A conversation about science and progress

A couple of evenings ago an interesting conversation developed on twitter, between me (@beckyfh), Thomas Soderqvist (@museionist), Thony Christie (@rmathematicus), James Poskett (@jamesposkett) on science and progress. It all started with a query from Danny Birchall:

When I asked for more details he told me that the exhibition was “about material culture of the brain; context is faux-measurement of brain capacity/function. shd definitely explain racism (tweet). After another couple of tweets, Danny wrote “I think what I’m trying to ask (in the abstract) is, is it useful in histsci to show … (tweet) … how ideas that we now find repellent are intimately intertwined with the ‘progress’ of science? (tweet). I replied:

At this point Thomas entered the conversation:

And thus the conversation was kicked off. Apologies if I’ve missed out any important tweets from the conversation below, and for it getting confusing where parallel discussions developed. I’ve had to play with the order a bit to make these make sense.

James and I had a bit of a side conversation, on the subject of whether there’s a simplistic popular notion of scientific progress, even if the subject is a bit passe in scholarly circles:

That was more or less it for the night. Thomas had long left us for a book and bed. However, bright and early the next morning:

I hazarded the following:

Thony agreed, but there we left it. So: what do we mean by progress in science? Is there a simplistic view of progress that exists generally, and is it worthwhile trying to point out that the picture is a great deal more complex? Did historians of science in the 1970s-90s really believe that there was no such thing as progress in science? Do some still believe it now? How should we deal with progress in science as opposed to progress in technology?

Answers below, please.

20 thoughts on “A conversation about science and progress

      • It did to me.

        I think Thony C pretty much nailed it with “Progress exists but it is almost never linear and it can oft only be recognized with hindsight”. To which I would add that much of the (perfectly valid) science which is going on right now will not ‘progress’ us anywhere – but some of it will. The trouble is, we have no way of knowing which will and which won’t. Which is why the current British government’s desire to prioritise ‘useful’ science is naive and misguided.

        In terms of what we mean by ‘progress’, I agree with your neat summary: ‘knowing more, knowing better, being able to make better use’. But we still have a long way to go. There is still no sign of the flying cars and robot servants I was promised as a child. And as for those holidays on Mars, well I don’t think I’ll ever get to go on one of those – which is a major let-down. Come on, Science, get your act together!

      • Thanks for this. I think firstly, that technological development is not necessarily proof of scientific progress (see Peter Dear, as mentioned by Dominic below), but it’s interesting how often it is used as such. My quick definition was meant to be a typical understanding of scientific progress, and not my own.

        Secondly, I’m not convinced that government prioritising particular areas for funding is not a better, or equally good, way of proceeding than simply letting the scientific community decide its own priorities. See my post on a brief history of ‘pure’ research for more. History would tell us that plenty of important work was done because monarchs, landowners, governments etc. were keen to support work directed at particular ends (see also my post on astrology and astronomy), and that very often this utilitarian work had unexpected spin-offs, some useful, some important, some not. The other point, of course, is that there very, very few people who really get do real ‘blue-skies’ research. To get any sort of funding or involvement in the scientific community, even the ‘purest’ research project will follow on from existing work, play into priorities defined by whoever, seek to attract support and interest etc. Undoubtedly there’s room for both approaches, plus initiatives from wealthy individuals, corporations and institutions.

      • I agree that progress in science and progress in technology do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. But the most visible outcome of advances in science to non-scientists are advances in technology (and medicine) – which is why I think people use these examples. As for funding, I think it is not unreasonable to earmark certain scientific disciplines for special priority, but I don’t think it is wise to base decisions on individual funding proposals on their likely ‘usefulness’.

      • If I have a number of funding proposals in front of me, in the area of, say, scientific and technological solutions to climate change (pretty darn useful), I’d be happy to go with the one that would seem to offer pragmatic, applicable solutions soonest, even if others seemed more intellectually rigorous and – perhaps – have longer-term significance to later work in science. Is that short-sighted? It’s the scientific community, after all, that has convinced me that this is an urgent problem in need of a solution.

      • We already have a technological solution to climate change: build lots more nuclear power stations. But, when Becquerel first discovered radioactivity, I think it unlikely that he could have foreseen nuclear power.

      • You know what I meant! There are more than enough examples from both sides (direct results and/or spin-offs from ‘utilitarian’ work or unexpectedly useful stuff from ‘pure’ research) to convince that a mixed funding model is wise.

      • I’m no longer so convinced by the technology is not science cliché. Before I continue I will however point out that the word technology is used incorrectly. Technology is a study, like all other “ologies”, in this case the study of technique, which the word that most people think they are using when they falsely use the word technology. So rephrasing my opening statement, I’m no longer convinced by the technique is not science cliché.

        As I child I too like most people thought technique was science a belief supported by most popular science writers and journalist who would talk about the wonders of science and then illustrate them with the latest space rocket, x-ray machine or something similar. Later I was taught or somehow learnt that science and technique are two completely different animals with separate existences, histories etc. Then I learnt or was taught that in the nineteenth century something called science-aided technique was created which produced a technique that was superior to all forms of technique that had preceded it.

        My own historical studies have, in the mean time, convinced me that all of this is at best dubious and most probably a complete myth. Before the early modern period the vast majority of that which is today regarded as science was produced in the process of solving practical problems most of them in some form directly or indirectly connected with technique. Other areas to which this so-called science served as handmaiden were for example astrology, religion, medicine etc. Science qua science was almost non-existent.

        In the early modern period one begins to witness the emergence of science qua science but even here science and technique are very hard to separate and flow continually into each other with no distinguishable boundary. Just to take one example, Euler in the eighteenth century is without doubt the leading mathematician and mathematical physicist but a substantial part of his work, which contains his creative results are books and papers that we would now classify as technique or engineering.

        It is first in the nineteenth century that we really see the creation of science qua science or as it is more commonly called pure science. Those that practiced this rather strange new discipline invented the expression science-aided technique in order to confirm their own exclusivity as if the combination of science and technique were something totally new rather than the norm since the first relative of Lucy on the savannah used a femur as a club to beat in the brains of a rival. Thereby creating the discipline of military technique.

        Science and technique are not two separate areas of human endeavour but are, and have always been, two sides of the same coin.

      • Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, Thony. There is obviously a connection! Developments in technologies/materials/machines/techniques have come about as a result of developments in science and, more so, they have allowed them to happen. Yet it is not a necessary connection, in the sense that many or most technologies (if I am still allowed to use the word) appeared from outside the world of science. There is also the fact that technologies can continue to exist and function within radically different scientific frameworks and explanatory systems.

        It would, I think, be fair to say that without techniques, materials and machines, there would be no science (qua science), but without science we would still have technology (sic.) of some description. I would even suggest that without science there would have been progress in technology, though undobtedly we would be somewhere different than we are today. They are deeply linked, and deciding where we draw the line between science and technique would bimam impossibe task, but, for me, they are not two sides of the same coin.

  1. A very interesting blog indeed, mainly because it made me feel like I’d fallen into a parallel universe! Where’s all this “there definitely is progress (though non-linear, complex, messy, not straightforward, human, up-and-down side-to-side, into dead ends, disjointed, did I say complex?)” come from? We don’t need progress – or to deny progress – it’s just not an important or fruitful or interesting question. What do you gain by asking it?

    – Protect science from nasty historians and creationists etc. who want to hurt it? I don’t think science needs protecting like that (the comedian Simon Munnery sums up my view on this “If the crowds behind you, you’re facing the wrong way”)

    – Give science some special status over and above other disciplines? Well I think science is special and different for lots of reasons, none of them are to do with it knowing more over time (for why science is special look at all the crazy shit scientists get up to and why! Here the BELIEF that science progresses is – as pointed out by Becky above – very important).

    – So you can sleep better at night? I sleep fine without the thought that somewhere someone is convincing themselves about how some aspect of the universe works which is – however you want to define it – better than the previous one. Give me conscillience, give me predictive success, give me technological developments (see Peter Dear’s What is Hist Sci…) but why bother asking if it’s better? So you can make everyone who holds to the old way look irrational? I’d stand by the side of anyone being oppressed for this reason any day of the week.

    Anyway, I think I’ve said enough things that I will instantly regret now, thanks for the early morning wake up!

    • Thomas would seem to be right that the discussion about progress is over for historians of science! I think my interest is primarily historical and historiographical – how the belief in progress became an important argument for funding science (cf my comment and links above). But looking at the history, historians of science were surprised(?) to find it was not so and it became an important theme to argue against.

      I think times are a-changing – the dominant 19th and 20th century narratives of progress in evolution and history are much less common now. But, as my tweets above suggest, I think it still exists as a common narrative and that public history of science still has a role to play in making the insights of professional historians of science of the 1970s-2000s more widely known and understood.

      I think your points against defending a notion of progress are spot on. It relates to plenty of discussions I’ve had on this blog, twitter and elsewhere. In my view (again, see, for example, my astronomy and astrology post) scientists or fans of science who argue in this way are doing themselves and science a serious disservice. But its out there – like the people who think history and philosophy of science, social sciences, postmodernism etc. etc. are beyond the pale.

  2. This looks to me like the problems you face doing ethnological research on belief. You are asking a very different set of questions as an outside observer and it usually leads to misunderstanding and upset amongst users of the culture under observation.

    Getting the balance between inside perspective and taking an empiric detached position that is going to be acceptable to inside groups is never a pleasant or easy undertaking. H.O.S and science does seem to have particular issues in this regard and at times does not seem be aware of issues as it’s goal often seems to be the destruction of error rather than understanding how culture and belief systems work (which I think is the most important step to resolving people problems).

    I did a brief search to see if anything interesting popped up in this issue in relation to science and found this at the mermaids tale which I liked. Particularly when it discusses anthropological acceptance of cultural practice. I don’t think this means complacency but I think H.O.S can get a bit over emotive on these issues at times both with regard to issues within science and with popular understanding of it.


    Personal when I get dismayed with having to lie in bed dealing with the mysterious and illusive nature of such a big noisy, trumpeting, cultural elephant I remember the one about the six blind men of Indostan.


  3. Thanks @jeb – I really liked the Mermaid’s Tale post. Some sound advice there, and here from you. I quote from the six blind men: “Though each was partly in the right,/
    And all were in the wrong!”

  4. I am always in the wrong, history never turns out as I expect it to. I like that though as it means I am constantly learning something new. Foolishness leads to change and progress when you see it for what it is. As the man with bells on his hat use to say “What are you doing mad fellow? why paint fugitive shores? Tomorrow your face will be either new or nothing.”

  5. Thanks for this really interesting discussion. Rebekah, you raise an interesting disparity between the way in which the historian of science perceives the development of science over time, and the way in which it is viewed by certain other circles, ie: the former may have largely abandoned a notion of progress as linear improvement, but the latter still require a support structure for their belief in modern scientific thought being superior to previous ideas.

    I think it is difficult to divorce purely scientific ideas from the technological tests which provide evidence for their acceptance or abandonment. However, I think the concept that came up in the original debate above that answered this disparity best for me was the authority which the sciences have gained, through success or through rhetoric, to make universalised truth claims, and that this explains much of the disparity. Could it be that what we see when proponents of a progress hypothesis point to examples of relatively inferior scientific ideas/methods/findings in specific fields of science (and this is important), that what they are noticing is the lack of authority in that particular discipline at the time they are looking at, relative to other potential sources of truth claims?

    From a whiggish perspective, this would appear to them to be problematic if science is to accorded (by them) an objective, time-less authority, which is essentially present-day scientific authority projected backwards as an objective fact. To this person, all previous science was of course teleologically headed towards the present, which will always be the pinnacle of scientific achievement due to the privileged status and authority which science is now granted. If gaining authority is one possible criterion of success within a scientific discipline, then it could be this which fits the linear progress model for some (most?) fields of scientific enquiry.

    Does this contribute anything towards the question of why some still employ a progress hypothesis, over and above the fact that modern scientific disciplines tend simply to have larger datasets to point to as evidence of progress?

    • Thanks Michael – I think there’s something in this. What’s interesting, though, is that some of those most certain about the idea of progress toward Truth also fear a (new) loss of authority of science in various contexts, whether in politics, popular culture or as a result of the continuing existence of pseudo-science (ID, astrology, homeopathy etc). While ’twas ever thus, there is a sense that such view points are ever more unreasonable.

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