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Realizing That There Was Such a Thing as Science

I’ve been enjoying this book, The Invention of Science by David Wootton, which was just published in the US back in December. It’s a history of the beginnings of the scientific revolution back in the 1500s and 1600s, and it takes a lot of issues with how that history has been told by some other authors. (In fact, he has issues with a lot of history-and-philosophy-of-science people, and good for him).

It’s not always light reading, I will say that, but I’ve learned a great deal of interesting stuff. Wootton has put a vast amount of scholarship into the book, going back to rare primary sources in many cases to try to figure out what people really said (and did) while scientific thinking was gaining a foothold in the world. Among the things I had no idea about where how common words such as “fact”, “discovery”, “invention” and others that we use every day in science are actually fairly recent usages in English. You just don’t find them with their modern meanings if you go back earlier than the mid-1500s. You can see examples of authors from the period talking about subjects that needed these words, but they weren’t there for them.

To pick one example, the whole idea of a discovery, in the sense of finding out something that no one else had ever known, was very controversial indeed in Europe. Surely the ancient Greeks or Romans already knew this thing that you seem to think you’ve somehow “Found Out”? Surely they knew better, and you’re just wrong? Surely elementary philosophical reasoning – which is, after all, just as good as any other means of settling such questions, right? – would show you the error of your ways? It’s staggering to think, but for centuries, educated thinkers were convinced (following Aristotle) that ice was more dense than liquid water, because colder things were always denser. It floated on the surface of water because of its shape, not because it was somehow less dense, because it wasn’t less dense. Similarly, Plutarch (among others) said that garlic would neutralize a magnet – and the very idea of taking an actual piece of magnetic iron and rubbing it with garlic to see if that worked was something that just Wasn’t Done, because it did work, because Plutarch said so.

Much less the thought of seeing how much garlic it might take, how long it took to act and from what distance, whether the effect ever wore off, whether a whole clove would work or if it had to be (freshly?) chopped. . .because the idea of systematic experimentation was not yet loose in the world, either. You didn’t do that sort of thing, because anyway, reading the ancient texts was even more definitive, as was philosophizing from Aristotelian and/or Biblical principles. The word “evidence” was only used in law, and (as Wootton shows) it, and the modern idea it conveys, only gradually made it out of the courtroom and into general usage.

Consider John Smeaton, who in the mid-1700s worked out the efficiencies of various types of water wheels (and helped kick off the Industrial Revolution by doing so). He could do this – and it was a great boon to humanity, make no mistake – because he was working inside Isaac Newton’s framework of physics and realized that measuring energy going in versus energy coming out was the way to settle the question. (He also built on a good knowledge of friction as applied to the moving parts of scale models, which had tripped up others in the past). And most importantly, he went into this work knowing that a thorough exploration of all the design features (water from on top? wheel dipped into the stream? mounted sideways or vertical?) would provide him with the definitive picture of how water wheels worked. In earlier centuries, tedious variable-isolating experimentation of this sort, assuming anyone had thought about doing it at all, would have been seen as an eccentric, laughable waste of time.

But now we know that Nature really does speak when asked questions in this way, and we’ve never looked back. I was setting up 37 variations on a single experiment the other day, and yeah, it was a fair amount of work, and not particularly exciting work, either. But I am the heir of Smeaton, and Newton, and Boyle, and Galileo, and I and the rest of the scientific world know that this is the way to make things happen. I didn’t try to find out what Aristotle might have said about the issues I’m investigating, and I didn’t try to reason my way through to the results while staring out the window. I went into the lab and got to work instead, and that, by the standards of human history, is something very new and strange. But it works.

27 comments on “Realizing That There Was Such a Thing as Science”

  1. Curious Wavefunction says:

    Glad you reviewed it: I enjoyed it too. It also offers a good complement to Kuhn’s idea of theory-driven scientific revolutions – Peter Galison’s tool-driven revolutions. One thing I love about the book is how Wootton talks about even mundane instruments like double entry bookkeeping and the compass having such a measurable impact on scientific discovery. Its’ the little things that are often big.

  2. Anon says:

    “Surely the ancient Greeks or Romans already knew this thing that you seem to think you’ve somehow “Found Out”?”

    Sounds much like the typical response I hear when proposing anything beyond the status quo within a big pharma company.

    1. Shion Arita says:

      Ah, the old “If that worked/were true, someone would have found out about it/done it already.”

      In my mind that wins the gold medal for the most specious argument ever. Its use is one of my biggest pet peeves.

  3. Anon says:

    Now it seems we’ve gone back to the old ways, as mining Big Data for (spurious) correlations beats doing real experiments. Judging by the investment in the former vs job cuts in the latter.

    1. Khaz says:

      Unfair assessment of actual methods applied in Big Data. That’s what people do when they don’t know what to do with their data. Data science is a natural evolution of experiment-driven discovery.

  4. Indeed. As a technologist who’s spent his career in genetics, genomics and transcriptomics, I’ve seen first-hand how tools and technologies, large and small, really impact the kind of science we can do and the kinds of discoveries we can make. Watching cell biology as an interested observer, it seems the same thing has been going on there with ever better microscopes, dyes, and techniques.

    At the same time, I have to knock myself in the head every one in a while to remember that technology doesn’t cure poorly done science, and also that we still only know a very small piece of biology and how it all works. While I’m glad people from Silicon Valley are coming in with new ideas and approaches, at the same time it seems like many there have got a mindset that technology will cure everything, and traditional biologists just don’t know how to get things done. Interesting times.

  5. Ann O'Nymous says:

    The flip side of “the old guard said it, so it must be True” is “the old guard said it, so it must be False” rapidly followed by “and I worked at Twitter once. You see, you are doing it all wrong, that’s why you haven’t cured cancer yet.”

    Theranos springs to mind.

    1. anon says:

      Also many crackpots seem to think that being told that they’re wrong by the “orthodox scientific establishment” is a very strong proof that they’re in fact right.

  6. CMCguy says:

    Admittedly have not read the book however having the title with “Invention” strikes me as misleading perhaps because I believe keen observation and the need to understand and improve things has always been inherently part of human nature throughout history. Even well before the 1500s individuals and culturals, notably Chinese and Arabic, have discovered things or had practices that would fall in to sciences definition. While a few people over history have had greater drives in these traits or simply more leisure time and financial stability to devote or even were supported missions to pursue knowledge I am not sure consider science in general as something that was ever invented seeing more as just a case of standardization and codifications in Western terms that were broadly accepted and then moved on to subdivisions in specialized disciplines. Could be a matter of semantics yet would offer Modernization or Western development of Science because even if terms we now used were not applied the overall concepts where often ingrained, sometimes likely obscured by religion or class differences which kept buried or isolated the dissemination.

  7. Peter Kenny says:

    John Gribben’s ‘Science: A History 1543–2001’ is also an excellent read

  8. Kaleberg says:

    People tend not to realize just how unusual science is in world history. People have been inventing things and exploring the world for ages, but science was a new program aimed at systematically exploring the world, collecting evidence and building, over generations, on what was learned. Wasn’t the motto of the Royal Society “nullius in verba” (roughly don’t take anyone’s word for it)?

    It’s interesting that science was an outgrowth of the Protestant revolution which encouraged reading the Bible and interpreting it for oneself. If that doesn’t sound like a lame place to start I can’t imagine a stranger one.

    1. CMCguy says:

      Lame? Kaleberg I think you have it backwards since their faith provided them inherent confidence that a Creator established a world that could be studied and learned via observation because was based on definable and consistent rules and not random disorganization. They also believed God wished man to learn about nature and increase awareness of Him through this. I would suggest provide a solid foundation that spurred growth in development of many endeavors in science

    2. Mark S says:

      I agree the Bible sounds like a poor place to start into science … from today’s POV.

      But consider their world. One where “learning” for most even partly-educated folks meant listening to somebody else explain the official received interpretation of the Bible and demanding agreement upon pain of death.

      In that world, going into the Bible and seeing for yourself what it held and what it meant was the baby step at the beginning. We can think of it as a (hugely) simplified model of reality with emphasis on human social stuff. Exploring simplified models has huge benefits even today in every area of study,

      What they lacked, and we now have, is much more appreciation of the limitations of hard conclusions derived from grossly simplified models.

      Once the idea of exploring a space (any space) for yourself and defining your own conclusions from your own observations got loose in the world it promptly took on a life of its own. Net of revanchist forces like the Inquisistion. And the rest is … history.

      1. Jim Hartley says:

        Very well said, Mark S.

    3. Oliver H says:

      I have my doubts that Copernicus, himself CATHOLIC clergy, was much motivated by the “Protestant revolution” (in which the idea of everyone being allowed to interpret the Bible was far from universally accepted).

      There was a strong general desire to understand creation, to honor the creator by studying his work. Astronomy had long been of interest not the least due to its role in calculating the day of Easter, and the Gregorian Calendar was set up as an output of Vatican astronomy research.

      People likewise tend to forget that Galilei’s ACTUAL dispute was one within the “scientific community” of his time, with his disadvantage being that his opponents were not just researchers but powerful clergy as well. Supposed discordance of his claims with creed were mainly a tool wielded by them.

  9. Anonymous says:

    While I am the first person who admires keen observational empiricism and its codification into modern scientific and experimental methods, I am also reminded of the observation of my old Ph.D. supervisor after a particularly ill-thought out sequence of experiments. “Why waste a couple of hours in the library when you can spend a month in the lab doing important experiments and rediscovering the same stuff?”……..I don’t believe he was the first – and will certainly not be the last – person to utter a version of those words.

  10. metaphysician says:

    In a way, the invention of science was the first big transhuman step: it gave us a philosophical tool for overcoming prior limits on human reasoning, which allowed us to produce revolutionary changes in the world around us. And I don’t use the word ‘transhuman’ lightly here, because if too much time at Science Based Medicine has taught me anything, its that the Scientific Method is *not* a natural product of human thought.

  11. Nick K says:

    Another great book on scientific thought is “The Unnatural Nature of Science” by Lewis Wolpert, which very nicely demonstrates just how strange and, yes, unnatural, scientific thought-processes are, especially for non-scientists.

  12. I thought Archimedes dis the definitive analysis of floating not long after Aristotle.

  13. Vader says:

    In a society poor enough that getting it wrong very likely meant people starving to death, a bit of conservatism is understandable. Surely the ancient Romans and Greeks didn’t like starving to death, either? So why risk doing it differently when you have a good chance of starving?

    In other words, science looks like a bit of a luxury in a premodern society. Which raises a bit of a chicken and egg problem, which the inventors of science were lucky to be able to overcome.

    Once there was some confidence that science might actually mean less people starving, there was a lot more inclination to risk resources on it.

    1. Jeff says:

      I suspect one of the missing resources until relatively recently (i.e., the last several hundred years) was simply time: in a world where meeting the basic daily needs for existence was time and labor intensive, there wasn’t the opportunity for abstraction and experimentation in any sort of structured way. But as the industrial revolution increasingly freed people from the more mundane chores, more opportunities have emerged to explore beyond the needs of the immediate moment. Several hundred years ago, that started a climate where people had the time and inclination to try all sorts of things — some of which worked, and most of which didn’t, sometimes in spectacular and self-destructive ways. Nowadays, we have way too much time on our hands, but the risk-adverse culture seems to be turning out a generation of video gamers who live vicariously through their screens instead of getting out of the basement and actually doing things.

      1. Vader says:

        Very likely true.

        Keeping this in mind is a good antidote to temporal chauvinism.

  14. One could argue that the germinating idea of modern scientific theory really has its roots in the rediscovery by Western scholars of the Byzantine texts of the Bible. This forced the scholars to realize that they didn’t have a true, unadulterated copy of the Word of God–but they found that they could reconstruct the original copy by comparing enough copies to work out how and where the errors were introduced.

    Prior to the Scientific Revolution, the general goal of science (or, rather, philosophy; there wasn’t a difference back then) was to find the underlying truth of the world. Inductive reasoning, as the Greeks themselves well knew, was unable to do that: it can only be correct insofar as you never find a counterexample. You instead needed deductive reasoning to find this truth. And while you might say that just, you know, testing to see if something is actually true would expose some of these ideas as pure lunacy, keep in mind that there is a really good retort: that the Earth is round, when our initial observation would suggest that it can’t be anything other than a flat disk.

    The hurdle, then, that the Scientific Revolution had to overcome was that divine revelation couldn’t (or, at the very least, wasn’t) provide the axioms that one needed for deductive reasoning, and that inductive reasoning could produce them albeit only tenuously. And trying to answer the question of what the Bible really said ultimately could be what drove people to first jump that hurdle.

  15. NJBiologist says:

    Derek: “Among the things I had no idea about where how common words such as “fact”, “discovery”, “invention” and others that we use every day in science are actually fairly recent usages in English. You just don’t find them with their modern meanings if you go back earlier than the mid-1500s.”

    Might that be an artifact of the tendency for learned conversations to have been conducted in, say, Latin before then? The mid-1500s were the time of the rise of the vernacular.

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