Tag Archives: Science Nature

218. Science: Its Nature and Early History

11 Oct

Science plays an ever increasing role in global politics and government. It is the basis for climate-change, defeating pandemics and many other diseases, energy use, GMO foods, and many types of manufacturing. So when I saw the book review noted below, I decided to explore its topic.

Michael Strevens wrote a book called “The Knowledge Machine.” A detailed review can be found in The NY Times, October 7, 2020, by Jennifer Szalai. I am not writing a book review. I am writing a blog about the nature of science and responding to some ideas in the book review.

Modern science began its development in the 17th Century. Strevens, in his book presents reasons why it did not develop earlier. Here is one of the main arguments. Science involves long, tedious, and boring measurements and observations, that often are unfruitful. Strevens says that this kind of endeavor is irrational and inhuman. It is argued that for this reason modern science developed slowly. No one wanted to do a lot of boring work.

While there may be some truth to this, we should consider other factors. First, much of scientific work involves processes that are not boring. Spending time in exotic locations like rain forests is fun for many people. Second, spending a few years doing boring work can have the huge rewards of outstanding publications, high salaries, Nobel prizes, powerful academic positions, and a lot of admiration. Many women (or men) are attracted to highly intelligent and successful scientists and professors.

It is not just science that involves some tedious work leading to great rewards. Great paintings can take months of tedious artistic work, but seeing the final picture and showing it in exhibitions is very satisfying. Many of the more artistic and literary professions have tremendous rewards.

Second, it is the nature of science to be progressive. The long delays in the development of modern science depended upon some difficult discoveries. The early growth of science a few centuries ago, depended on some technical factors. One early factor is good communications systems. The advance of science involves the cooperation of many people, and these people must have communication methods like newspapers, for example, which depended on the invention of the printing press. The early ability for people to gather together for the rational discussion of issues was also important. I imagine that many centuries ago, long before the beginnings of modern science, people made some important observations, there was no way to properly communicate these ideas.

Early inventions of certain tools were important in developing scientific topics. For example, it took many years to develop useful glass structures like lenses. These could be used for telescopes, and microscopes. The discovery of electricity was extremely important. Having tools like these allowed for amazing discoveries and stimulated interest in many areas of research.

Final thoughts. First, I want to clarify that Strevens does recognize the value of science. I believe that his main concern is why it started so slowly. I have tried to show that the establishment of key societal structures, and inventions, such as telescopes, microscopes, and electricity were necessary before modern science could take off. The slow development of these necessary factors is understandable. We can also point to the fact that many promising early societies were overrun by powerful, violent armies, like those responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire. The development of science was also slowed by leaders that believed in rigid, traditional dogma.