Friday, 29 October 1999

John Horgan: The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (1997)

Edition: Little, Brown, & Co.
Review number: 376

John Horgan originally set out to write a book of profiles of the most eminent scientists of the late twentieth century, based on interviews he had carried out as a journalist for Scientific American. But he became fascinated by a theme he perceived in these interviews, the question of whether we might have almost reached the end of what science can discover about the universe.

The first thing he has to do is to define the various ways in which science might end, to establish criteria against which the ideas scientists have about science can be measured, and it is rather unfortunate that this is the least clear section of the book. (This is really because Horgan does not separate this out and state it in an orderly fashion, in one place.)

There may be theoretical limits on what can be known, a physical equivalent of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. The problem with this is that attempts to apply this mathematical result to science are never very convincing, as Horgan points out. He goes on to argue for this point of view in certain branches of science, where the major theories discussed are not empirically testable. This is clearly the case in historical fields of study, such as cosmology and evolutionary biology, where we cannot prove that any particular theories of the origins of the universe and of life are wholly correct, because these were one off events (as far as we know) in the distant past. All we can do is see if the theories we have come up with match up with what we see around us now (the microwave background and the distribution of matter, the fossil record and Earth's ecosystems).

There may be limitations affecting science in general, if a final "theory of everything" is discovered. Then there would be no more fundamental revolutions to come in science; it would only be a matter of filling in the details. This is the attitude that nineteenth century scientists are accused of holding, though (again as Horgan points out) historical investigations have tended to disprove specific allegations (Kelvin's supposed speech in which he said that all that there was left to do was to discover physical constants to more decimal places; the patent office official who resigned because nothing was left to be discovered). There is of course the possibility that a revolutionary new discovery will be made, a new theory will be proposed, but even today, Horgan says, the evidence is against it. There has been a dearth of revolutionary ideas since the sixties; most of theoretical science since then has continued steady development of those of the first half of the century (relativity, quantum mechanics, subatomic structure, the synthesis of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian evolution) or from that decade (DNA, the standard model, the Big Bang). Theories currently touted as the next revolution (such as superstrings and various inflation scenarios) contain ideas that may be inherently untestable. This means that we may be moving into an era of what Horgan calls "ironic science", a term borrowed by analogy from Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence, an analysis of poetry in the seventies. Lacking new discoveries to make, scientists move away from traditional science to reinterpret older theories and to discuss metascience. In other words, science loses its independent existence and becomes part of philosophy once again.

The third reason that science may end is that we no longer have the power to invent deeper theories; science becomes beyond human cognitive abilities. There is, after all, no obvious reason why human beings should be able to grasp the universe of which they form part; in fact, the vastness of the universe by comparison with our minds makes it unlikely. The universe is a complex object; why should it be governed by a simple set of rules? Evidence for this point of view comes from the difficulty of grasping current ideas, increasing specialisation and the length of time needed for becoming a fully fledged researcher in a modern scientific discipline.

The fourth reason is more mundane: scientific research is becoming too expensive. Governments, always parsimonious towards pure research, have become even more so since the end of the Cold War. Projects like the Superconducting Super Collider have failed to receive funding because the cost is perceived to outweigh the benefits, and the propaganda value gained from big science projects is less (would the US fund a moon programme today with the same urgency as granted the Apollo project?). In fields like particle physics, bigger and bigger experiments are needed if more fundamental discoveries are to be made, and even then there is no guarantee that they will be made (much of the last twenty years has been spent just confirming the details of the standard model rather than advancing any further). And then applications are not at all obvious; we may not be able to do exciting new things as a result of these experiments, and without applications (results, so far as governments and corporations are concerned), no one is going to fund the research.

The first three reasons are interesting philosophical speculations, but it is the fourth that is in my opinion most likely to bring an end to the scientific search for meaning in the universe. The scientific establishment has naturally attacked Horgan's book, because it is negative about the future of science. Yet we live in a world where science is still to some extent seen as the universal panacea that will bring enlightenment and truth, and eliminate all evils (even though some of these evils, such as pollution, are consequences of earlier scientific 'advances'). In this environment, a negative voice is perhaps a good thing; nobody is attacking science strongly enough to destroy public confidence in it in the way that scientific blunders are doing (through food scares like the BSE crisis, for example). There is a tendency towards arrogance among successful scientists, and many could do with thinking a little harder about what they are doing.

It is this arrogance which comes over most strongly from Horgan's book; the profiles (which still form the bulk of the material) stay in the mind a lot better than the philosophical argument. Either Horgan doesn't like eminent scientists, or they are a uniformly unpleasant bunch of people. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between. Scientists are not benevolent, absent minded, white-haired men in white coats; to be successful in the field can require many of the same qualities as it does to be successful in, say, high finance. The way that people look up to scientists, viewing them as a race apart, can breed arrogance; specialism can lead to an obsession with hobby-horses and blind misunderstanding of other fields. On the other hand, a few interviews with people like this are hardly likely to give you high expectations about meetings with others. So the interviews make the book more interesting, but they do present a rather one-sided view of scientists as a group of people.

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