Exploration: Recalcitrant Scientists


I have been wondering lately about the question that JL asked, "what is science?" And I don't think I've ever had a really good answer to that. In thinking about the history of science, one thing that stands out is that the general flow of science is determined at different points of time by particular individuals who broke away from the flow. These are the recalcitrant scientists.

For the most part, much of science, I have to say is taken on faith. And as a rule, scientists are very much the antithesis of recalcitrant.

So, it is amazing that if science as an infrastructure is a well-oiled machine, then why is it that the real changes, the paradigm shifts, are brought about by people who have essentially managed to break away from the system?

Is this a necessary aspect of progress in science? That the fundamental paradigm shifts will always be brought on by the recalcitrants? Or could it be that mass movement could lead to significant change in science?

I suppose the real question I'm wondering about is: does progress in science happen because of the scientific infrastructure or despite it?

-- SC - 06 Mar 2005


SC, this is a really rich topic, and I predict it's going to spill over into several different topics on this site! Your question, progress "because of or despite infrastructure" seems relevant to a lot of different fields.

In economic policy arguments and theoretical debates about the role of institutions in innovation and development. Without institutions, everything from functional legal and banking system to social customs, it's impossible to do anything, since everything has to be done as if for the first time. Economists would say that institutions reduce "transaction costs" by enforcing regularities that everyone can use to coordinate their activity. But on the flipside, these institutions can "lock in" to inefficient patterns. Famous examples are: the adoption of the QWERTY keypad over the more efficient Dvorak layout, the triumph of VHS over BetaMax video format, and perhaps Intel over Motorola Macintosh processors. In each of these cases, better solutions get blocked out because the emergent solution enjoys large "positive network externalities" (the more people who use it the more worthwhile it is to start or keep using it), growing interdependence of other technologies, growing entry costs for challengers, etc.

There is a similar problem in biology: how do species adapt if they are programmed to reproduce the same copy again and again each generation? Most changes to the developmental program are deleterious; but at the same time, the organism must be in some sense "sub-optimal" or there would be no room for adaptive improvements in any case! The recent synthesis of evolutionary and developmental biology is exciting because it tries to understand how the processes of change and processes of stability are just two sides of the same coin. The idea is that there must be some flexibility in the way each generation is assembled, because there is always some uncertainty in the environment. But this very flexibility opens the door to little changes that could lead to cascades of greater change.

Gilbert Ryle in a great essay on improvisation points out that anytime we try to do "the same" thing we are actually improvising the whole time, always doing something different: we never climb the same ladder the same way twice. (This links to other discussions with VL on what is "the same" if all the parts are always changing....see, I told you this topic could go in a million different directions!) It would probably be cool if someone could think of how to design an experiment in these pages on just this topic of improvising "the same" activity.

I think it all ties back to Piet's comments about looking for degrees of freedom in the existing unfolding situation that you are enacting. That is, in the infrastructure we need to do science (progress because of it), there is enough flex and slop that we might be able to find away of doing something different, rather than letting the infrastructure define our possiblities (progress despite it); then maybe, if it works out and catches on, it can lead to cascades of progress and maybe one of those scientific revolutions Kuhn talks about!

I find it pretty exiciting that there seems to be something utterly familiar in the way science, economic systems, and biological life seems to be unfolding. How can we be honest about what this familiarity is?

-- JL - 06 Mar 2005

SC and JL:

Yes, this is a rich topic. As to SC's bottom line question, what it is about science that let's progress happen, I think it is a combination of the very radical and at the same time very conservative aspects of science. That is what makes science so wonderful: it is conservative enough to protect its achievements, which are not washed away like a fashion, and yet it is radical enough to allow, and even invite, changes -- but only if these changes make it through the process of peer review. You can be unhappy about the rough edges of this process, and yes, nothing is perfect, but I don't know of any other system that does a better job than the system that science has developed.

-- PietHut - 15 Mar 2005

What you've described is evolution: variation, heredity, selection. There is an overproduction of ideas, some of them are retained if they make it through conversation with peers and publication, and the valuable ones are selected for long term retention through ongoing citation, invitations to make talks, grant awards, biographies, etc. From this perspective both crankish and creative variations, both of which may be "recalcitrant," are present, and we hope that only the creative ones are eventually selected and reinforced.

But here's the rub. Developmental biologists would also insist that developmental constraints and strange epigenetic and environmental influences can not be overlooked, with the important result that evolution is often suboptimal with some very contingent trajectories. The processes of change and the processes of maintaining stability have to be the same: evolution is building airplanes in the sky.

And so, Piet, this is where we have seem to have a different perspective on science. You like to emphasize the intellectual activity of science, deliberatively proposing and disposing of ideas to move the field along. Whereas I, without at all downplaying the creative and critical activity of individuals, also want to call into attention the possibilities of lab technology involved, the institutional settings of science, the alliances (and disputes) with extra-scientific organizations (the government, military, press), the politics of grant-making and even publication (as you know, any editor can unilaterally pass or kill an article by forwarding it to reveiwers whose habits can be guessed with high accuracy).

I have not described merely the social context of science, which otherwise thrives in its happy insular hard core. Rather, the point is that there is a circulatory system of artifacts, information, and money tangled up in very far-flung links and knots, with perhaps a more dense knotting around the traditional university or lab setting of science. A metaphor would be, I hear you often emphasizing the power of the genetic code of science, but I want to say that the genes are not the organism, and an organism needs much more than genes to be put together. The organisms in our hindguts required for digestion, for example, are not in our genes, yet without them we are not!

Some major implications seem to be: science is not just ideas and scientists; the trajectory of science is not ideational optimization, but it also responds to lots on non-conceptual threats and opportunities in the entire living political ecology of science.

-- JL - 16 Mar 2005

Hi SC, I see two questions in your original query: (1) Are we doing science in this group? (2) Is progress in science determined by the "outliers"?

While there is a connection between 1 and 2, they should be answered independently. Here is my take on question 1. What we have done so far is is (I think) better desscribed as observational philosophy, the closest scientific parallel I can think of is Copernicus's use of astronomy. The hypotheses that we are batting around are really metaphysical or philosophical, not scientific. For example, if we were to take a look at the following claim: "All assumptions can be dropped", I see it as a philosophical claim - indeed it would be hard to see what kind of evidence can be brought to bear upon this claim. One could have an insight into reality based on empirical observations but insights are not the same as hypotheses and may not be induced by hypotheses. Another science like factor we are trying to adopt is the notion of peer review and replicability. I have a feeling that our experiments are not really replicable in the classical sense of that term. While there are obvious similarities in the results obtained by different people - it is not clear how we can formulate our results in terms of observables and measurements and so on. Perhaps what we do will be called science if we are successful - that is more of a sociological question, and will depend on whether we are seen as recalcitrant scientists or plain outsiders. I am not so fixed on proving the scientific credentials of this way of inquiry. It might be more useful to ask, "What is it that we are doing?". Empirical metaphysics comes to my mind as a useful (but ungainly) term. I believe that we need an intermediate level of inquiry, in which we would take a small piece of our groups vision and explore it in a more obviously scientific manner.

As for the second question, there is always the danger that we only represent change in science via its 10 biggest hits. I dont know what actually happens and what environmental conditions support change in science, whether big or small.

-- RK - 16 Mar 2005

Hi JL and RK:

JL: yes, science in its social embedding is complex, but to (over)simplify things: despite all its meanderings, science does approach truth, the way a river approaches the ocean. It can get stuck here and there, but sooner or later it will continue, although not through the shorter path. I know, postmodernists won't agree, but there is a lot of historical evidence, in twelve generations of progress!

RK: yes, "all assumptions can be dropped' is not something that can be falsified and as such is not a scientifically testable hypothesis. However, when trying to do this, and while taking notes in a lab-like setting, other aspects may become visible, first phenomenologically as you stressed, but these in turn can then become fuel for investigations that can be done in scientific ways, or as extentions of the scientific method. But, like you, I see the main goal not as trying to prove that we can do a form of science, but rather to explore in how far science can give us inspiration in the quest we are on already.

-- PietHut - 19 Mar 2005

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