Monday, May 30, 2016

Book review: The Invention of Science

Currently, science is undergoing a convulsion. The very way that science operates is changing. It's a change that appears to be unprecedented in modern times.

For the first time, science is being forced to deal with bias. Questions of reproducibility have become a crisis. The review process is under renewed scrutiny. The nature and openness of publishing is being assaulted legally and illegally. Everyone from editors to scientists to funding agencies are being forced to reckon with consequences of retractions at an unprecedented rate.

The Invention of Science, a new book by David Wootton addresses none of these modern ills. But, sometimes, modern crises are an important time to revisit our history. The Invention of Science is an unparalleled examination of the long, slow (and sometimes convulsive birth of science).

Note, this thing is a wrist-breaker. 600 pages before you get to the endnotes. That's a good thing. Understanding the history of a topic is not something to do in Cliff Notes form. You need a comfortable chair and a pen for the margins to absorb the lessons.

The thesis of this book is that science (as we currently define it) once did not exist. Knowledge was generated through means other than science. In order for science to be invented, a number of conventions had to be created, too. We needed a new vocabulary. People needed to act and interact differently. The conceptual framework that we recognize as scientific had to not only be assembled, it had to displace previous frameworks.

A book of this scope is hard to summarize with any justice.

Here is the first sentence of the book. "Modern science was invented between 1572, when Tyco Brahe saw a nova...and 1704, when Newton published his Opticks...." Science took a bit over 100 years to invent. It's only a bit over 300 years old.

Over a hundred years to invent something that seems so simple that we do it every day? Why so long?

The book answers why it wasn't as easy as people might think.

The middle chapters are the ones I've spent the most time on. These are their titles: Facts, Experiments, Laws, Hypotheses/Theories, Evidence and Judgment.

These chapters lay out the history of the main elements of the modern scientific approach.

I'm going to have to read these chapters one or two more times before I can crystallize them, but their scopes are the raw material for anyone trying to understand if not shape modern science.

For example, the word "fact" (with its modern meaning) did not exist in any language. The Greeks and Romans had no word for "fact". The concept of a "fact" did not exist. And facts are not the same as the truth.

Let me quote here.

"What is a fact? It is a sort of trump card in an intellectual game...Facts are a linguistic device which ensures that experience always trumps authority and reason."

Facts are a linguistic device? Since when is the truth a device? Facts must be something other than what we recognize them to be.

The experiments chapter describes a number of the early experiments. Here's a quote: "This is the first 'proper' experiment, in that it involves a carefully designed procedure, verification (the onlookers are thereto ensure this really is a reliable account), repetition and independent replication, followed rapidly by dissemination."

When did this happen? 1648 when a brother-in-law of Pascal climbed a mountain with a barometer.

But note his definition of an experiment. It involves verification. Repetition. Replication. Followed by  dissemination. Our modern crisis comes about because of a lack of verification, repetition, and replication (or reproducibility as we refer to it). Only touched on, the author highlights the motto of an Italian society. The motto was: provando i reprovando. Test and retest. Hard to imagine that as any modern society's motto.

The evidence and judgement chapter has interesting nuggets, too. In part, it examines the legal frameworks of different European countries, which affects how scientists came to prove things. Drawing techniques for a judicial system that relies on judges vs. juries leads to different ways of conducting science. That thumbprint is still with us today. Like any organism that has evolved, modern science still bears the marks of its history and past forms.

Here's a quick example he provides:

"A friend of mine was once in hospital in Paris. The doctors told him that they had an hypothesis regarding the nature of his illness which they intended to prove, where in England they would have told him that he had certain symptoms which suggested a diagnosis which they would run tests to confirm."

This is a subtle difference, but one whose distinctions should be obvious to anyone practicing science. Different paths do not always lead to the same destination, so choose the path wisely.

Right now, our science is in the middle of a transformation. The question is whether a new layer will simply be added or whether parts will be torn down and rebuilt. Anyone who offers an opinion on how science should be reformulated is wise to know it's history. This is a good book to start on that.

But buy it in hardcover so you can write in the margins.

The only drawback is that the margins are not wide enough.

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