Friday, July 27, 2007


This book is going to disagree with everything you’ve learned, not about science, which is the knowledge of facts, but about the theories science uses to knit those facts together.
Generally, when a book attacks scientific dogma, it starts out attacking the scientific process that produced the dogma. Many books are devoted to just such attacks, calling into question the scientific peer review process, it’s reliance only on credentialed players, it’s exclusionary treatment of any new discovery that tends to oppose it’s official line or theoretical experiments receiving vast funding.
It is true that the scientific community has insulated itself from outside criticism, splintering its disciplines into arcane fields with their own languages, and generally relying on the protection of the well-funded umbrella organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. If somebody comes up with a theory opposing established dogma, the AAAS is quick to publish talking papers which can be used to abolish the opposing theory and members are encouraged to inundate editors with letters containing those talking points if they should be foolish enough to give the opposing position publicity.
This is a given in our society today, and is so common, that's it's a given. Western science and its narrative of the world are the world we in the West live in. It is like water to fish, taken for granted, invisible to the conscious, at least until someone is so bold as to disagree with it, then we immediately conclude that, since we, and everyone else, hold a belief contrary to the belief being questioned, the person questioning the belief is crazy or simplistic or just trying to get publicity.
Today’s model of scientific practice, in which only those trained by the proponents of the scientific worldview, the consensus view, have a voice in that worldview, and then only if they do not oppose it in any significant way, isn’t the way science began, and to introduce the defects of the scientific method, such as it is, it isn’t necessary to attack the specific safeguards such as peer review put in place to protect the status quo, it is only necessary to go back in history to a time when the project of science was open to anyone with an interest and talent for it. One of the first things the early thinkers of science faced was what exactly were they dealing with, what was science?
This takes us back to the 17th century, the end of the 1500s and the entire century of the 1600s. At that time, the worldview was controlled by the Church. On the continent, the Catholic Church was dominant, although well into its dethronement by widely spreading Protestant sects. In England, the whims of a King had replaced the Catholic Church with a more secular version. In the background lingered the first significant challenge to the invisible vision of humans as being the only creatures in God’s existence, Copernicus, who had diagrammed a picture of the solar system with the sun, rather than the Earth, as the center. The consequences were huge for the Catholic worldview, which sought to avoid any crack in its role as dictator of the worldview. It had long adopted Ptolemy’s vision of the Earth centered universe.
However, the Protestant sects and the Church of England had not invested in that worldview and it didn’t prohibit its members from pursuing Copernicus’ vision. When the Earth was the center of the universe, another invisibility was gravity. It was taken for granted that we were held to the surface of the Earth because that was the center of existence. When minds started to whirl, along with the Earth, around the sun at a now measurable speed, they grew dizzy wondering why everything on Earth didn’t fly off its surface into space.
When attention focused on objects falling to the Earth, questions were raised, what made them fall? With the planets now known to orbit the sun, and the apparent motion of the sun around the Earth due to its own rotation, questions began to be asked, what force is moving the planets, causing them to orbit and rotate? The notion of the invisible forces that were causing these motions started to interest all of the thinkers of the age.
One of the greatest, if not the greatest, thinker at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17 centuries, was Sir Francis Bacon. Bacon would dearly have loved to determine what the invisible forces that caused motion were. However, he realized that this was something that he couldn’t know. Dwell on this for a moment. Here is a scientific thinker, one of the most prominent of his age, saying he couldn’t know something.
When there were two opposing forces, one, the church, which controlled the worldview, and the other, science, which was attempting to wrest reality from the grasp of the church’s belief system, to state that a scientist couldn’t know the answer to something was significant. After all, even the church claimed knowledge of the physical world, such as the motion of the planets, through Aristotle. How could science expand its power over the worldview by claiming it couldn’t know something?
The answer is the scientific method, which Bacon is given credit for creating, but whose thinking on the subject is ignored, for reasons that will become more than apparent. Bacon lived at the beginning of the massive expansion of agricultural efficiency. People during the 17th century were eager to develop procedures that saved labor and produced efficiency. The question was, how do these procedures come into existence?
The answer was simple, by trial and error. While this is past Bacon’s time, one of the early supporters of the group that became The Royal Society, William Petty, was extremely interested in creating a mechanical sowing machine that would reduce the labor and time involved in planting. It took countless attempts before success was achieved. Each of the failed attempts produced additional knowledge that the experimenters could use to perfect the technology.
The development of technology by the predecessor to The Royal Society, The Oxford Group, was based on Bacon’s scientific method. Gather the facts around a problem, create a mental solution, which is to say, produce a concept of how something might work, then apply that concept to reality, test the concept to see if it stands up in reality.
Bacon, however, also wished to apply the process to the things we couldn’t know, things that we can’t test in reality simply because reality gives us no handle for testing, specifically the hidden forces that produced motion. Bacon said that, while we couldn’t know these causes like we could know what makes a clock tick, we still could attempt to know. Just like an attempt to create technology involved gathering as many facts as were known, so attempting to come up with a concept that explained the things we couldn’t know should involve the collection of all known facts.
Like the development of technology, testing the concepts against reality resulted in an increase in the known facts, which resulted in a change in the concept of the workable technology. It was the trial and error testing of the concepts that allowed experimenters to alter the underlying concept. New facts altered existing concepts.
However, there was no way to test concepts dealing with the underlying forces that caused the hidden motion of things. While we wanted to have answers to the causes of these forces because we didn’t want to walk around asking why that dish fell every time a dish fell, any answer we created was a concept. As a concept, it was based on the set of facts we had to create the concept. As we obviously don’t have all the facts, our concepts can never be completely right. Perhaps at some distant point in the future, all the facts will be revealed, but until that time comes, our concepts of these hidden forces can only approximate reality and can never be accepted as reality under any circumstances.
In short, concepts can never replace facts!
Bacon’s influence among the incipient practitioners in the 17th century was enormous. Charles I had a keen interest in the development of science and supported John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College, as he gathered around him some of the most ingenious thinkers and tinkers of the day. Even when Cromwell took Charles’ head, parliament would not dismiss Wilkins. During Cromwell’s entire period of power, Wilkins was allowed not only to work unmolested, but to employ talented offspring of royalists, including Christopher Wren, a childhood friend of the future Charles II.
When Petty became involved in the group, he brought along the most famous scientist of the day, Robert Boyle, and along with Boyle, Boyles’ laboratory technician Robert Hooke, another royalist offspring who, like Wren, was living on his uncanny ability to create the equipment needed to carry out experiments.
When Charles II claimed the throne, one of his first acts was to recognize the group and The Royal Society was born. Even at its birth, however, Bacon was present. Its motto was nullus in verba, nothing in word. This means precisely what it says: Concepts are concepts, facts are facts. Facts speak for themselves while concepts require words. The Society was embodying Bacon’s scientific method in its founding motto. Concepts have to always be changed by facts because they can never be accurate without all the facts, and since we can never have all the facts, the concepts can never be accurate.
Concepts are nothing but words, and words are nothing when it comes to science, which is the analysis of reality.
The Royal Society received a charter in 1662 (it was informally established after a lecture by Wren in 1660) and took up quarters at Gresham College. While Wren was a member, Hooke was the Curator of Experiments and as such, all ideas passed through him before being reported to the Society. The Royal Society was well established by 1666, when the Great Fire destroyed London. Rebuilding London would become Wren’s signature, although he enlisted the help of Hooke throughout the decades long endeavor. By the beginning of the 1670s, regular meetings were being held, papers and books published (Hooke’s being one of the first) and experiments conducted on a regular basis.
One of those experiments is worth mentioning because I will use it as an example of the Society’s motto and course of direction. One of the most vexing scientific problems, and in those days scientific equated with technology, was the miserable roads in England and the carriages that navigated them. The carriages didn’t provide an easy ride, delivering occupants bruised and battered. The Society early undertook the development of coach springs that would actually protect the occupants. This turned out to be more than difficult, with set after set of springs devised, tested, the information from their failure incorporated into the design of a new set. This process lasted a decade before success was finally achieved (the Society had to produce in return for its patronage).
Fifty miles north of London, and a day’s trip at the time, Cambridge housed Trinity College. Trinity College was a long way from Gresham College and The Royal Society, and definitely out of the loop when it came to the pursuit of science. Isaac Newton took a 2nd class Bachelor of Arts in 1665 and then got out of Cambridge for two years while the plague ravaged the town. He taught himself math during this period and returned to enroll at Trinity in 1667, latching himself onto his namesake, the 1st Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, Isaac Barrow.
Newton and Barrow had two interests in common other than mathematics, optics and alchemy, not necessarily in that order. When Barrow moved on to greener pastures in 1669, Newton stepped in as the 2nd Lucasian Professor (the incomprehensible Stephen Hawkins, who spends much of his time on black holes, is the 17th LP).
Newton’s interest in optics naturally led him to tinker with telescopes, and his knowledge of the science of optics informed him immediately the cause of the rainbow halo that the telescopes of the day experienced. He ingeniously figured out if magnifying lens were replaced with mirrors, the halo would be eliminated and the reflecting telescope was invented, a telescope that’s basically unchanged to this day. Newton sent this remarkable invention to The Royal Society where it was received with the acclaim that it deserved, no objections from anyone and a speedy presentation by Hooke. It was, after all, a fact and not a bunch of words.
(To be continued next entry

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