Would you notice if science died?

by Douglas_Knight 2 min read8th Mar 201640 comments

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Would you notice if science died?

Science is a big deal. It would be worth knowing if it stalled, regressed, or died out, whether the body of knowledge or the techniques for generating more knowledge. You could practice by reviewing history and looking for times and places where it stumbled. In this exercise you have the advantage of hindsight, but the disadvantage of much less direct access to the raw data of the scientific practice of the time. But regardless of how it compares to the real task, this is practice. This is an opportunity to test theories and methods before committing to them. There is a limited amount of history to practice on, but it’s a lot more than the real event, the present.

Many say that they would notice if science died because engineering would grind to a halt or even regress. What does this heuristic say when applied to history? Does it match other criteria?

Many say that the Greeks were good at science and the Romans at engineering (perhaps also the Han vs the Song). This is not really compatible with the heuristic above. What options do we have to draw a coherent conclusion? Either science did not die, or engineering did not advance, or science is not so necessary for engineering; Either we are bad at judging science from history, or we are bad at judging engineering from history, or engineering is not a good heuristic for judging science. None of these are comforting for our ability to judge the future. The third is simply the rejection of the popular heuristic. The first two are the rejection of the exercise of history. But if we cannot judge history, we have no opportunity to practice. Worse, if we are unable to judge history, the present may be no easier.

One recourse is to posit that the past is difficult because of sparse information and that the future we experience ourselves will be easy to judge. But many people lived through the past; what did they think at the time? In particular, how did the Romans think they compared to the Greeks? Did they think that there was progress or regress? Did they agree with modern hindsight? They thought that the Greeks were good at science. Pop science books by Pliny and Seneca are really accounts of Greek knowledge. Similarly, Varro’s practical book of agriculture is based on dozens of Greek sources. And the Romans were proud of their engineering. Frotinus urged his readers to compared the Roman aqueducts to the idle pyramids and wonders of the Greeks. Maybe he should be discounted for his professional interest. But Pliny describes the Roman aqueducts as the most remarkable achievement in the world in the midst of account of Greek knowledge. Indeed, the modern conventional wisdom is probably simply copied from the Romans. Did the Romans endorse the third claim, that science was a prerequisite to engineering? I do not know. Perhaps the they held that it was necessary, but could be left to Greek slaves.

I think that this example should make people nervous about the heuristic about science and engineering. But people who don’t hold any such heuristic should be even more nervous.

I think I know what the answer is. I think that engineering did regress, but the Romans did not notice. They were too impressed by size, so they made bigger aqueducts, without otherwise improving on Greek techniques; and they failed to copy much other Greek technology. Perhaps the heuristic is fine, but it just passes the buck: how much can you trust your judgement of the state of engineering? On the other hand, I think that science regressed much more than engineering, so I do not think them as coupled as the heuristic suggests.

Would you notice if science died? How would you notice? Have you tried that method against history?


Some historical test cases: the transition from Greece to Rome; Han vs Tang vs Song; the Renaissance.

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