Saturday, May 5, 2018

Is science spinning its wheels?

Back in 1996 John Horgan published The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (see my review), in which he argued that, in field after field, science seems to have become unproductive, producing papers and research, but little knowledge. Have we reached the end of our knowledge? Sabine Hossenfelder, a German theoretical physicist, is about to publish a book in which she sings a similar song, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. She's got a talk online in which she explains

Here's a few paragraphs from the end, where, having talked about physics, she offers a more general conclusion:
The problems that I see in my own community worry me a lot. Not so much because I’m so terribly worried about quantum gravity. On a certain level, even though it’s my personal interest, I realize that for most of the people on the planet making progress in quantum gravity is not that terribly important. It worries me because I have to question how well science itself is working.

The problems that I was speaking about in my own community—that people work on certain topics just because the money is there, because it’s something that is popular and that their colleagues appreciate—are problems that almost certainly exist in most scientific communities. My extrapolation from my own field would tell me that I should be very skeptical about whatever comes out of the scientific community. And that’s not good. Clearly that’s not good.

I’ve been thinking for a lot of time how we could go about and try to solve these problems. It’s hard, but it’s necessary. We need science to solve the problems on this planet, problems that we have caused ourselves. For this we need science to work properly. First of all, to get this done will require that we understand better how science works. I find it ironic that we have models for how political systems work. We have voting models. We have certain understanding for how these things go about.

We also have a variety of models for the economic system and for the interaction with the political system. But we pretty much know nothing about the dynamics of knowledge discovery. We don’t know how the academic system works, for how people develop their ideas, for how these ideas get selected, for how these ideas proliferate. We don’t have any good understanding of how that works. That will be necessary to solve these problems. We will also have to get this knowledge about how science works closer to the people who do the science. To work in this field, you need to have an education for how knowledge discovery works and what it takes to make it work properly. And that is currently missing.
As you may know, I see similar problems in the fields where I work, literary criticism, cognitive science, and so forth.

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 A recent post in which I note that Horgan's still at it.

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