Scientific Singularity?

A couple of weeks ago Kevin and I went around on the topic of whether or not science is “broken”.  We came to the point of agreeing that we have different basic assumptions of what constitutes “utility”.  And because of this, while we could agree that each of our arguments made sense logically, we ultimately end up with opposite conclusions.  After all, for something to be broken it means that it once served a purpose that it no longer is able to serve due to mechanical/structural failure.  And to have a purpose means that it has value (i.e. utility) to someone.

So whether science is broken or still works depends your definition of utility.  Kevin and I agreed on a measurement for scientific utility, based on (a) how well it explains observed phenomena, (b) how well it predicts new phenomena, and (c) how directly it leads to creation of technologies that improve human lives.  We can call it “explanatory power” or EP for short.  We might argue over the relative mix, but we agree that (a), (b) and (c) are all important.  Where we diverged came down to whether scientific utility was an absolute measure or a relative measure.  To quote Kevin:

EP(kev)=number of phenomena explained. Evidently, EP(rafe)=fraction of phenomena explained. I claim EP(kev) is more relevant to standard of living because if you can explain more phenomena, you can build more gizmos, means you can do more stuff with less effort, means a higher standard of living.

Here’s how I visualize the picture:

Kevin suggests that EP is a function of the curve labeled “Scientific Knowledge” whereas I feel it’s a function “the gap” in red.  My argument for why the gap is the relevant measure parallels the three components of EP:

a) “Explaining observed phenomena” means maximizing the quality and quantity of all observed phenomena.  It’s not enough to explain a subset of phenomena better and better if the number of new phenomena keeps increasing.  For instance, let’s say you came upon Earth in 1980 and did a scientific study to understand how personal computers worked.  You spend the next 20 years coming up with a theory that explains them perfectly, but this assumes they are being used in isolation.   How then do you explain the new behaviors they start exhibiting once they are connected up via the internet?  While your theory might have been perfectly useful in 1980, it becomes next to worthless by the year 2000.

b) Similarly, if you were looking to predict how a single computer were to behave, your theory that worked 100% of the time in 1980 would work only a small fraction of the time in 2000.

c) Technology is a bit tricker to understand from this perspective, but I believe it’s ultimately the same.  Kevin’s definition of “doing more stuff with less effort” is fine, but what it doesn’t address is how the “stuff that we want done” is a moving target.  In 1980 I wanted my computer to allow me to type words into it, remember them, print them out, etc.  By 2000 that function was subsumed: practically every computer program had this functionality built in, even games and email software (like the one I’m using to compose this blog entry now).  What I want out of my computer in 2000 includs word processing, but also involves a growing set of tasks on top of that.  More importantly, the category of “stuff that we want done” by technology is self-referentially — which is to say, exponentially — growing at all times.  In other words, technology’s utility depends on how well it bridges the gap on the chart above.

To be fair, Kevin might object that I have drawn the chart wrong because technology (being self-referential) always keeps the gap within bridgeable reach.  This is what we were arguing about in the comments of the first post regarding cardinalities and ordinalities.  So it could be that this whole argument hinges not on our definition of utility but rather whether the gap really is getting untenably bigger or not.

What do you think?  Is the gap getting bigger?  Do you buy either Kevin’s or my definition of utility?  Do you have another definition entirely?

Perhaps the most clarifying question of all (to my mind) is the following: Given your current understanding of what science is, how would you feel if your child said they were going to become a scientist?

  • Paul R Pudaite

    If my child said he or she was going to become a scientist, I would immediately start writing the textbooks I haven’t gotten around to yet.

  • Anonymous

    I think your diagram is an accurate representation of our positions. I agree with your drawing’s representation of the sum total of scientific knowledge (the area under the lower curve)–it is growing exponentially.

    In fact, your drawing couldn’t better illustrate that I’m saying the glass is half full and you’re saying it is half empty. What your drawing shows is that science’s ability to deliver the abc’s of EP is growing exponentially.

    Who care’s about the gap if my intellectual and material capital is growing exponentially? It’s good because it means if we live forever, we’ll never get bored. In fact, we’ll become less bored over time as new and fascinating phenomena emerge!

  • Marisa

    What does “the world” function refer to? All of the phenomena that exist in the world? Or, more likely, all of the phenomena that we are aware exist in the world? Your graph indicates that, as our observations of the phenomena in the world have grown more complex, the gap has grown between what happens in the world and what we can explain in a quality way.

    I wonder, however, if the progression of that gap has really been so smooth. Certain periods of innovation – say, following the foundation of the scientific method in the 1600s, or the burst of innovation during the industrialization of the early 1800s – temporarily narrowed that gap, gave us a sense of unprecedented mastery over the world’s phenomena. Of course, knowledge and explanations lead to more observations and questions. And so we find ourselves now, in a similarly fertile burst of technological innovation, with increasingly unsatisfactory explanations, including of things we once held inviolable. Which is why, perhaps, the scientific method may indeed be broken now. Its stunning utility was rooted, quite literally, in a different world.

    If my child said s/he wanted to be a scientist, I’d say, go forth!

    • Rafe Furst

      Very eloquently stated. I agree with your questioning of the “world” and its smoothness function. And I agree with your subsequent analysis.

  • David

    at the core, both arguments by you and kevin have a hole that can probably fit a truck :) your definition of EP relies on condition (c) which relates to improving human lives. at this stage in our scientific understanding of the universe, the sheer notion of basing an argument on anthropocentric needs is like arguing which of the super heros is better; meaningful as it may be to a child, it becomes irrelevant to an adult. The so called gap you speak of reflects to me, not so much how science is broken, but the gap by which human society needs adjusting to live within the knowledge we have of the universe. For the most part, we’re still living within the constructs of an industrial model. As a society, we haven’t even grasped yet the significance of something like self-organizing dynamics from complexity science. Once we do live within the knowledge of our new understanding, the gap reduces considerably. Science is but a tool, a methodology understanding our universe with a unique built-in self-correcting mechanism. I don’t think it’s broken, if anything is broken, it’s our inability as a society to live within our new knowledge. thanks,

    • Rafe Furst

      The question is, can that gap be reduced by rational/analytical/scientific means? Or does it require something else?