2.5 Science and Technology--Practice and Practitioners

It is important to realize that even as science and engineering are disciplines (techniques) like any other, their practitioners are people. They are therefore subject to the same failings of jealousy, narrow-mindedness, pride, error, and even fraud as those in any other field. Since this is a book on issues, a brief discussion of some of the problems in the practice of science and the pursuit of technology is in order.

World View and Scientific Debates

First, consider how pride and narrow views give rise to debates and disagreements even in what are regarded as exact sciences. As has already been pointed out, no scientist or engineer works independently of an internal metaphysical framework or world view. Every step in the application of any technique (including the scientific one) demands that judgements be made, and these can at best be only relatively objective.

Cultural and global world view are non-unique concepts, so individuals see things differently. If the internal thinking framework of any two scientists or engineers (or any two people at all) were absolutely identical, then one of them would be redundant. For instance, if the reader agrees with everything that is said in this book, then clearly the author is unnecessary. The non-uniqueness of world views means that different people choose different specialities for study in the first place. It also means that two specialists in the same field may place entirely different interpretations on the same set of data, may expound varying or even contradictory theories, or may develop quite different products or applications from the same theoretical base.

Indeed, the divergence may begin sooner in the process. The decision to accept or reject certain data (or to seek it in the first place) is not necessarily scientific or logical--rejection may occur when the data fails to "fit" the preconceptions of the researcher. Armed with competing theories and possibly differing data, two factions of the scientific community may seek to line up institutional and individual support, particularly among the so-called scientific celebrities. If the question is actually (or appears to be) decidable, one side (or some third party differing from both) can eventually emerge from the ensuing debate as temporary victor.

Some of the most controversial discussions take place when the issue is not decidable, for either intrinsic or extrinsic reasons. If the problem is extrinsic, such as the lack of technology for testing purposes, there is still hope for an eventual solution. One of the best modern examples is relativity theory, many facets of which were not at first amenable to investigation in the physical sense. As the years passed, new techniques permitted experiments not previously possible, and the general theory of relativity came to be universally accepted as experimental results matched theory.

However, if the undecidability is due to intrinsic reasons, that is, the theory itself is of a metaphysical or otherwise unprovable nature, then debates will rage indefinitely. There are not always definitive and acceptable ways to answer non-scientific questions through the use of science, whether or not it happens to be scientists asking the questions.

Questions About Origins

This will certainly be the case when the two sides are arguing, say, about events that took place in the Earth's past. It is impossible to prove or disprove in any absolute sense many assertions concerning prehistoric times. Indeed, historians cannot always agree on the facts concerning recent events, much less on their interpretation, so one should not expect agreement on questions of prehistoric events. This is particularly true where questions of the origin of the universe are concerned, and each generation of modern scientists has adopted quite a different cosmological model, defended it, and taught it as fact, only to have it replaced at a later date. The confidence of the scientific modeller rises if the model correctly predicts things that were not used to build the model, but the inability to test its main premises experimentally means that this confidence will always be partly of the faith kind. There is no safer prediction about the future of scientific theories than that the widely accepted big-bang theory of the universe's origin will eventually be replaced. In such cases, the new model must be able to explain everything that the old one could, as well as resolving inconsistencies of the old.

A person could object that acceptance of any strictly mechanistic model for origins, especially one acknowledged to be incomplete and temporary, is of such a different degree than faith in a creator God that the two are not really comparable. Some find this objection attractive, but its analysis may be superficial, for it does not take into account the level at which the belief systems operate.

Is it a particular mechanism or the necessity to explain origins mechanistically that is the subject of faith? The former may be a holding position pending suitable confirmation of detail and possible modification; the latter may represent a fundamental and non-negotiable philosophical position. If that which is believed in is a universe presupposed to be mechanistic and without an intelligent planner, then the mechanism currently accepted is mere window dressing for a deeper faith--one that always insists upon a materialistic explanation for origins, regardless of evidence. At this level, the two faiths (in a creator God, and in natural origins) would be indistinguishable, though they appear different when considering specific details (such as mechanism) rather than the broad presuppositions behind them. The motivation of an affirmer of beliefs is as telling as the details of the belief held.

Evolutionary biology provides a second (related) example of an issue that is not decidable for intrinsic reasons. Conclusions about the biological past will always be tentative, describing what might have or could have happened, with backing from empirical evidence resting on interpretations of data more than on the data itself. Even the evidence gained by comparing the genetic material of organisms catalogues relationships descriptively, not historically, and sheds no light on whether they came about by chance or by design. It is easy to confidently assume that new discoveries will support some current theory of biological evolution. Some such discoveries may well be made, but different confidences might produce their own supporting evidence.

It is important to note that in both cases, it is not the discussion of specific mechanisms that is likely to have a metaphysical flavour (though it may). To see if that aspect is present, one must enquire deeper and determine whether the individual is a priori committed to philosophical presuppositions demanding specific categories of interpretations for origins and life and cannot conceive of alternatives. Such a prior determination is likely to be the case for most people for whom such questions are important. That is, if person self-describes as "creationist" or "evolutionist," a commitment to a philosophical position is being expressed that underlies any specific scientific thought or investigation. It is here, and not in the work the person may do that the question of metaphysics arises.

For further discussion of the radically differing views on the subject of creation and evolution, the reader is referred on the one hand to the Usenet newsgroup "Talk.origins" and related homepages, and on the other to materials maintained by such organizations as the Creation Research Society. These two present the poles of thought, while other groups attempt to find middle ground. The reader may wish to investigate whether such groups even mention their metaphysical presuppositions, much less discuss them in any detail.

Questions Requiring the Use of Models

Similar situations can also arise if the objects under study are too small or too fast to see directly and can only be described by reference to a model for their behaviour (e.g., the wave/particle nature of light and the actions of subatomic particles). In such cases, competing theories or models sometimes arise to explain the same phenomena and it may be the case that the two (or more) sides forget that they are arguing not about science, but about interpretations, that is, (possibly) about metaphysics. Indeed, modern physics is as much concerned with philosophy as it is with anything else, and sometimes has difficulty attaching meanings to the terms it employs to describe the phenomena it investigates. The world that is ordinarily seen by people in the everyday sense is not obviously related to the one seen by the physicist, an example of the fact that physical knowledge does not convey the thing itself, however useful an abstraction it may be.

The Case of Theology

Another example of the non-uniqueness of world views can be seen in the answers various people would give to the question: "Is theology a science, or is it entirely metaphysical?" This may seem like an obsolete question to ask, for the majority view among educated people today would almost certainly be that theology has no connection with science whatsoever. However, this is a new consensus, for just as mathematics was historically Queen of the Arts, so theology was Queen of the Sciences. To the practitioner, theology is the systematic study of a body of factual information--which being revealed by the deity, is no less reliable than if derived from a microscope slide. The receipt of this information from another (instead of by personal observation) is not regarded as a problem, in view of what is regarded as well-attested source reliability. Theologians observe that people in all fields accept a great deal of information as factual in much the same way; the logic of so doing is not different, though the nature of the source is. For example, no scientist verifies the entire body of prerequisite knowledge before carrying on with the next experiment; to do so would be considered absurd. Thus, the study of God may begin with a faith affirmation, but it continues with a partially empirical, scientific, and therefore fallible study called theology--one that differs in subject matter but shares some methodology (technique) with other sciences.

To the typical modern scientist, who accepts the control belief of materialism and leans toward logical positivism, such a definition of theology as akin to science would be objectionable. There is a tendency to think that unless data can be personally verified, it is unacceptable. Unless a theory is at least potentially falsifiable by empirical means it is not scientific. One could even say that since in death the senses are left behind, empirical methods cannot be extended across the gulf of the grave, even if one believes in life after death. There do remain the methods of history and related disciplines, but in these the evidence itself, not just the interpretation of it, may be selectively disputed, especially if the event is far enough in the past.

For instance, one may accept documentary (and other) evidence that one's own great-grandparents existed, though never having met them. The evidence is compelling, though not strictly the result of repeatable experiments. It is easier to dispute the validity of documentation for events and people farther in the past, particularly if others' interpretation of those events does not accord with one's preferred world view. Thus, some accept the Bible as a historically accurate document collection describing the actions of God in history, while others selectively dismiss all or portions as myth or fabrication. If even the evidence of history can be so disputed, there is no certainly no way to personally use science to verify or falsify claims about the existence of God.

From a historical point of view this thinking is rather new. Scientists such as Kepler, Bacon, Newton, Boyle, Fleming, Maxwell, Faraday, Joule, Davy, Pasteur, Kelvin, Pascal, and a long list of others of past centuries "did" science because of their deep-seated belief that they could discover more about God by unfolding the nature of the universe that he had created. Indeed, few of the originators and builders of what has become today's science would be comfortable with the philosophical orientation of their heirs. Their world view was significantly different from that of the moderns. Though they might rejoice at the progress made in the fields they began, they would probably consider the move to a materialist metaphysical basis to be costly.

Of course, one could object that an appeal to the theological views of past scientists is invalid, regardless of how popular these views were--after all, they were a product of a cultural world view. The objection is valid, but it must not be overlooked that the same objection can be applied to any appeal to the uniformity of world view and metaphysics of today's scientific world. Consensus in any age is not necessarily evidence of absolute truth. Moreover, the modern scientific community recognizes the greatness of the science that was done in the past, despite the fact that it was accomplished within a different metaphysical framework. Why then do points of difference among today's scientists result in so very much hostility and acrimonious debate? Even today, excellent science can legitimately arise from within the framework of a minority world view. One could even argue that it must do so, in order to achieve the paradigm shifts that are required to make the great breakthroughs. Moreover, religions that speak of a life beyond death generally hold that there are also some senses that can be used there. Thus, the argument that God's existence can never be verified or falsified is not yet proven, for one must presumably die to the empirical world to find the answer.

The kind of peer pressure and search for consensus discussed here can have another, and more subtle effect. Academics are rightly conscious of the need for their work to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, and so they adorn their own reports with quotations from others so as to lend their own conclusions support. If such quoting is done with due respect to the whole context of the original, it is not only correct, but to some extent necessary. However, there is always the possibility that the mutual respect of a small number of workers in a field may generate circular quotations of one another and these may create an impression of far greater authority than what actually exists. As Nellie Hacker said in the seminar: "If I quote you, and you quote me, who is any the wiser?"

These issues will be picked up again in a later chapter with a more detailed consideration of the creation/evolution debate--in some ways the classic clash of world views. For now, it will suffice to make the point that the human element in science removes some of its reputed precision, exactness, and reproducibility to the theoretical realm. In practice, things don't happen in quite as orderly a way as they are supposed to.

Publish or Perish

Another pressure on the practitioners of science is caused by the need for them to prove themselves by getting some results accepted for publication in recognized journals. A book placed with a reputable publisher counts for even more, and two books may even be worth a promotion. In the case of technology-driven research, working prototypes, patents, and production models determine success.

Part of the reason for this is the tenure system used by the universities where most North American scientists do their work. Following the research that leads to a doctoral thesis (duly defended before peers) and the degree that is accepted at graduation, the new academic seeks to become attached to the faculty of a reputable university. If successful, a probationary appointment is given that may be renewed for up to four or five years. At that time the candidate's research output is measured by the number of books and papers published. If the level is acceptable, a permanent contract (tenure) is offered; if it is not, and a second review a year later offers nothing better, the unfortunate would-be professor is instead terminated. Teaching ability is not usually a major issue.

In most cases, denial of tenure status at one university ends the research career entirely because a second chance at another institution is very unlikely to be given. The (now ex-) academic can either find a position in industry, teach at a community college or high school or chalk the degree papers up to experience and find another line of work. For those who do become a part of the academic system a continued high paper production level is required for consideration of promotion from assistant to associate to full professor, and even more important, for the acquisition of research grants from governments and private foundations.

There are a number of consequences of this system that are not very positive.

First, this practice fails to take into account that research in some areas is much more difficult than in others and may take far more time to produce new results. There is, therefore, pressure to stay away from such fields and concentrate on those where answers can be obtained quickly. This increases the volume of research papers greatly, but reduces the likelihood that any one of them will be very memorable. It is questionable whether anyone reads the majority of such reports once the journal editor is finished with them and officially puts them into print. As the majority are never cited by anyone else, it seems likely many are never read either.

Second, it fails to take into account that some papers are more publishable than others because they are trendier. A mediocre work on a subject that happens to be of current interest is much more likely to be published than a better work in a more obscure area. For instance, it would be much easier to publish work on AIDS, superconductivity, or cold fusion than on tuberculosis, the properties of napthalene, or heat engine efficiency. It is all but impossible to publish a substantial critique of a majority interpretation on an important issue. There is nothing either morally wrong or deceitful about this; it is just the human side of science showing through. This kind of bias causes fads to be accentuated even more, but also dilutes the overall quality of the work.

Third, it fails to take into account that money and influence speak more loudly than other voices. Senior faculty can pressure their more junior compatriots into their own fields and away from innovative ideas because they control tenure and promotion committees. Women, blacks, and those who attempt to cross cultural or religious boundaries can be systematically kept out of the system. Funding agencies, particularly those under government control, can cut off grants for political or military reasons and thus can also channel research according to their desires. The result is that free and open enquiry is reduced and so is creativity. The progress of new and innovative work must wait for the rare junior researcher not only to become senior (and a funding referee), but to simultaneously retain some creative spark. In the meanwhile, most research will be done in teams with agendas defined by others. The risk of funding individuals is too great, no matter how talented they may be.

Again, none of this is unique to science, for the dead hand of bureaucracy reaches everywhere. Such problems are characteristic of any institution; that they would eventually reach the scientific community was a foregone conclusion. For example, the Soviet Union produced more university-trained scientists and engineers per capita than any other nation. Yet, it struggled to catch up to the United States in the quality of basic research and technology. Why? Because the Soviet Union was also run by the largest bureaucracy on earth, and gaining approval for a scientific project was even more difficult than in North America. By the time the research had been allowed, the results may already have been in some American journal By the time a technological development was permitted, it might have been cheaper to buy it in a New York surplus store than to build one from scratch.

An old story with many variations illustrates the difficulty of developing new technology in the former Soviet Union.

The noted Russian engineer Ivan Fedorvich arrives in Fort Langley, British Columbia, to visit his old friend and correspondent Stan Barker. Upon arrival at his house, Dr. Barker expresses interest in his visitor's watch. Fedorvich's face lights up as he tells him it is not just a wrist watch, but also a computer, radio, data terminal, and television all rolled into one. It has built-in voice recognition, a gigabyte of memory, and even a programmable alarm clock, and a miniature satellite dish in its concave crystal--a veritable triumph of socialist engineering. "And what," says Barker, "is that," pointing to the large suitcase Fedorvich is carrying with considerable difficulty. "Ah," says Fedorvich ruefully, "the Politburo insisted on using Russian batteries."

Finally, and related to these other factors, the pressure to publish at any cost encourages scientists to find quick and easy solutions, to take short-cuts, and to stay with traditional ideas and methodology. The safe and familiar can become so comfortable that the scholarly apparatus begins to substitute for thought. The watchword is "don't rock the boat," and this attitude, while it may get papers published, does nothing to advance science.

Not all is wrong with the academic system however, or it would not have lasted as long as it has. It ensures new work is reviewed by peers on editorial boards before being published, and serves as a check on very bad papers. It creates a sense of community and a kind of apprenticeship for entry into the community, ensuring that new applicants do have at least certain minimum qualifications. If the system does promote mediocrity, it also promotes volume, and every bit of knowledge, however small, pushes back the frontiers of human ignorance. Every once in a while, a truly great insight is achieved, and the spin-off benefits from that one-in-ten-thousand paper are incalculable.

Similar observations can be made about those engaged in technological development, where building the wrong product or targeting it to the wrong market may destroy both product and career. Far more devices and methods are created than will ever see the marketplace, but the vast amount of activity does guarantee that some revolutionary new products are developed, even though some good ones never see the light of day.

Funding Pressures

It has already been remarked that many decisions for both basic research and technological development are made on the basis of grants available from a variety of funding agencies. It is worth observing further that the largest portion of this money tends to come from government, if only because the size of some projects is far too great for any private means. Specifically, many of the projects so funded are likely to be sponsored by the military. Thus, political and military considerations have the largest say in the direction of research, increasing the direct and indirect control of the state over the technology that shapes society. More will be said in a later chapter about the role of the state; the mere observation of its control over the purse strings is sufficient for now. Like some of the other things taken note of in this chapter, it leads to the conclusion that human, political and economic factors more than curiosity or actual needs may often dominate selection and development in the scientific/technological process.

Other Problems

It is also natural that the kinds of pressures indicated above will lead to serious problems from time to time. Thus, science has not been without the occasional scandal caused by fraudulent data, wishful thinking, fanciful conclusions or hoax. In the celebrated case of the supposed ape/human "missing link" known as Piltdown Man, a hoax got out of hand, and what was apparently intended as the deception of a single individual continued to delude the entire scientific community for years. In the case of Nebraska Man, another putative missing link, what turned out to be the tooth of an extinct pig had at first an entire fanciful proto-man built around it, complete with life-style to match. On the other side of the same debate, far too much was made of some human-like footprints that appeared in the same strata as those of dinosaurs. Time, and due consideration led the people involved to withdraw their original suggestions and reclassify the prints. More recently, there have been a few dismissals of researchers who had been caught fabricating data to maintain their standing with a high publication output.

There is also a large speculative content in some disciplines, and this too can generate much discussion about very little. In such cases, the mere repetition of speculation by enough of the leaders in the discipline is sufficient to have others accept it is fact. This is a foible of scholarship that must be lived with, for it too is human nature. However, it is one of the most subtle of difficulties to deal with, because the generation that accepts speculation as fact is unlikely to tolerate challenges to that dogma, and it may take a great deal of time to shift the discipline in question to a different view.

All of these instances reveal the human tendency of scientists to see only what they expect to see, and to continue to do so long after the means is available to correct their misconceptions. Time is the best remedy for such problems. It also helps to have a general determination to test occasionally even the most basic, fundamental and longest held assumptions, just in case the universal faith in them has been ever so slightly misplaced.

Faith is often placed in people, too, and science, like any other field of interest, has its few celebrities among the many foot-soldiers. This can be a positive thing, for such individuals are usually the ones who have the charisma and public presence to sell the discipline to a sometimes skeptical and usually demanding public. Celebrities can also mislead, however, particularly when presumed to be experts about all science and are asked to express to the public views on things that are far from their own narrow field of expertise.

Thus, for instance, a book by a celebrity scientist on investment strategies, playing golf, or understanding the Bible might sell very well, despite the writer being entirely unqualified in the subject at hand. This is not only a problem with science, but one it shares in common with the entire "star" system so prevalent in North America. A realization that the eminent chemist Dr. Zork is plain Mrs. Zork outside her own field would be healthy for all concerned.

Thus, if one is to ask why some study is undertaken, why some product is built, why some technique is developed, one would not necessarily find the answer within the nature of the discipline, but might find it in the society in which the discipline is pursued. This is true of both the society of specialist practitioners, and also of the larger culture from which they come. In turn, science, technology, and technique change the context society in which they develop, and new ideas become feasible when such changes take place, for they enable all members of the society to think and act in new ways.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises