Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pace Schnaiberg : simplifying science vs complicating science

Canadian-born sociologist of Science Allan Schnailberg , in a seminal article from more than 40 years ago, explained-in-advance today's Science Wars , with his proposed division of scientists into those oriented to production and those oriented to studying the impact of that production.

So some scientists are content to merely dig up millions of tons of tar sands to produce oil and never ask what for , while other scientists spend their lives exploring the impact on the world of all that additional air carbon and waste water.

I want to modify his suggestion when I look into 19th century science and technology's paradoxical effects upon modernization and its evil counterpart, modernity.

Because I want to suggest that the random working-out, in all directions, of the collective effect of individual science and technology efforts, was to do two wildly different things at the same time.

One was to greatly advance humanity's simple control over apparent reality.

The other was to greatly reduce humanity's simple control over actual (complex) reality.

Steam ships, lighthouses, radio, radar (works of technology basically : production science) all seemed to make our  predictive control over ocean weather conditions far more assured.

But further weather research (basic science research, impact science) revealed just how complex ocean weather actually was and how unlikely it was that we could ever 100% predict the ocean weather , even three days ahead. 

Nineteenth Century science claimed it was well on the way to finding the one 'Theory of Everything', and soon science would be able to show (reduce) all reality to the effects that a few basic forces have on a few basic particles.

But even if you don't give a tinker's damn about science, ask yourself if there has been a news headline that suggests that science has newly discovered less, rather than more ?

Never, never never : trust me.

The earth is older than thought, as is the universe - which is also much bigger than expected and rapidly expanding. More and more species are always being found, living in more and more extreme environs and Life's start is constantly is being pushed back.

More elements, more isotopes , more basic sub- atomic particles.

More interactions, more complexity, more chaos theory.

Very, very, rarely is ever revealed  that only one faulty gene can cause a disease - it always seems to be the interacting of thirty genes that may or may not give us a statistical greater chance of having that disease.

Ever better instrumentation and more serious research projects focussed on highly particular questions has revealed ,again and again ,that the surface simplicity of reality is false.

So our incomplete knowledge of reality is indeed a dangerous thing ---- as it always seems to feed our ready tendency to technological hubris.

Let us get concrete for a minute : and think about what 19th century fingerprinting was really doing for us.

Yes, it offered us simple control over reality by determining which criminal was actually at the crime scene (hurrah !) but only by suggesting this unexpected complexity about reality : that every human that ever existed has unique fingerprints.

In fact, like snowflakes, fingerprints should have reminded us that universal random thermal noise ensures that everything in reality - from living clones to pure mineral crystals  - is , and must be, subtly different ... if only we look close enough.

Linear and reality live on separate universes : because everything in our universe vibrates randomly and constantly and so zig-zags itself to every new chemical combination at its own unique pace.

Identical twins start off life with the exact same instructions of growth, but within seconds are subtly different as the carefully timed iterations when genes get turned off and on are subtly smeared by the random effects of thermal noise speeding or delaying each competing process.

May I suggest that the Enlightenment Project made a simple but fundamental error in thinking that knowing more about reality was the same as offering up more control over reality ?

Because what really had to be decided was this : was reality simpler than it looked or was it more complex than it looked?

A truly open mind, a mind agape - like that of Henry Dawson - would look to see what the evidence revealed before deciding.

But the utopian (unconsciously fearful of loss of control ?) minds of most Modernist scientists (I am thinking here particularly of the progressive scientist Einstein and fascist scientist Hitler) went into the question already convinced, in advance of any evidence, that reality was simpler than it looked.

Knowing that a person is utopian (ie, believes it is even possible to attempt to plan and micromanage social and economic reality) really tells us very little about their politics, but it tells us a great deal about their physics .

Because they must believe that physical (and above it social) reality is so fundamentally simple and predictable that it is possible to set forth an economic Five Year Plan for an entire nation without worrying that we might fail to foresee a possible earthquake, volcano, hurricane or meter crash .

Let alone considering that a possible war, drought, epidemic or social revolution might make their five year planning goals unobtainable.

Most utopians in fact seek a 'one world government' so confident are they that a few skilled technicians can successfully micro-manage an entire world for years in advance.

So 'simplifying science' is fundamentally utopian while 'complicating science' is fundamentally anti-utopian : hard to avoid a 'science war' with those opposing world-views facing off.

This is why I propose to 'prism' the WWII Florey-Dawson conflict over wartime penicillin development as an early example of a battle in a 'science war' between simplifying and complicating views on ultimate reality.

An enormous 'science war' happening beneath the better known but much smaller military war...

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