Charlton and the Scientific Bubble

I have put forward, in passing, the idea that the ratio of “advancement : money + time” is lower than it was in the 19th century in a place like England. This is based on the astounding discoveries made by a relative handful of men in that time. I have put forward a few reasons why that may be so: education, flexibility in terms of research and exploration (and in particular how this allows for focusing on problems a scientist is more personally motivated about), and less bureaucracy. (See here for more on these reasons – the last comes from Bruce Charlton, and is discussed in passing here.)

Charlton puts forward a more striking hypothesis, however: it’s not just that the ratio is lower, but the absolute amount of scientific advancement may be lower.

Because we have more professional scientists and more science journals, and more journal articles, we assume there is more advancement.

“[T]he expectation of regular and frequent publication would only make sense if it was assumed that scientific knowledge was accumulating in a predictable fashion.”

How would we really know, however?

“Who could evaluate whether change is science and increased amounts of self-styled scientific *stuff* actually corresponded to more and better science?”

We can’t use the growth in the professionalization of science, or the growth in journals, as direct evidence, unless we make various assumptions about these things and their relation to advancement.

Charlton says we can think of journal publications as paper money – just as in an economy, paper money can grow and grow while not maintaining equivalent value, just so in science: the publications, which are supposed signs of value, may become detached from actual scientific value, i.e., advancement.

Charlton thinks science is in a similar situation to a bubble economy:

“In science, what masquerades as growth in knowledge (to an extent which is unknown, and indeed unknowable except in retrospect) is not growth in knowledge but merely an expansion of *stuff*, changes in the methods of counting, and so on.”

He continues:

“Multiple counting is rife: progress is claimed when a grant is applied for and also when a grant is awarded, and even when the work is still happening – since scientific progress is assumed to be predictable – a mere function of resources, capital and manpower; credit for a scientific publication is counted for all of its (many) authors, for all the many forms in which the same stuff is published and republished, for the department and also for the university where it was done, and also the granting agency which provided the funds and for the journal where it was published – everyone grabs a slice of the ‘glory’.

Credit is given for the mere act of a ‘peer reviewed’ publication regardless of whether the stuff is true and useful – or false and harmful.”

I continue to quote at length:

“If science is really *hard*, then this fact is incompatible with the professionalization of science – with the idea of scientific research as a career. Since science is irregular and infrequent, science could only be done in an amateur way; maybe as a sideline from some other profession like teaching, practicing medicine, or being a priest.

Professional science would then be intrinsically phony, and the phoniness would increase as professionalization of science increased and became more precisely measured, and as the profession of science expanded – until it reached a situation where the visible products of science – the *stuff* bore no relationship to the reality of science.

Professional scientists would produce stuff (like scientific publications) regularly and frequently, but this stuff would have nothing to do with real science.

Or, more exactly, the growing amount of stuff produce by the growing numbers of professional science careerists, whose use of hype would also be growing – the amount of this stuff would be so much greater than the amount of real science, that the real science would be obscured utterly.

This is precisely what we have.”

He then ties this into the recent economic bubble:

“The economy was collapsing while the economic indicators improved; and science can be collapsing while professional science is booming.”

He then makes a further move:

“But if science is very difficult and unpredictable, and if the amount of science cannot be indefinitely expanded by increasing the input of personnel and funding, then perhaps the amount of real science has not increased *at all* and the vast expansion of scientific-stuff is not science.

If so, then the amount of real science (intermittent, infrequent, unpredictable) has surely not stayed constant but will have actually declined due to the hostile environment. At the very least, real science will be de facto unfindable since the signal is drowned by every increasing levels of noise.”

He concludes:

“But when the scientific bubble bursts, what will be left over after the explosion? Maybe only the old science – from an era when most scientists were at least honest and trying to discover the truth about the natural world.

[…] At the very least, science would be set back by several decades and not just by a few years. But it could be even worse than that.”

I think Charlton is right in saying that gauging scientific advancement by looking at the number of people working in science, or the number of journals or publications, can be misleading – these could even be negative indicators depending on one’s views of professionalization or the problems of signal-to-noise ratios, as Charlton notes.

What would be a more useful metric? I don’t think there are simple demarcations between technology and science, but technology is caught up in science to some degree. Technology is where scientific ‘knowledge’ is put to the test, and often refined.

Many people talk about how technological change is speeding up, and in part this is because journalists like talking about supposedly new things. In our time, though, pretty much everything in our day-to-day technological reality would be familiar to someone from around 50 years ago. The big exception is the development of computers and the Internet. Near the end of the 19th century, dramatic technological changes involving electrical power, the internal combustion engine, airplanes, and wireless telegraphy (i.e., radio), to name a few, were taking place.

My working guess for a peak for technological change in terms of how it affects people would be then.