This Too Shall Pass

The Big Think has a rather poorly worded article, “Can we reach the end of knowledge.”

The article borders are incomprehensibility, because it confuses three things: ways of knowing, which are how we understand the world, science, one way of knowing based on testing falsifiable hypotheses, and normal science, which is a social phenomenon capable of scientific progress through the exemplars of good research.

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Humans will have “ways of knowing” as long as we exist, and science as long as we desire it, so the only sensible way to ask the question is how normal science will end: how will we stop making scientific progress?

Assuming a lack of a nuclear holocaust or other calamity, we will stop making progress in science for the same reason that we will stop making progress in the construction of propeller planes (a technology that has been in decay since the 1940s): the costs will exceed the benefits.

Three broad possible mechanisms for the end of normal science, therefore, are:

1. Increase in the costs of normal science, all other things being equal, or
2. Decrease in the benefits of, normal science, all other things being equal, or
3. Some external change, in other words, all things stop being equal.

On way the costs of normal science might increase is if that non-scientific fields outbid scientific fields for workers whose skills are essential to science. We may already be seeing this happen. A bit ago, Razib Khan had a much better written article, “The Real End of Science,” in which he noted the increase in scientific cheating. This is presumably undetected because there are too few scientists relative to the work we have available to them, and how much we are paying them.

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Related to this, normal science may end because of a decrease in the benefits of normal science. Perhaps the economic return on capital in both the short, medium, and long terms will be relatively low for scientific investments as opposed to capital improvements, and so it does not make sense to pay enough for scientists to engage in research that can make progress.

Thirdly, the ecosystem that supports normal science might collapse, changing the costs and benefits simultaneously. For instance, folks like Diane Ravitch are openly hostile to normal science and the federal-academic complex that supports it. A coalition of leftists and rightists could take down or deform the Large Research Universities and the Grant Funding Agencies to greatly retard normal science, subjecting them to the same lobotomy of low wages that has destroyed the American teaching profession.

Of course normal science will end. The important questions are when it will end, and who will miss it?

2 thoughts on “This Too Shall Pass”

  1. One alternative you might consider is that new ways to fund and use normal science may emerge such as open peer review and crowdsourcing that may both destroy the old system but not necessarily end normal science.

  2. … or end both… The NSF, NIH, etc have been critical in normalizing science (emphasizing research programs, record of success, etc)… A crowdsourced model could lead to more one-off big-bang research being conducted, but without the progress that normal science brings.

    A lot to think about…

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