Changes In Science

I am going to make some generalizations about what I'm reading at the Edge Question of 2008 site. Please keep in mind two things:

  1. This is not representative of all scientists, only the blokes who read Edge and have already decided to answer the question. ...a very small set of the science community. Also, the vast majority are American.
  2. I am re-interpreting their answers, so you are hearing this through my filter. There are conflicting points of view, even within the current answers. I could cite (multiple) specific sources for each of my comments, but that would take more time than I am willing to give. :) The site is worth reading in its entirety.
On to my observations (in the order they struck me):

First, synthesis has been strongly emphasized. This excites me, as someone who's wanted to see more of it for a long, long time. Namely, this is the idea that multiple fields need to come together to find better answers: the "divide and conquer" cornerstone of science is being questioned. Neurobiology needs to heed Psychology and Sociology, for example. In another example, a neurobiologist calls for help from top-notch mathematicians. While experts may still be important, cooperation is required for further progress. The internet, of course, poses a gigantic opportunity for such collaboration and broader awareness.

Second, the state of science, particularly in America, seems threatened. There is not as much of a sense of wonder about it anymore, and the whole "Intelligent Design" debate, along with other political tussles, have taken their toll on the trust people have in science. And scientists have also lost some of their faith in people. Specifically, they wish there were more science in the governance of America. Perhaps better-stated, there is a greater divide between science and religion.

Third, scientists have become frustrated with the slow progression of their fields. For example, there have been no major physics breakthroughs since the late 90's, and even those weren't as remarkable as The Standard Model or Special Relativity. Superstrings haven't panned out. Dark Matter might be a ruse. Gravity is still a mystery. They're pining for the next huge revelation. Another example is computer science: the promise of AI was unrealized, and the speed of processors is not growing geometrically like was hoped.

Fifth: the so-called "fishing expeditions" are coming into style. ...These are the funded "studies" that are not for testing a hypothesis, but for formulating one. Studying things for the sake of studying them... and with the hope that, out of this, you will see trends which can then be subjected to the scientific method.

Sixth: lots of scientists have converted to atheism, and apparently like to announce it. : ) I loved this paragraph by Frank Wilczek :

What I found most disillusioning, however, was not that the sacred texts contained errors, but that they suffered by comparison. Compared to what I was learning in science, they offered few truly surprising and powerful insights. Where was there a vision to rival the concepts of infinite space, of vast expanses of time, of distant stars that rivaled and surpassed our Sun? Or of hidden forces and new, invisible forms of "light"? Or of tremendous energies that humans could, by understanding natural processes, learn to liberate and control? I came to think that if God exists, He (or She, or They, or It ) did a much more impressive job revealing Himself in the world than in the old books; and that the power of faith and prayer is elusive and unreliable, compared to the everyday miracles of medicine and technology.

Seventh: Statistics is making a comeback. Bayesian analysis help explain the human brain, greater variance helps explains why more males are among the intellectual elite (and the morons), statistical analysis of speech proves more effective at Turing Tests than any programs trying to mimic "understanding"...

"I changed my mind about climate change" (meaning: they are now worried about it) is probably the most common answer. I just didn't think it was interesting enough to put above the Eighth point.

3 comments:

r_b_bergstrom said...

I'm not trying to refute, Wilczek's point, I'm just commenting on it...

The reason he doesn't find the "old books" to be as amazing as everyday science is at least partly because he's choosing not to believe them.

Meaning that if he did believe, for example, that Joshua stopped the sun over Jericho (or that Elijah had somehow communicated with wild bears and talked them into eating the children who'd mocked him, or any number of other strange tales) then he'd certainly find the ramifications to be quite amazing.

Point being, if you believe in black holes, but not in jesus, the singularity ends up being more interesting than the martyr.

If you believe in Zeus but not Carbon Emissions, you'll be more excited about by Electricity than Global Warming.

Science and history are both full of fallacies that were accepted once but now known to be in error. Yet at the same time, there's also evidence that many ancient cultures possessed knowledge that was later lost for some time.

Not that I'm saying Joshua had some high-tech sun-stopper gravity-bender, but if he did, wouldn't that make him cool than Einstein?

r_b_bergstrom said...

Oops. Wikipedia tells me it was Gibeon. I guess Jericho's where the walls fell. Although, I could have swore Picard told me that was Shaka, When The Walls Fell. Meh, I'm a geek.

What Silence said...

It is clear from the context that he was a True Believer when he read the old texts.

(I cannot believe Blogger doesn't accept blockquote tags, so apologies that this is not indented:)

I was an earnest student in Catechism class. The climax of our early training, as thirteen year-olds, was an intense retreat in preparation for the sacrament of Confirmation. Even now I vividly remember the rapture of belief, the glow everyday events acquired when I felt that they reflected a grand scheme of the universe, in which I had a personal place.

...Aside from that, point taken.