The premise of science was a methodological search for the truth and the nature of the universe. Faith or philosophy claims something to be true because it was claimed by authorities and is logically consistent. Science uses the scientific method and claims to predict the outcome of events. Science is valid as long as the prediction holds. As we progress, science became complex and started to contradict itself. Is it still reliable? Read more here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Scientists do not trust other scientists
While the general public still tends to believe in the credibility of science, scientists have hard questions.
- How come that in the most important areas of our lives, we have a coexistence of contradicting experimental results?
- Why do we keep developing very complex theories that cannot be experimentally proven?
- What percentage of scientific publications is not rigorously checked, sponsored to provide a predetermined result, or even fabricated by scientists?
- When we will see the next paradigm shift, which part of today’s science will still be relevant?
These and many more tough questions cannot be answered easily. The best minds in science often choose to leave science for something more real: engineering, entrepreneurship, volunteer work. How did we come to this mess, and what can we do about it?
Pursue publications rather than truth
The biggest challenge to science comes from its success. To be a scientist is prestigious: this is a low-stress job with high social status, marginally decent salary and a chance to earn a lot more from paid consulting.
Many smart people want to be scientists not because of their curiosity and their relentless pursuit of the truth, but because it is lucrative. So there is fierce competition for the best spots in science and the grants that come with that. To stay ahead of the competition scientists need to generate publications: in high number and in prestigious journals.
The focus is less on rigorous research and more on productive writing. There is an industrial environment of a laboratory built to produce a large number of highly specialized experiments. And there is a large group of students writing publications about these experiments. The leading scientist in each such laboratory is a sort of businessman who gets financing, organizes works, and pitches the successes of the laboratory.
There is a very strong pressure on all participants to write successful publications, to the extent that the truth is often manipulated with. It is much easier to remove the outliers so that the results coincide with the current paradigm, than develop a totally new theory to explain the outliers and fight an onslaught of criticism.
Notice: people who get publication get grants, and those who reject publication get nothing. So, there is strong confirmation bias.
Now the biggest competition in science is not for prestigious positions and rewards, but for grants that allow to create a great laboratory. The biggest laboratories out there are some of our most expensive projects and cost in high billions.
Physicists have particle colliders, deep space stations, and telescopes, fusion stations, huge lasers, semiconductor facilities, meteorological supercomputers… I urge you to research each of these directions: the mega-laboratories are fascinating. Physics is considered to be the most “scientific” of all sciences with a relatively small number of extremely lucrative projects.
Biologists have smaller experiments, which still need big facilities. For example, hydroponic farms to grow very specific plants, small zoos for research animals, high-tech microscopes and sequencers for genetic research. The costs of those are in dozens on millions, and there is a large number of students working for each lab.
It is very hard to build an innovative experiment in physics or biology without this machinery. These high grants are often militarized and very politically sensitive. Often grants come from bodies who want to get a scientific stamp for its own needs and motives.
Notice: the larger the experiment the more biased it is towards the ruling paradigm.
Everybody else does not get big grants in comparison. It is also questionable if what they do is science.
- Mathematicians and economists write logical proofs valid under some assumptions. It is not clear when these assumptions hold and the proofs are relevant. Occasionally math becomes relevant hundreds of years after its development. It is very hard to check the math of another mathematician, and as long as the result appears to make sense it will probably be published with small revisions.
- Engineers and computer science professors simply build products, which serve several client companies. Large companies off-load their most risky and complex long-term leads to scientific communities, often in a form of competition. Someone will always win a competition, and good results will be useful for all parties involved. The focus is on building an innovative product prototype, not discovering some new scientific truth.
- Psychologists and medical doctors conduct large scale questionairs and observations in controlled environments. The biggest issue is access to people who qualify for the research, and this access is often controlled by bodies who have their own agenda. In any case, an experiment run on a few dozen patients is not statistically strong yet good enough for publication.
- Humanitarian studies are not that different from religious studies. Some of the tools date back to the greek philosophy and scholastic arguments. The basic idea is logical argumentation built upon anecdotal evidence. Other scientists do not really respect humanitarians as they do not follow a scientific method. They cannot predict the results of future experiments as each of their subjects is unique.
Notice: independent scientists often make claims that have no predictive power or practical use outside a very narrow subject.
Science is largely moved by rebels. Typically rebels are young scientists who group around disillusioned masters who are tired of covering the outliers. They come up with brand new theories that explain the outliers, found their own publications, get grants from rich people who dare to challenge the system. They start as idealists and anarchists, but often they become a new establishment. While most of the big shifts in science are caused by rebels, usually these small revolutions are futile or even plain wrong.
Notice: most of the stuff published by rebels will be plain wrong or will be ignored by figures of authorities. When these discoveries cannot be ignored, there is a major shift in scientific paradigms.
So how does all of that look for the rest of us? For most scientific results there are several contradicting theories:
- Something old, often proven to have no experimental bias, but with a strong following and conceptually impressive.
- State of the art solutions, which are confusing, boring and otherwise hard to understand. They coexist rather peacefully and enjoy the highest prestige and government grants.
- Crazy new ideas, which are very exciting and mind-blowingly revolutionary yet controversial to the point of disbelief by all major players.
- Theoretical concepts that appear to be valid but cannot be proven or rejected with the current level of technology.
- Experimental outliers which nobody can explain.
- Singular results which appear to be very important but do not offer any predictive powers due to their singularity.
- Total crap, which was published to promote someone and was not interesting enough to be checked.
What a mess! Science started as an objective search for the truth and we are still stuck with subjective beliefs.
Notice: For every scientifically proven fact or idea, there will be others with alternative facts and ideas, claiming that their science is better.
Science as a creator of myths
Through selective publication and bibliography posting, science tends to create myths. The outliers and results which do not generate a consensus tend to disappear. Eventually, paradigms are sorts of scientific myths that perpetuate themselves. In the heart of every paradigm are written and unwritten assumptions that make the paradigm possible. If these assumptions change a new paradigm is born.
Consider physics. Classical physics applies to classical objects. Relativity applies to huge objects. Quantum physics applies to very small objects. The theory of everything is a very interesting theoretical concept, but it is too complex to apply to anything we actually observe. And we accept that the majority of the universe is made of dark matter and dark energy we cannot really explain. Physics is one of the richest, most established and rigorous sciences. At least we know its status. We do not even want to think about the state of other sciences.
Beauty and truth
Scientists often believe that the most beautiful and condense description of the universe is the right one. Interestingly, engineers rarely think that beautiful and minimalistic mechanisms will work. Engineers prefer robust solutions with some fail-safe elements to deal with rare events. Who is right?
“Simple and beautiful” is more likely to pass the peer review and be cited by other scientists. This is a win for the scientific method. Once the science is solid, engineers will add their fail-safe mechanisms.
Nature we can observe appears to be complex, defying the “simple and beautiful” approach. Yet, if we ignore the details, the outliers, the fractals, and some other stuff we can get a simple approximation. This approximation might be just good enough for everybody to work with.
Yet, science is the least of all evils
Most scientific results are valid only once certain assumptions take place. Usually, we cannot check that the assumptions are valid. This causes confusion. So what? Consider the alternatives:
- Charismatic political leaders and preacher who have a predefined agenda and will not be fooled by actual facts.
- Smart marketers, who can pitch everything to everybody as long as they pay.
- Journalists in dire need of new sensations, who do not mind publishing “we are sorry for being wrong” each time they are caught.
- Wise educators that rely on theories proven wrong decades ago, simply because they make more sense than newer results.
- Engineers of all sorts, who do not really care why something works as long as it performs its role.
- Our friends and relatives who will try to reach a consensus and stick to it, rather than generate a scene.
At least science tries to be objective, support pluralistic views and hopes to find the nature of events.
The true purpose of Universities
We do not really know what the Universities are for. Probably all of the below apply.
- Develop new knowledge through research.
- Gather and systematize existing knowledge.
- Provide common language and methodologies for a new generation of students
- Ensure that revolutionary ideas are discussed in a quiet and peaceful way.
- Build and maintain risky long-lead projects and laboratories.
- As a safe and lucrative environment for intellectual games.
- As an independent body to question the ethics and trustfulness of others.
My point is simple: we do not fully comply with Humboldt’s principals or other idealistic views, and that’s OK. Universities are an organic part of our society, even though we are not fully sure regarding its function.