Comments on “Stop obstructing scientific progress!”

Stagnation and beyond

Bill Benzon 2023-02-14

I could go on and on about this as it is something I’ve thought about a lot. I note that during the medieval era the Catholic Church was the institutional center of intellectual life in Europe. It had the universities and the scriptoria. Along comes the Reformation and the scientific revolution and new institutions took over, most obviously secular colleges and universities. The Catholic Church hasn’t disappeared, it it still has its universities. But they are no longer the leading intellectual institutions.

We’re now undergoing a major restructuring of our institutions. Will the current university system survive long-term or will new institutions arise?

You might want to take a look a working paper I sent to Tyler Cowen: Stagnation and Beyond: Economic growth and the cost of knowledge in a complex world. Here’s the abstract:

What economists have identified as stagnation over the last few decades can also be interpreted as the cost of continuing successful engagement with a complex world that is not set up to serve human interests. Two arguments: 1) The core argument holds that elasticity (ß) in the production function for economic growth is best interpreted as a function of the interaction between the economic entity (firm, industry, the economy as a whole) and particular aspects the larger world: physical scale in the case of semi-conductor development, biological organization in the case of drug discovery. 2) A larger argument interprets current stagnation as the shoulder of a growth curve in the evolution of culture through a succession of fundamental stages in underlying cognitive architecture. New stages develop over old through a process of reflective abstraction (Piaget) in which the mechanisms of earlier stages become objects for manipulation and deployment for the emerging stage.

Stagnation and Beyond

David Chapman 2023-02-15

Thank you—that looks very interesting!

A counterweight to the "solitary genius" diorama of science.

Hal Morris 2023-02-25

As important as a few individuals like Galileo were, science only became an unstoppable enterprise within a few decades due to one particular scenius the Royal Philosophical Society founded around 1660. It promoted science as the business of an international community, had regular meetings in which experiments were replicated, founded the first scientific journal, which accepted papers from all over Europe and translated them into English. Mostly the scientists it drew together published short papers in the Transactions of the Royal Society, which promoted collaborative science and discouraged theories based on book-length a priori arguments. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek developed microbiology, though he only wrote letters to the Royal Society with pictures of what he observed, and they were translated and turned into articles by members of the society.

General principles were sought, and within a short time, experiments with air pressure, temperature, and volume, and their relationships set in train the discovery of oxygen, and the ideas of atoms and elements. Though the understanding of what they were was vague, it was refined over about two centuries until a relationship between locations within a periodical table of atomic weights and what other elements they could combine with

The irony of Newton

Hal Morris 2023-02-25

Newton, and other mathematicians around this time, of a quality not seen before may have been the first writers to really succeed at writing theories based on book-length a priori arguments, and Newton was an early president of the Royal Society.

BTW this argument that the Royal Society largely gave birth to modern science has been around for quite a while, but has recently been put into beautiful form in Seeing Further: The Story of Science & the Royal Society, edited by Bill Bryson

Zero-sum competition for funding undermines collaboration

Danyl Strype 2024-01-30

Hal writes:

As important as a few individuals like Galileo were, science only became an unstoppable enterprise within a few decades due to one particular scenius the Royal Philosophical Society founded around 1660.

You can see this Great Man narrative style in political history too. Even Marx, whose ideas included a teleological version of history that made individuals almost irrelevant, has been made into the Great Man of Communism by this individualist approach to historical storytelling.

I think “individualist” is the key word in understanding why. To borrow the terms David coined in Meaningness, the ‘choiceless’ mode emphasises harmony with the collective. To transcendend this, and usher in the ‘systematic’ mode, it was necessary to counterbalance this with an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual. The synthesis being the systematic cooperation of autonomous individuals. But this emphasis on the individual is still with us, in the Great Man narratives of history, in the rugged individualism of most conservatives, and so on.

To bring this back to the point of the page we’re commenting on, it also results in the mythology that leads to the hero worship of Silicon Valley founders and billionaire philanthropists. The myth that scientific and technological outputs are the product of Great Minds, rather than meta-systematic collaboration. This mythology also leads to a focus on funding researchers, not large-scale, collaborative investigations, which in turn leads to a zero-sum competition between researchers for financial survival, which undermines any potential for collaboration.