Science in the transformation of society, society in the transformation of science – On the demands and expectations on modern science
„There is a tendency to forget that the entire field of science is closely bound to the whole of human culture and that any discoveries outside its cultural frame are meaningless. A theoretical science that not is aware of that (…) will inevitably be cut off from the rest of the cultural community.“So wrote in 1952 one of the fathers of quantum physics, Erwin Schrodinger. And indeed the sciences today grow increasingly into the spotlight of the public cultural and political discourse, especially due to their enormous importance as drivers of social change. With nuclear energy, nanotechnology, genetics, brain research, and numerous other technical disciplines it grows more and more into a confrontation with fundamental ethical issues. Many scientists are surprised that the discursive rules they see themselves confronted with in this context represent themselves so differently than in their own field. But have scientific insights and technological innovations not always been intimately related to the very society in which they take place, affect it as well as be affected by it, as Schrödinger writes?
At the same time today’snatural sciences are themselves in the midst of significant methodological change. Natural phenomena of ever greater complexity, which exclude themselves from classical laboratory and experimental work, are modeled mathematically on computers with increasing accuracy and thus see their behavior calculated rather than measured. The numerical simulation has become the third pillar of scientific research next to experiment and theory. Computer models on the climate determine already the social and political debate on environmental policy. And with more and more complex experiments like the LHC at CERN, the plasma fusion reactor ITER, or the ‘Human Brain Project‘ comes an enormous amount of data that can only be processed by means of appropriate computer technology.
But we can observeat least two more significant developments within the scientific world: First, a dramatic increase in the sheer number of scientists. Today we count ten to 20 times as many scientistscompared to 50 years ago. Such growth inevitably leads to changes in the nature of scientific work. Secondly, science operates increasingly in large projects, in which many researchers’ work is linked. Thus major research institutions impose a large influence on the research community. The romantic image of a single genius, who in the undisturbed seclusion of a laboratory or desk after as passionate as tough battles and in sudden flashes of inspiration reachesgroundbreaking new findings and presents these to an awed public, represents a rather rare exception intoday’s operationof scientific research.
Both trends mean that today scientists and their institutions openly compete for many billions of dollars, which are distributed annually to universities and research faculties by government agencies. Many seasoned scientists have thus turned into full-time financial and project managers. In the end all this turns into a power struggle in which it is about influence, politics and prestige. Anyone who for example thinks the business of publishing is always based on purely objective „scientific“ criteria, hardly understand the modern dynamics within the scientific community. When the world sometimes wonders about the egos of actors or business leaders, we often overlook that many experienced scientists are not less prone to these lower virtues of human nature.At last it is human characters that make up scientists, which come with their likes and dislikes, egos and attitudes, ambitions and career aspirations. Where humanness is at work, we cannot expect that the acceptance or rejection of submitted work always follows objective quality criteria. Many scientists are at times appalled by the hostility, with whichevaluators tear apart the manuscripts submitted by their colleagues for publication. They do this in a manner which given great credit to the German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. And who ever completed an application for a scientific project funding (or selected among applications), will find a German or US tax return clear and easily accessible in comparison.
Increasing complexity of scientific problems, lack of care due to the career and competitive pressures, a merciless and ruthless publication compulsion that leads to ever more quantity at the expense of quality, expressed financial and not least commercial interests,and even open conflicts of interests, networks implicitly (and explicitly) encouraging conformism, not to mention tangible military and security implications … the list sobering concomitants in theoperation of modern science is surely extensive.
But an even more and more fundamental consideration of scientific methodology and its transformation reveals some more insights. For in the last 100 years we can observe a radical change in the nature of scientific claim for explaining the world. And this atlast bears a profound significance for the public debate on their insights and marks. The historical origins of science are the philosophical desire and search for an absolute and ultimate truth. Already with the pre-Socratics, the ancient natural philosophers before Socrates, we can observe the development of the foundations of a metaphysics that was looking for ultimate causes and contexts behind the phenomena in nature.Regardless of the philosophical problems that arose with the idea of an absolute and final knowledge, this intellectual drive held until modern age. It motivated Kepler in his theory of the movement of the planets, it was the basis for Newton’s mathematical system of mechanics, and still at the beginning of the 20th century let the physicists’ dream of the unity of science. Also modern natural philosophy, beginning with Descartes and Leibniz,was led by the desire and the belief in the possibility of absolute certainty –which ultimately can only be found beyond sensual perception in the transcendent.Only with the rise of modern physics has started and accelerated a process in which in the natural sciences the idea of the absolute was systematically suppressed in favor of an empiricist-positivist orientation embossed with a Bayesianmethodological framework.Well-known examples are the replacement of Newton’s notion of absolute space and absolute time by the relational space-time in the theory of relativity or the new object concept in quantum physics. In addition, consider the central importance of the concept of information in evolutionary theory and genetics today, the two pillars of modern biology.
The detachment from an absolute certainty in quantum physics can be considered as one of the greatest philosophical insights of the 20th century.We recognize that the success of science in the last 100 years won its central developmental momentum precisely with the elimination of metaphysical dream of a universal truth. And on top comes the realization that our perception of nature is not detached from ourselves, i.e. “observing” is not a subject-independent process.In summary, we can say that science has „de-rendered itself from the absolute”, i.e. it is no longer looking for the absolute.
This scientific detachment from claims of absolute truth displays some astonishing parallels to the dynamics of social power – as Karl Popper pointed out 75 years ago. Yet every time people thought they had found the perfect form of society, they ended up in the solidification of a despotic absolute. The natural sciences teach us the permanent and constant questioning of our own intellectual soundness, the never-ending critical reflection of our thoughts(and believes) and action. Political decision-making processes are thus as science in a permanent repair mode,in which their protagonists must constantly question themselves. A form of government in which power is democratically justified and can be corrected in its actions or even be voted out of office enables a very different social progress than authoritarian regimes.The way real progress then runs via the continuing correction of wrong decisions, which ultimately triggered the unmatched social growth and developing prosperity in the open, anti-autocratic and democratic societies of the 20th and 21st centuries. Just as science has given up its claim for absolute insight and truth, and our knowledge of nature isthus repeatedly corrected and expanded, the “open societies” (Popper) ultimately enabled the unfolding of the historically unprecedented dynamics of modern scientific progress. The parallelism of both developments is hardly accidental.
A new scientific pragmatism is particularly evident in today’s theoretical physics. As recently as in the 1920s and 1930s insights of physicists arose after a long and intense reflection on basic concepts such as space, time, matter, force and motion. Only when they had clarified these questions for themselves, the physicists used mathematics to bring their theory into the appropriate forms. Einstein and his colleagues understood their activities as part of a broader philosophical tradition in which they saw their spiritual home. Today’s theoretical physics in contrast is dominated by a more pragmatic and sober, even instrumentalist style that has emerged in the 1940s and 1950s out of the Anglo-American scientific tradition which puts more emphasis on mathematical virtuosity than the ability to think deeply through difficult conceptual problems. „Shut up to calculate,“ a pointy description of this style by the physicist David Mermin says. Erwin Schrödinger, but also his friend and companion Albert Einstein,would probably in their gravesturn their faces away from such a statement.
Epistemological and ethical dilemmas, outspoken social criticism of their work and methods, self-doubt, but also the increasing complexity of “big science”and potentially harmful technologies (the mother of which being the atomic bomb) led the natural sciences in the perception of many into an essential identity crisis during the second half of the 20th century. But we must be reminded over and over again: The scientific method per se is far from perfect. Again and again it has led us to make mistakes and has put us in various trouble – and will surely continue to do. But it is the most powerful and at the same time most humble method available to us for gaining knowledge about the nature and for the improvement of our living conditions. And it reminds us over and over again of our limited knowledge. To not use it with full capacity would thus be not only foolish, but also grossly negligent.