Heliocentrism, natural selection, plate tectonics – much of what is now accepted fact was once controversial. Paradigm-shifting ideas were, at their time, often considered provocative. Consequently the way to truth must be pissing off as many people as possible by making totally idiotic statements. Like declaring that the scientific method is a myth, which was most recently proclaimed by Daniel Thurs on Discover Blogs.Even worse, his article turns out to be a book excerpt. This hits me hard after just having discovered that someone by name Matt Ridley also published a book full of misconceptions about how science supposedly works. Both fellows seem to have the same misunderstanding: the belief that science is a self-organized system and therefore operates without method – in Thurs’ case – and without governmental funding – in Ridley’s case. That science is self-organized is correct. But to conclude from this that progress comes from nothing is wrong.
I blame Adam Smith for all this mistaken faith in self-organization. Smith used the “invisible hand” as a metaphor for the regulation of prices in a free market economy. If the actors in the market have full information and act perfectly rational, then all goods should eventually be priced at their actual value, maximizing the benefit for everyone involved. And ever since Smith, self-organization has been successfully used out of context.
In a free market, the value of the good is whatever price this ideal market would lead to. This might seem circular but it isn’t: It’s a well-defined notion, at least in principle. The main argument of neo-conservatism is that any kind of additional regulation, like taxes, fees, or socialization of services, will only lead to inefficiencies.
There are many things wrong with this ideal of a self-regulating free market. To begin with real actors are neither perfectly rational nor do they ever have full information. And then the optimal prices aren’t unique; instead there are infinitely many optimal pricing schemes, so one needs an additional selection mechanism. But oversimplified as it is, this model, now known as equilibrium economics, explains why free markets work well, or at least better than planned economies.
No, the main problem with trust in self-optimization isn’t the many shortcomings of equilibrium economics. The main problem is the failure to see that the system itself must be arranged suitably so that it can optimize something, preferably something you want to be optimized.
A free market needs, besides fiat money, rules that must be obeyed by actors. They must fulfil contracts, aren’t allowed to have secret information, and can’t form monopolies – any such behavior would prevent the market from fulfilling its function. To some extent violations of these rules can be tolerated, and the system itself would punish the dissidents. But if too many actors break the rules, self-optimization would fail and chaos would result.
Then of course you may want to question whether the free market actually optimizes what you desire. In a free market, future discounting and personal risk tends to be higher than many people prefer, which is why all democracies have put in place additional regulations that shift the optimum away from maximal profit to something we perceive as more important to our well-being. But that’s a different story that shall be told another time.
The scientific system in many regards works similar to a free market. Unfortunately the market of ideas isn’t as free as it should be to really work efficiently, but by and large it works well. As with the market economies though, it only works if the system is set up suitably. And then it optimizes only what it’s designed to optimize, so you better configure it carefully.
The development of good scientific theories and the pricing of goods are examples for adaptive systems, and so is natural selection. Such adaptive systems generally work in a circle of four steps:
- Modification: A set of elements that can be modified.
- Evaluation: A mechanism to evaluate each element according to a measure. It’s this measure that is being optimized.
- Feedback: A way to feed the outcome of the evaluation back into the system.
- Reaction: A reaction to the feedback that optimizes elements according to the measure by another modification.
In the economy the set of elements are priced goods. The evaluation is whether the goods sell. The feedback is the vendor being able to tell how many goods sell. The reaction is to either change the prices or improve the goods. What is being optimized is the satisfaction (“utility”) of vendors and consumers.
In natural selection the set of elements are genes. The evaluation is whether the organism thrives. The feedback is the dependence of the amount of offspring on the organisms’ well-being. The reaction is survival or extinction. What is being optimized are survival chances (“fitness”).
In science the set of elements are hypotheses. The evaluation is whether they are useful. The feedback is the test of hypotheses. The reaction is that scientists modify or discard hypotheses that don’t work. What is being optimized in the scientific system depends on how you define “useful.” It once used to mean predictive, yet if you look at high energy physics today you might be tempted to think it’s instead mathematical elegance. But that’s a different story that shall be told another time.
That some systems optimize a set of elements according to certain criteria is not self-evident and doesn’t come from nothing. There are many ways systems can fail at this, for example because feedback is missing or a reaction isn’t targeted enough. A good example for lacking feedback is the administration of higher education institutions. They operate incredibly inefficiently, to the extent that the only way one can work with them is by circumvention. The reason is that, by my own experience, it’s next to impossible to fix obviously nonsensical policies or to boot incompetent administrative personnel.
Natural selection, to take another example, wouldn’t work if genetic mutations scrambled the genetic code too much because whole generations would be entirely unviable and feedback wasn’t possible. Or take the free market. If we’d all agree that tomorrow we don’t believe in the value of our currency any more, the whole system would come down.
Back to science.
Self-optimization by feedback in science, now known as the scientific method, was far from obvious for people in the middle ages. It seems difficult to fathom today how they could not have known. But to see how this could be you only have to look at fields where they still don’t have a scientific method, like much of the social and political sciences. They’re not testing hypotheses so much as trying to come up with narratives or interpretations because most of their models don’t make testable predictions. For a long time, this is exactly what the natural sciences also were about: They were trying to find narratives, they were trying to make sense. Quantification, prediction, and application came much later, and only then could the feedback cycle be closed.
We are so used to rapid technological progress now that we forget it didn’t used to be this way. For someone living 2000 years ago, the world must have appeared comparably static and unchanging. The idea that developing theories about nature allows us to shape our environment to better suit human needs is only a few hundred years old. And now that we are able to collect and handle sufficient amounts of data to study social systems, the feedback on hypotheses in this area will probably also become more immediate. This is another opportunity to shape our environment better to our needs, by recognizing just which setup makes a system optimize what measure. That includes our political systems as well as our scientific systems.
The four steps that an adaptive system needs to cycle through don’t come from nothing. In science, the most relevant restriction is that we can’t just randomly generate hypotheses because we wouldn’t be able to test and evaluate them all. This is why science heavily relies on education standards, peer review, and requires new hypotheses to tightly fit into existing knowledge. We also need guidelines for good scientific conduct, reproducibility, and a mechanism to give credits to scientists with successful ideas. Take away any of that and the system wouldn’t work.
The often-depicted cycle of the scientific method, consisting of hypotheses-generation and subsequent testing, is incomplete and lacks details, but it’s correct in its core. The scientific method is not a myth.
Really I think today anybody can write a book about whatever idiotic idea comes to their mind. I suppose the time has come for me to join the club.