean by the word 'Science'. I was reared by the continental European culture which, compared to the Anglo-Saxon one, tends to be less pragmatic and utopistic. Consequently, I define Science as the very envelope of the expanding region of our knowledge. On a personal level, the knowledge of the inner parts of this region plays the role of a mere tool - one can possess it and still be anything but a scientist. A true scientist must strive to expand the outer envelope of Science, not just apply the tools.

If this definition of Science is accepted then 99.9% of the recent 'scientific research' is not Science. Most of it can be defined as applied technological research. This would still be quite satisfactory if such research were directed towards useful technological (or other) improvements. Unfortunately, this is not exactly the case.

First, there is a considerable amount of applied research explicitly concerned with killing people. Though this fact is repeatedly criticised (no doubt rightly so), the criticism is often mistakenly addressed to Science instead of the governments and their policies.

The second problem is that there is a substantial part of research which simply does not serve anything but the personal carriers of the researchers.

The reader might object that such distortions are marginal and their influence on the overall evolution of scientific knowledge is negligible. In my opinion, while such an argument was possibly true in the pre-war period, it is hardly acceptable today. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to show that the violations are nowadays becoming a part of the very organization of the research work.

The Heredity of the Bomb

In his excellent book, A.Baker [1] wrote:

... No one used to pay attention to Science in this country [USA], and scientists were traditionally regarded as eccentric cranks, until it was discovered that you can use Science to blow up people. Then, suddenly it became respectable, scientists became the darlings of the nation, and even presidents began asking their advice. Of course, whenever people said science they really meant technology, but scientists did not take great pain to correct this mistake. The most lavish spending has been in engineering applications, but physics has basked in the reflected glory of 'applied science and development'....

It is hardly possible to characterize better what has happened to Science in the last few decades. The politicians of both East and West have turned a substantial flow of money toward that thing which gave them the Bomb and which they got used to calling Science. Lately, they began to understand that it might produce not only bombs. But the devil's work had already been done: Science has been corrupted.

Science and Big Money

A flow of money must be organized and planned. These 'progressive' requirements led to the formation of monstrous, highly specialized 'Scientific Institutes' which were internally subdivided into small departments condemned to work on tiny bits of what the respective managers consider to be Science.

The scientists working in such an Institute often publicly admit its low efficiency. Here the corruption becomes most apparent. The Institute represents, before all, a financial enterprise implying the existence of a secondary social structure. There are always plenty of people who, as scientists, have lost confidence in themselves and are looking for a compensation in this secondary structure. As a result, most of the Institutes evolve in a way determined by the personal passions of basically unproductive people rather than by the real needs of Science.

While the new organization was spreading, the very fortresses of academic thinking, the Universities, were gradually defeated. Some of them were damaged by the drift to the more profitable governmental and industrial research. Others (especially in the USA) were 'industrialized' and became much more similar to the above-mentioned Institutes than to the old centres where Science, Art and Philosophy used to hold their bacchanalia.

The complicated network of social bonds existing in technologically advanced societies has a very dangerous aspect - it tends to make everything uniform. The same rather insipid 'international menu' is being cooked even at the most independent Institutions. In this connection, let me cite the words of F.Dyson [2] concerning the famous Princeton Institute for Advanced Study:

... a distressingly high percentage of our output of paper is in the fashionable part of particle physics and is to me indistinguishable from the paper produced by twenty other Institutes of theoretical physics.

And a little bit further:

... On the third rule, not being afraid of the scorn of the snobs, we score extremely badly. ...

The politicians who are trying to drive this world are not scientists. Apart from several honest exceptions, they are just people looking for either power or some other social reward such as glory (or worse). For a certain time 'Science' was giving them both the power (see the Bomb) and the glory (see the Moon Race).

Nowadays, of course, the novelty of atomic bomb is over. The A- and H-markets are saturated and, to the regret of Great Powers, the production of overkill weapons is in the reach of practically any country of this world. Science can not do anything about this fact. Also, as a source of glory, Science is steadily loosing its efficiency. Very few people have protested against the recent cut-offs in Space Research while, on the other hand, many people continue to criticise the Moon Project.

What is the most likely reaction of a 'wise' politician to such news? Is it not better for him to exhume the concept of 'eccentric cranks' and, rather than funding Science, launch a hurrah-campaign against something like Poverty or Pollution? After all, there is anyway no really novel method of killing people on the scientific horizon.

Consequently, the recent financial 'crises' of Science will hardly be a short-lived one.

What should scientists do in this situation? Science is drowning in the flood of technology and the scientific spirit seems to be drowning as well. To save it, the internal state of Science must be analysed in as concrete terms as possible. Afterwards, measures should be taken to eliminate the negative features and to prevent their repetition. Scientists should also think a little bit more about the serious problem of their liberty (both apparent and genuine) inside modern social structures.

Is Science a Slavery, a Profession, a Hobby or what?

The last decades have seen an exponential increase in the numbers of so-called 'scientists' produced by the higher-education system. Such a drastic change in quantity is always accompanied by a change in quality. It does not mean that today's graduates know less than those who were leaving Universities 30 years ago. Measured in the number of equations, for example, they know more. But the large-scale production leads necessarily to a conspicuous uniformity of the product. In fact, 'modern' higher education has never solved the problem of the formation of individuality and, under present conditions, there is little hope that it will ever solve it. We can only hope that mother Nature will provide for an exception here and there.

This is what Albert Einstein [3] wrote about the matter:

... It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; ...

People leaving Universities flood research centres where they are distributed to various departments and assigned 'problems' to solve. And, because they are immature, they accept this state of things and become accustomed to it.

A couple of citations from Norbert Wiener [4] are appropriate here:

... From the bottom of my heart I pity the present generation of scientists, many of whom, whether they wish or not, are doomed by the 'spirit of the age' to be intellectual lackeys and clock punchers. ...

... I am particularly lucky that it has not been necessary for me to remain for any considerable period a cog in a modern scientific factory, doing what I was told, accepting the problems given me by my superiors, and holding my own brain only 'in commendam' as a medieval vassal held his fiefs. ...

How did it come about that individuality and fantasy are considered so shocking in the 'scientific world'? I feel that it has something to do with the afore-mentioned necessity to manage Science according to business criteria based on a rigid organization and planning. But is it really possible to plan discoveries?

Imagine, for example, that a robbery was committed and from the circumstances it is clear that the booty is hidden somewhere in a forest. There are two ways how to proceed with the investigation. The first one is that of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. It is elegant and requires only a pipe and a bag of tobacco. The other way is that of the Scotland Yard. It requires some 500 policemen, several dogs, many shovels and $50'000 to pay it all. But it can be planned while it is rather difficult to plan the outbursts of Sherlock Holmes' logic. It also gives an almost 100% certainty that the gold will be found. And last (but certainly not least) it is easy to justify $50'000 paid to 500 policemen for 40 hours of digging, but try to justify $50 paid for smoking a pipe!

I do not want to judge which of the two ways is better. The problem is that the density of scientists digging in their forests is so high that they practically con not move around any longer. They are sitting at their places and examining very carefully every grain of sand within their reach. Many of them, in fact, have already forgotten what they were originally looking for (this oblivion is usually called specialization). They got used to being slaves and, in general, they accept it.

Another question: The Science of Today is the Progress of Tomorrow, but what does the Progress of Tomorrow serve for? Is it so important to make our computers still more powerfull and our transports still faster and our society still more like a well-oiled machine? Will it satisfy us or our children? Shall we be happy in a world void of dreams and pains and fantasy? If we get rid of 'those fantasies', will our Science still be the source of our self-confidence and pleasure which it used to be?

Publish or Perish!

In the example of the robbery investigation, each and every of the policemen was paid for digging - not for finding the gold! In today's Science, one is paid for printed reports and publications. Scientists are forced to publish. Only exceptionally it is the content of the publications that counts; most often the only really important thing is the number of items on one's List of Publications.

As a result, a Paper is the Most Respectable Thing a 'scientist' can imagine. In the name of a publication furious battles are being fought with Editors and their Referees in which all kinds of tricks are allowed. Famous Institutions sometimes tremble just because of the order of the names of Authors in a Paper!

The resulting degradation of scientific journals is of course inevitable. To find an article deserving the adjective scientific, one must go for long hours through infinite piles of printed matter. Let us hear N.Wiener again:

... It is true of course that the tendency to postulate for the sake of postulating and to write papers for the sake of writing papers characterizes a considerable amount of the newer mathematics. ...

Also the uniformity of both the form and the content of scientific articles is often depressing. For an undergraduate student, the mandatory sequence Introduction-Theoretical-Experimental-Discussion-Conclusions has some doubtless advantages. However, when one reads the same titles reproduced thousands of times on the pages of world-wide journals, one must admit that some doubt about the intellectual level of the whole business is understandable.

The negative impression is further strengthened by the exclusive use of passive voice. The advocates of passive voice use two basic arguments: it is considered more objective and more modest than the active voice. But are there perhaps not enough examples that neither objectivity nor modesty have nothing to do with the chosen grammatical form? It seems rather that scientists avoid the active voice because they are subconsciously ashamed of what they are publishing.

Specialists and Incommunicability

It is a widely spread opinion that one must specialize if one wants to 'achieve something'. Yet, the statement is definitely and obviously not true! The history of Science demonstrates quite convincingly that nothing is less fruitful than specialization. The philosophical, artistic and political foundations of western civilization stem from two primary creative periods - the golden age of the Republic of Athens and the explosion of Renaissance. And does anything exist that is more distant from the thought of these two periods than the concept of specialization?

Every time I hear the term specialization, I remember this old Czech anecdote:

Person A: How do you call a man who can neither read nor write?
Person B: Hmm, an an-alphabet?
A: Yeah! And how do you call a man who can both read and write?
B: An alphabet? An educated gentleman?
A: Good enough! And a man who can either read or write, but not both?
B: Hmm, that I really don't know.
A: Come on, it's so easy! He is a specialist!

The accent on specialization stems primarily from the necessity to label each 'scientific worker' and assign him a distinct box within The Organization. The widespread acceptance of the false dictum is probably due to the fact that specialization represents a protective cocoon against outside criticism. In a world of super-specialists nobody knows enough about anybody other's field. Consequently, they simply can't communicate, even if they wanted to (which is what they don't). In a certain sense, it works as an incarnation of the maxim 'Live and let live!'.

In defense of specialization, people often point out the increased complexity of our knowledge. The question is, of course, which kind of knowledge has increased so much. Do we really understand so strikingly more than the ancient Greeks did? I am convinced that the principles of what is known are still perfectly in the reach of an undergraduate student. If this statement is far from reality, it is only due to inadequate education.

Knowledge has always been considered as something that helps a man to orient himself in the world, to find the truth, to clear his way ahead. Hence, do not blame knowledge for the fact that to 'achieve something' is difficult. It has always been difficult. And what we know now is just an infinitesimal part of what Nature is.

Partially as a consequence of the drive towards specialization, there is nowadays a tremendous gap between the 'horizons of modern Science' and the intellectual horizon of the absolute majority of the inhabitants of this planet. Such a situation is potentially dangerous - much more so than the questionable antagonism between the USSR communism and the USA capitalism. Uninstructed people have a right to know because what is in the game is very often their own life or death.

Scientists themselves are doing very little to improve the situation. They, in fact, cannot do much. The problem exceeds their own possibilities, but it is, nevertheless, a problem which involves them as well as the politicians.

Is there a Way Out?

I do not believe that any amount of money could solve the current afflictions of Science. The scientists themselves must change and this means a slow and painful process. The recent financial crisis is a good beginning. Many of the so-called 'scientists' will rapidly realize that Science is not really indispensable for their lives. Another promising feature is the new interest in education. Generally speaking, however, this is not yet a time of great changes. This should be the time of cleansing personal attitudes on a very individual basis.

It might be useful to start a critical journal concerned with the general goals, theories and strategies of Science. I am afraid, though, that without a change in attitudes of scientists themselves, all such measures would be probably quickly absorbed and spoiled by the current system.


References

  • 1. A. Baker, Modern Physics and Antiphysics, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1970. more >>
  • 2. F.J. Dyson, Physics Today, September 1970, page 25.
  • 3. A. Einstein, Autobiographical notes, in P.A.Schilpp,Editor, A.Einstein, Philosopher-Scientist,
    in The Library of Living Philosophers, Evanston, Illinois, 1949.
    Reprinted as Centennial Edition, Open Court Publishing Company 2007. more >>
  • 4. N. Wiener, I am a Mathematician, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1964. more >>

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