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?