Friday, January 29, 2016

What is selfish DNA?

Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene was a landmark book in many ways: the first to lay out for a general audience the gene-centred view of evolution, but also one of the first to re-invigorate (arguably since the 1920s) science popularization as a part of the cultural conversation – and to show how beautifully written it should aspire to be. Dawkins might be divisive today for a variety of reasons, but science popularizers owe him a huge debt.

That’s why it is good and proper to have The Selfish Gene celebrated in Matt Ridley’s nice article in Nature. You can tell that I’m preparing to land a punch, can’t you?

Well, sort of. You see, I can’t help but be frustrated at how Matt turns one of the most problematic aspects of the book into a virtue. He suggests that Dawkins’ viewpoint was the inspiration for the discussions of selfish genes presented in Nature in 1980 by Orgel and Crick and by Doolittle and Sapienza. And it is true that The Selfish Gene is the first citation in both papers.

But both cite the book as one of the most recent discussions of the issue. As Orgel and Crick say, “The idea is not new. We have not attempted to trace it back to its root.” So it is not at all clear that, as Matt says, “a throwaway remark by Dawkins led to an entirely new theory in genomics”.

The problem is not simply one of quibbling about priority, however. Matt points out that this “throwaway remark” concerns the “apparently surplus DNA” – in the hugely problematic later coinage, junk DNA – that populates the genome, and which Dawkins suggested is merely parasitic. Yes indeed, and this is what those two later Nature papers discuss – as Orgel and Crick put it, DNA that “makes no specific contribution to the phenotype”.

But is this what The Selfish Gene is about? Absolutely not, and that’s why Dawkins’ remark was throwaway. His contention was that all genes should be regarded as “selfish”. Orgel, Crick, Doolittle and Sapienza are specifically talking about DNA that is produced and sustained by non-phenotypic selection. This, they say, is what we might regard as truly selfish DNA. Now, one can argue about the word “selfish” even in that context – it perhaps only makes sense if this DNA becomes detrimental to the survival of the organism. But the implication is that the phenotypic DNA is then not selfish, and that the term should be reserved for parasitic DNA. That makes good sense – and it is precisely these waters that Dawkins’ title muddied.

I can’t resist also asking what Matt means by saying that “genes that cause birds and bees to breed survive at the expense of other genes”. (“No other explanation makes sense…”) It seems to me more meaningful to say “genes that cause birds and bees to breed survive while helping other genes to survive.” I don’t exactly mean here to allude to the semantic selfish/cooperative debate (although there are good reasons to have it), but rather, it seems to me that Matt’s statement only makes sense if we replace “genes” with “alleles”. This is not pedantry. Genes do not, in general, compete with each other – at least, that is not the basis of the neodarwinian modern synthesis. Although one might find examples where specific genes do propagate at the expense of others, in general it is surely different variants of the same gene that compete with each other. And when a new allele proves to be more successful, other genes come along for the ride. To fail to make this distinction (which of course Matt recognizes) seems to me to propagate a very common misconception in evolutionary genetics, which is that genes are little pseudo-organisms all competing with one another. That isn’t a helpful or accurate way to present the picture.

Matt understands all this far better than I do. So I am quite prepared for him to tell me I have something wrong here.

Friday, January 15, 2016

More on the beauty question

Here’s my review of Frank Wilczek’s book A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design, which appeared in Physics World last year.


There aren’t many books on which you will find admiring blurbs by both Lawrence Krauss and Deepak Chopra, but this is one. You can see why. Wilczek writes in a freewheeling, almost poetic way, while retaining a penetrating and rigorous vision of what he wants to say about physics, science and the world.

His opening question – “Is the world a work of art?” – sets the tone: at the same time lyrical and baffling. Wilczek’s answer, as you might guess from the title, is “Yes, and it’s a beautiful one.” He reaches this conclusion after surveying the central role that symmetry plays in modern physics, from the shapes of atomic orbitals to the structure of quantum chromodynamics. He makes one of the most compelling cases I have seen for why symmetry can be considered a guiding principle worth heeding in efforts to push back the frontiers of physical theory. The latest prospect of doing that – of expanding fundamental physics beyond the Standard Model, which Wilczek prefers to call the Core Theory – comes from the principle of supersymmetry, which promises to unify bosons (“force particles”, with integer spin) and fermions (“substance particles”, with half-integer spin). This idea looms large on the agenda of the Large Hadron Collider now that it has returned to operation after an upgrade. Thanks to Wilczek, I now have a better sense of why the theory not only might be true but ought to be.

All the same, if this were a regular popular science book then it would be considered something of a mess. Like poetry, Wilczek’s prose is often highly concentrated thought, and he doesn’t always bother to unravel it or even to define his terms. Even with the glossary, I’m not sure how much the uninitiated reader will get from statements such as “Color gluons are the avatars of gauge symmetry 3.0.” What seem to be more straightforward concepts, such as light perception by the eye, become reconfigured into shapes that, while fitting into Wilczek’s intellectual framework, take time to decrypt: “When we perceive a color, we see a symbol of change, not anything that changes.”

Wilczek’s suggestion that, when the going gets tough, we read the text like poetry rather than hoping to understand all it says, seems optimistic. But these challenges aren’t, I think, exactly defects of the book, because this is not a regular science book. Like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, it is instead the unique vision of a brilliant mind (with that added advantage that it doesn’t pretend otherwise). For every baffling passage there are other moments when Wilczek explains something in a way that no one else has, or perhaps could, so that you come away with a fresh perspective on something that you thought you understood already. Never again will I be frustrated by pop-science suggestions that Einstein simply decided to posit the constancy of the speed of light: of course he didn’t, and Wilczek cuts straight to the physics of the matter. Put simply, he sees things differently, and that’s the true and compelling reason to read the book.

For the fact is that this book is not a work of explanation but, like Plato’s Timaeus, an extended argument – indeed, what you might call a gentle polemic. It wants to steer us towards Wilczek’s own answer to his initial question. And so, quietly and soberly, he marshals facts that fit his case and soft-pedals ones that don’t. That’s fine – it is what polemics do – so long as we recognize what’s happening. For example, in his discussion of Pythagorean musical consonance he gives us a simple (albeit speculative) physical mechanism for why we prefer harmonies with simple frequency ratios while all but ignoring the fact that we plainly don’t: unless you’ve heard music played in tunings other than equal temperament, you’ll never have heard the interval of a Pythagorean fifth. And the discussion of Chinese yin and yang glosses over the fact that it not an aesthetic idea but a philosophical one: beauty is never, to my knowledge, mentioned by Chinese philosophers in this context.

Such goal-directed argument is most apparent in Wilczek’s discussion of beauty itself, for which the closest thing he gives to a definition is “symmetry and economy of means”. But neither of these features plays a key role either in most art or in most theories of aesthetics. Immanuel Kant, who made one of the most searching enquiries into the nature of beauty, argued that there is something repugnant in too much order and regularity. Even Francis Bacon asserted that “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion”.

Kant’s careful distinction between real beauty and the intellectual satisfaction of perceiving an idea is precisely what physicists ignore when, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, they make the word mean just what they want it to mean. Wilczek at least admits that not all types of beauty are included in his picture; but the physicists’ usual conception of beauty is Platonic in the extreme and barely if at all relevant to the arts. For Plato it was precisely art’s lack of symmetry (and thus intelligibility) that denied it access to real beauty: art was just too messy to be beautiful. It seems clear, and important, that many physicists do feel a kind of transcendent joy in the symmetries of nature’s laws. But if they really want to talk about it in terms of beauty, they should acknowledge that there is an intellectual heritage to that notion that they will have to confront.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

What's in a name?

Shawn Burdette’s blog post on element-naming has some nice things in it, but I wonder if he appreciates that the entire discussion around the names of the four new elements is itself largely a bit of fun? Sure, I can imagine that there are some people signing the petitions for lemmium and octarine thinking that the Japanese or Russian teams are going to say “Hey, several of those Brits want us to name this element after a heavy-rock musician we’ve never heard of/some magical colour in a series of books by a fantasy writer we’ve never heard of – well, that seems like a good idea to us.” Who knows, perhaps they are hoping one of the scientists will pipe up with “Oh yeah, I remember Silver Machine from my student days in Kyoto/St Petersburg. Let’s do it, freaks!” But really, do most of the signatories think this is anything but a fun way to celebrate a couple of recently deceased people whose work they liked?

The point is that most people aren’t suggesting names because they have the slightest hope, or even wish, that they’ll be taken seriously, or that the researchers need a bit of help. Rather, this is an unusually rich opportunity to both make a few funny/wistful/ridiculous suggestions and to have a considered discussion about how these names come about. If we aren’t allowed to do that unless we are “in the element discovery business”, it’s a sadder world. Certainly that’s why I said in my Nature piece that levium is a name I’d love to see, not one that I think ought to be adopted. It was a personal view (the clue was in the article category), not an absurd attempt to “impose my ideas for element names on the discoverers”. And if it is sanctimonious to wish for element names to be inclusive rather than proprietorial, so be it.

Which brings us to nationalism. Let me confess right away that I am not entirely consistent on this, because I can’t help feeling a soft spot for the Curies’ polonium. Poland had a pretty crap time of it in the 19th and early 20th century, and besides, Marie seemed to have regarded this as a kind of homage to a distant homeland rather than a boast. No, my case is not airtight. But as Shawn says, germanium and francium did seem more aggressively flag-waving (I’ve never got to the bottom of the accusations of egotism behind Lecoq’s gallium.)

And it surely doesn’t stop there: americium smells of the Cold War, although in fairness this doesn’t appear to refer solely to the United States. If berkelium, californium, dubnium, hassium and livermorium aren’t necessarily expressions of patriotism, they do seem to veer towards bragging. Shawn asks: well, why not? It is damned hard to do this work, why shouldn’t the teams get the credit, even if it seems a little vain? I’m not convinced. They definitely deserve credit, of course, but there are other avenues for that. My biggest concern, though, is that this triumphalism is a reflection of the competitiveness of the whole business, which seems unfortunate and tiresome. When there is a dispute over priority and then the “winner” goes and names the element after themselves (in effect), it is like sticking your tongue out at the “losers”: it’s us, not you. The disputatious nature of element-making during the Cold War years is notorious, and even if things are somewhat more collaborative now, there are still arguments.

It’s precisely because the work is so hard that priority can be so contentious: it is a matter of fine judgement whether a claim is convincing or not. The Russian team insists that their claim for having seen element 113 in 2003 should count as the first, and that the Japanese group came second the next year. Their complaint that the Japanese result isn’t going to be easily reproduced by anyone, and that in any case the leader of that team Kosuke Morita learnt his chops at Dubna in the first place, seems particularly ungracious. All the same, can we be so sure that the Russians don’t have a case? I trust the IUPAC experts, but it seems unlikely that there are completely cut-and-dry arguments. Imagine if the situation was reversed: if the Japanese had toiled hard to get a suggestive decay signature, their first shot at an element discovered in the Far East, only to be dismissed by IUPAC in favour of those Russians again, who go and slap “moscovium” on it. Would we feel that was a good name that enhanced the justice of the situation?

This, of course, is science as normal – different people arrive at much the same result at much the same time, and priority is a murky issue. But this is precisely why a winner-takes-all approach to naming adds to the distorted view of discovery that such emphasis on coming first produces. I fully understand that for some individual scientists, priority can matter hugely to career prospects, even though it damned well shouldn’t. But to big, substantially funded projects like this? I don’t think so. Even if element-naming wasn’t solipsistic, there would surely still be a strong desire to claim priority. But do we have to make it worse?

Does music really need a new philosophy?

I always enjoy Roger Scruton’s writing on music, even when I disagree with him vehemently. That holds true for his piece on the role of philosophy in music. We should ignore the habitual bluster about the melodic and harmonic paucity of popular music, which Scruton seems insistent on analysing in a social vacuum as though it is beholden to the same compositional and aesthetic rules as Mozart; indeed, most of what Scruton writes about music totally ignores the fact that it is a cultural activity with many functions, not just an artifact to appreciate over a glass of fine wine. (I have visions of him challenging the idea that Bowie was a great musical artist because his songs had poor voice-leading.) And Scruton’s perpetual denigration of today’s callow youth, passively consuming processed musical pap under their hoodies, makes you wish he’d get to bloody well know a few young people instead of sneering at them from afar. Most of the kids I know are learning an instrument – not that this is an essential aspect of active engagement with music, but it obviously helps.

I’m not sure that Scruton’s article is really concerned so much with philosophy at all (there is a large body of work on this that he doesn’t touch on, and which is not obsessing about modernist ideas, such as Stephen Davies’ excellent 2005 book Themes in the Philosophy of Music). His emphasis is rather on systems and rules of composition. Still, I agree with him that Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method is pretty arbitrary, that Adorno wrote with priestly dogmatism, and that serialism systematically undermined the accumulated wisdom about making melodies coherent. However, just as Schoenberg didn’t realise why this was so, so Scruton has only the vaguest sense of why Western tonal music does have this property of auditory coherence. It’s depressing to hear yet another appeal to the “naturalness” of the Western diatonic scale (under which system of intonation, one wonders? Have you heard how weird the Pythagorean scale sounds to our ears now?). Not only is there no good evidence that the harmonies it creates are innately consonant (with the exception of the octave and perhaps the fifth), but Scruton’s appeal to the harmonic series ignores the fact that Schoenberg appealed to the very same source of justification – he just wanted to “emancipate” the higher harmonics. If Scruton showed more awareness of musical cultures whose harmonic norms depart widely from Western tonality (say, Croatian ganga or Indonesian gamelan), I think he’d be less inclined to assert its naturalness.

The existence of a tonic and of a hierarchy of note usage is indeed a feature of how much musical melody becomes intelligible and perceptually grouped, and also contributes to its tense of tension and release. The circle of fifths, modulation and voice-leading aren’t by any means essential in rich and complex music, but they can certainly be put to good use for coherence, variation and nuance in Western tonal music, once they become part of the learnt musical language. So if all this is ditched, then Scruton is quite right to assert that other “binding” structures are needed if one wants music that has an easily apprehended cognitive structure. (I have written about this in some detail, with specific focus on serialism and modernism here.)

But there are ways to achieve cognitive coherence within serialism, and Berg in particular was masterful in using rhythm, pitch relationships and other techniques to do so. (I don’t fully understand how he does it, but I suspect it was intuitive.) Without such things, Scruton rightly asserts that no “normal ear” (which is to say, no mind employing the mental grouping mechanisms we acquire for navigating an auditory landscape) can hold the music together. Yet if he showed any interest in the cognition of music, he’d be less sure that the traditional rules of the Western tonal style were the only means of achieving this.

Yet does music have to hold together in that way? We’re back to Scruton’s insistence on listening to all music with an ear attuned to Mozart. True, if we’re not going to do that then we have to learn a new way of listening, which is not easy when you’ve been immersed in the Western tonal tradition from birth (as most Westerners have). But might it not be worth trying? Personally, I’ve found that it is. Ligeti, for example, offers musical experiences based on texture or a kind of pointillist sonic painting. OK, you won’t go away humming the tunes, but I would be sad if that were always held up as the test of fulfilling music.

Beyond all this, the notion that all contemporary classical (whatever that means) music today is in thrall to serialism is of course absurd. These remarks might have been more pertinent 50 years ago, but now the diversity of styles is exhilarating and dizzying. Pierre Boulez is dead, Roger, and we can do what we like! (I don’t mean to knock Pierre, who seemed to loosen up somewhat in old age, but really he was a bit of a serialist snob in his time.)

What is the “philosophy” that Scruton wants to see in place of that of Adorno and the other champions of modernism? One, apparently, in which “true artists are not the antagonists of tradition but their [sic] latest advocates”. There speaks a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, of course, but I have some sympathy with the idea that innovators extend and transform tradition rather than sticking the boot into it. Even the Sex Pistols arguably did that (if the “tradition” includes MC5, Iggy and the Stooges and garage rock generally). But I wouldn’t expect Scruton to approve of that example.

Thanks to Ángel Lamuño for bringing Scruton’s article to my attention.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The place of the periodic table

I can fully understand that Eric Scerri, who has done so much to explain, popularize and clarify the periodic table, would object to my suggestion in a Nature article that “chemists rarely need to refer to it” and that it “holds more interest and glamour for the public than it does for the working chemist”. These statements are too general; I should say “many” (most?) chemists. There are some who surely do use it, and a rather small group of others – Eric among them, of course – who expend a lot of time and thought on the right way to structure it. Those latter questions are interesting and valuable, and I regret that Eric seems to have been offended by an apparent implication (not intended) that they are not.

If I exaggerate, it’s to make a point, which is that it is not terribly good for chemistry if it is seen as being all about the periodic table – and that is the impression I think non-scientists often get. Not only does it obscure what most chemists do, but it leads to the idea that the quantum explanation of the periodic table means that chemistry is “just physics”, or that, now we know all the elements (except ones we make ourselves), “pure” chemistry is pretty much over as an academic discipline (if you don’t believe me, see here). And chemistry is not alone in the risks associated with giving too much emphasis to its organizational schemas, as I say. One could easily get the impression, from Higgs- and LHC-mania (which is fine in itself), that all physicists want to do is find new particles. Yet most physicists never need to consult the tabulation of the standard model, even mentally. Nor do most biologists need to know the genetic code (though of course they learn it anyway). This is not a question of whether these lists and tables and classifications are significant – of course they are. It is about guiding public perception away from the notion that this is what the respective disciplines are all about.

The periodic table is not a “mere list”. It is far richer than that. But chemistry as a whole is much, much richer still, because it is primarily about making things with, and not simply categorizing, its building blocks. I am not convinced that this is widely understood (Tom Lehrer’s song, for all that it’s fun, suggests as much), and I worry that at least some of the excitement about the new elements amounts to the perception that “hey, we’ve completed the list!” That’s the challenge that needs to be faced.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The myth of the Enlightenment (again)

To cite Kant in defence of the “Enlightement values” of freedom of speech, democratic representation, universal equality and so forth, as Nick Cohen does here, is simply to invite the response that Kant rejected democracy and displayed the conventional misogyny, racism and class-based snobberies of his times. In other words, it is to incite an empty argument in which we hold Kant anachronistically to account for the prejudices that just about every other educated and privileged male European of his age shared.

Which is why it drives me up the bloody wall that folks like Cohen are still banging on about “Enlightenment values” – by which they generally mean some carefully selected values advanced by certain Enlightenment figures that we (some of us – me and Nick alike) would like to see upheld today, such as freedom to think for ourselves. The sad irony is that Kent seems to think this is a different category of statement than speaking of equally meaningless (because utterly polysemous) “Christian values”.

Cohen’s criticisms of the pope in his article are entirely justified. Trying to support them by appealing to some fictitious Enlightenment does him no favours at all. He calls “people who call themselves liberals” (that would be me, then) “thoughtless prigs” who probably don’t know what the Enlightenment was. Isn’t it odd, then, that folk who talk today about Enlightenment values are usually arguing in favour of a secular, classless, “rationalistic” democracy? Because, to state the bleedin’ obvious, there were no secular classless democracies in eighteenth century Europe.

And the heroes of the Enlightenment had no intention of introducing them. Take that other Enlightenment icon Voltaire. Like Kant, Voltaire had some attractive ideas about religious tolerance and separation of church and state. But he was representative of the philosophes in opposing any idea that reason should become a universal basis for thought. It was grand for the ruling classes, but far too dangerous to advocate for the lower orders, who needed to be kept in ignorance for the sake of the social order. Here’s what he said about that: “the rabble… are not worthy of being enlightened and are apt for every yoke”. Voltaire has been said to be a deist, which means that he believed in a God whose existence can be deduced by reason rather than revelation, and who made the world according to rational principles. But he insisted that ideas like this should be confined to the better classes. The message of the church should be kept simple for the lower orders, so that they didn’t get confused. Voltaire said that complex ideas such as deism are suited only “among the well-bred, among those who wish to think.”

The Enlightenment was not strongly secular in any case. Atheism was very rare, and condemned by almost all philosophers as a danger to social stability. Rousseau calls for religious tolerance – except for atheists, who should be banished from the state because their lack of fear of divine punishment meant that they couldn’t be trusted to obey the laws.

The idea that the Enlightenment was some great Age of Reason is now rejected by most historians. So why do intelligent people like Nick Cohen still invoke this trope today whenever they fear that irrational and dogmatic forces are threatening to undermine science and society? I suspect it has something to do with the allure of the Golden Age: things were all rosy once, but now the barbarians are dragging us back to that other mythical period in history, the “Dark Ages”. Sadly, history is never so simple.

Stand up for principles of tolerance, compassion, equality, reasoned decision-making, and free speech, by all means. But don’t try to conscript bad history to your cause. What people today call “Enlightenment values” are like universal human rights: we might like them and think they are worth defending (I do), but that doesn’t alter the fact that they are a modern invention.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Talking about talking about history

David Wootton has sent me some responses to the accusations made by some of the reviewers of his book The Invention of Science, including me in Nature and Steven Poole in New Statesman, that he somewhat over-eggs the “science wars”/relativism arguments. Some other reviewers have suggested that these polemical sections of the book are referring to an academic turf war that doesn’t need to be awarded so much space here. In her review in the Guardian, Lorraine Daston commented that this material is “unlikely to be of interest to readers who are not historians of science over the age of 50.” Well, I plead guilty to the second at least, and so perhaps it isn’t surprising that those chapters most certainly were of interest to me. I might not agree with all of David’s arguments in the book, but I was very happy to see them. It is a discussion that still needs to happen, not least because “histories of science” like that of Steven Weinberg’s To Explain the World are still being put out into the public arena.

For that reason too, I’m delighted to post David’s responses here. I don’t exactly disagree with anything he says; I think the issues are at least partly a matter of interpretation. For example, in my review I commented that Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s influential Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985) doesn’t to my eye offer the kind of “hard relativist” perspective that David seems to find in it. In my original draft of the book review, I also said the same about David’s comments on Simon Schaffer’s article on prisms:

“I see no reason to believe, for example, that Schaffer really questions Newton’s compound theory of white light in his 1989 essay on prisms and the experimentum crucis, but just that he doubts the persuasiveness of Newton’s own experimental evidence.”

David seemed to say that Simon’s comments even implied he had doubts about the modern theory of optics and additive mixing; I can’t find grounds for reaching that conclusion. In my conversations with Simon, I have never had the slightest impression that he doesn’t regard science as a system of thought that offers a progressively more reliable description of the world. If he thinks it is no truer than witchcraft, he hides it extraordinarily well.

As further evidence of S&S’s relativism, David quotes from Leviathan and the Air-Pump, which, he says, maintains that the success of experimental science depended on its proponents’ “political success ... in insinuating themselves into the activities of other institutions and other interest groups. He who has the most, and the most powerful, allies wins.” When I first read this (in preparing my book Curiosity), it never once occurred to me that S&S meant it as some kind of statement to the effect that we only think Boyle’s law is correct because Boyle was more politically astute than his opponents. I took it to mean that Boyle was able to gain rapid acceptance of his ideas because he was politically well situated (central to the Royal Society, for example) and canny with his rhetoric. It seemed to me that the reception of scientific ideas when they first appear surely is, both then and now, conditioned by social factors. It surely is the case that some such ideas, though they might indeed now be revealed as superior to the alternatives, were more quickly taken up at the time not just (or even) because they were more convincing or better supported by evidence but because of the way their advocates were able to corner the market or rewrite the discourse in their favour. Lavoisier’s “new chemistry” is the obvious example. Indeed, David recognizes that social aspects of scientific debate in his book, which is one of its many strengths. I certainly don’t think Simon would argue that scientific ideas might then stay fixed for hundreds of years simply because their initial proponents gained the upper hand in the cut and thrust of debate.

David says that Steven Shapin does betray an affiliation to extreme relativism, however – and he cites as evidence Shapin’s comment in his (unsurprisingly damning) review of the Weinberg book:

“Science remains almost unique in that respect. It’s modernity’s reality-defining enterprise, a pattern of proper knowledge and of right thinking, in the same way that—though Mr. Weinberg will hate the allusion—Christian religion once defined what the world was like and what proper knowledge should be.”

This is a complicated claim, and I would like to know more about what Shapin meant by it. Perhaps I will ask him. I can see why David might interpret it as a statement to the effect that the scientific theory of the origin of the universe is no more “true” than the account given in Genesis. And I think he is right to point out that Shapin should be alert to the possibility of that interpretation. But I think one can also interpret the remark as saying that we should be as wary of scientism – the idea that the only knowledge that counts as proper knowledge is scientific – as we should be of the doctrinaire Christianity that once pervaded Western thought, which was once the jury before which all ideas were to be scrutinized. Christian theology was certainly regarded at times as a superior arbiter to pre-scientific rationalism in efforts to understand the universe – for example in the 1277 Condemnation that pitched Aristotelian natural history against the Church). But just as Christianity was finally compelled to stay within the proper limits of its authority (in most parts of the civilized Christian world, if not perhaps Kansas), so should we make sure that science does so: it is the best method we have for understanding the physical world, but not the yardstick for all “proper knowledge”. I hope this is what Shapin means, but I confess that I cannot be sure.

The real problem here – and it is one that David rightly complains about – is not so much excessive relativism in the academic study of the history of science, but what he calls a conspiracy of silence within that discipline. It seems to have become taboo to say that scientific knowledge goes through a reliability filter that makes it rather dependable, predictive and amenable to improvement – even if you believe that to be the case. As a historian of science, David must be regularly faced with disapproving frowns and tuts if he wishes to express value judgements about scientific ideas, because this seems to have become bad form and now to be rather rigidly policed in some quarters.

I have experienced this myself, when a publisher’s reviewer of my book Invisible evidently felt it his/her duty to scour it for the slightest taint of presentism – and, when he/she decided it had been detected, to reel out what was obviously a pre-prepared little spiel to that effect. For example, I was sternly told that
“Hooke and Leeuwenhoek did not "in fact" see "single-celled organisms called protozoa". They also did not drive modern cars, neither did they long for a new iphone.”

This is of course just silly (not to say rather incoherent) academic Gotcha-style point-scoring. What I wrote was “It was Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries of invisibly small ‘animals’ – he was in fact seeing large bacteria and single-celled organisms called protozoa – in 1676…” Outrageous, huh?

Then I got some nonsense about "Great Men" histories because I had the temerity to mention that Pasteur and Koch did some important work on germ theory. The reviewer’s terror of making what his/her colleagues would regard as a disciplinary faux pas seems to be preventing him/her from being able to actually tell any history.

The situation in that case became clear enough when the reviewer finally complained that it was hard to judge my argument because what he/she needed was “a clear statement of the author's intent and theoretical position” – followed by “rewriting the whole text in such a way that the author clearly articulates his chosen positions throughout.” To which I’m afraid I replied: “What is my “theoretical position”? It’s in the text, not in some badge that I choose to display at the outset. The persistent misreading of the text to force it into one camp or another [and the cognitive dissonance evident when it doesn’t quite fit] seems to highlight a pretty serious problem with the academic approach, for all that I benefit from it shamelessly.”

So perhaps David will understand (I suspect he does already) that I have considerable sympathy with his predicament. I just wonder if his frustration (like mine) leaked out a little too much. I don’t know if he is right to say that “The [Oxford] faculty, as a group of professional historians, feels it must ward off anyone interested in studying science as a project that succeeds and makes progress, and at the same time encourage anyone who wants to study science as a purely social enterprise” – and if he is, that doesn’t seem terribly healthy. But the job advert he quotes doesn’t seem to me to deny the possibility of progress, but simply to point out that the primary job of the historian is not to sift the past for nuggets of the present.

Which of course brings me to Weinberg. He apparently wants to reshape the history of science, although his response to critics in the NYRB makes me more sympathetic to the sincerity, if not to the value, of his programme. I wonder if we might get a little clearer about the issues here by considering how one might wish to, say, write about medieval and early modern witchcraft. I wonder if what David sees as an unconscionable silence from historians on the veracity and validity of witchcraft is more a matter of historians thinking that, in the 21st century, one should not feel obliged to begin a paper or a book with a statement along the lines of
“I must point out that witchcraft is not a very effective way to understand the world, and if you wish to make a flying device, you will be far better advised to use the modern theory of fluid mechanics.”

On the other hand, if said author were to be quizzed along the lines of “But does witchcraft make broomsticks fly?”, it would be intellectually feeble, indeed derelict, to respond “That’s not the issue I am addressing, and I do not propose to comment on it.” David implies that this happens; I suspect he is right, though I do not know how often. There doesn’t seem to be anything sacrificed by saying instead something like: “Of course, witchcraft will not summon demons and make people fly. Now let me get on with talking about it.”

The Weinberg position, on the other hand, seems to be along the lines of “By all means study witchcraft as history, if you like, but as far as science is concerned we should make it absolutely clear that it was just superstitious nonsense that got in the way of true progress.” To which, of course, the historian might want to say “But Robert Boyle believed that demons exist and could be summoned!” The Weinbergian (I don’t want to put words into his own mouth) might respond, “Well Boyle wasn’t perfect and he believed some pretty daft things – like alchemical transmutation.”

And at that point I say “You really don’t give a toss what Robert Boyle thought, do you? You just want to mark his homework.” But I do give a toss, and not just because Boyle was an interesting thinker, or because I don’t have any illusion that we are smarter today than people were in the seventeenth century. I want to take seriously what Boyle thought and why, because it is a part of how ideas have developed, and because I don’t believe the history of science was a process of gradually shaking off delusions and misapprehensions and refining our rationality. It is much messier than that, now and always. If your starting position in assessing Boyle’s belief in demons and alchemy is that he was sometimes a bit gullible and deluded, then you are simply not going to get much of a grasp of what or how he thought. (Boyle was somewhat gullible when it came to alchemical charlatans, but his belief in transmutation wasn’t a part of that credulity.)

My own position is more along the lines of “It’s interesting that people once believed in witchcraft. I wonder what sustained that belief, and how it interacted with emerging ideas about science?” I am not being disingenuous if I say that I am inevitably a naïve reader of Shapin, Schaffer, Daston, Fara, and indeed David Wootton. But I find this same spirit in all of their books, and that’s what I appreciate in them.

Comments from David Wootton

A number of the reviews of The Invention of Science have expressed puzzlement that my book opens and closes with extensive historiographical, methodological, and philosophical discussions. Why not just leave all that stuff out? The charge is that I am refighting the Science Wars of the 1990s when everyone else has moved on. I under- stand why people would think this, but, with respect, I think they are wrong. Let’s break down the issues as follows:

1) Are relativists still confident that they speak for the history of science profession? Yes they are. See for example Steven Shapin’s breathtaking review of Steven Weinberg in the Wall Street Journal, where Shapin actually presents belief in science as being strictly comparable to belief in Christianity ( [1]. Or see Shapin’s and Schaffer’s introduction to the anniversary edition of Leviathan and the Air Pump (2011). Or see Peter Dear’s “Historiography of Not-So-Recent Science”, History of Science 50 (2012), 197-211 (“we are all post- modernists now”).

2) Are students still taught from relativist textbooks? Yes they are. The key text- books are Shapin’s Scientific Revolution (1996; now translated into seventeen languages); Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences (2001, revised in 2009); John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution (1997, with later revisions). This may change – there is Principe’s Very Short Introduction (2011), for example – but it hasn’t changed yet.

3) Has the profession moved on? Rather than moving on, it has decided to pretend the Science Wars never happened, and as a consequence it is stuck in a rut, incapable of generating a new account of what was happening in science in the early modern period. To quote Lorraine Daston’s 2009 essay on the present state of the discipline (, what historians have produced is “a swarm of microhistories ... archivally based and narrated in exquisite detail.” These microhistories, as she herself acknowledges, do not enable one to put together a bigger picture. The resulting confusion is embodied, for example, in David Knight’s Voyaging in Strange Seas: the Great Revolution in Science (Yale, 2014).

4) Are the relativists more moderate than I maintain? Philip Ball thinks I and the authors of Leviathan and the Air Pump have more in common than I imagine. I doubt Shapin and Schaffer will think so, and I suggest Philip rereads p. 342 of that book, which maintains that the success of experimental science depended on its proponents’ “political success ... in insinuating themselves into the activities of other institutions and other interest groups. He who has the most, and the most powerful, allies wins.” In this sort of story the evidence counts for nothing – indeed, the strong programme insists that the evidence must count for nothing (and note the introduction of the strong programme’s key principle of symmetry on p. 5)[2].

5) Can you separate methodology and historiography from substantive history? It’s very difficult to do so, because your methodology and the previous history of your discipline shape the questions you ask and the answers you give. Thus relat- ivist historiography has privileged controversy studies (, and simply ignored cases where new scientific claims have been accepted without dispute. Indeed if the Duhem-Quine thesis were right there are always grounds for dispute when new evidence is presented. I don’t see how one can discuss the collapse of Ptolemaic astronomy in the years immediately after 1610 without acknowledging that this is an event which has been invisible to previous historians because they have been unwilling to acknowledge that an empirical fact (the phases of Venus) could be decisive in determining the fate of a well- established theory — in a case like this it is not the evidence that is new, but the questions that are being asked of it, and these are inseparable from issues of methodology and historiography [3].

6) The Economist thinks I have a disagreement with a few “callow” relativists. Odd that these insignificant people hold chairs in Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, Cornell. But there is a much bigger point here: a fundamental claim made by my opponents is that historians are committed, in principle, to treating bad and good knowledge identically. The historical profession tends to agree with them (see for example Gordon Wood’s NYRB essay on medicine in the American Revolution, “The problem is most historians are relativists”).

The consequences are apparent in the Cambridge History of Science, vol. 3, ed. Park and Daston (2006), which contains a twenty page chapter on “Coffee Houses and Print Shops” (as part of a two hundred page section on “Personae- and Sites of Natural Knowledge”) and others equally long on “Astrology” and “Magic” (Astrology gets twenty pages while Astronomy gets thirty), but, despite being 850 pages long, contains no extended discussion of Digges, Stevin, Gilbert, or Pascal, nothing on magnets, and only two pages on vacuum experiments [4].

It is also apparent in Oxford University’s recent (April 2015) advertisement for its Chair in the History of Science which stated: “The professor will share the faculty’s vision of the scope of the history of science, which is less focused on the history of scientific truth and more interested in reconstructing the practices of science, and the claims to science-based authority within given societies at given times” [5]. The Oxford Faculty of History does not declare its vision of the scope of the discipline when advertising its chair in, say, military history. But the history of science is different. The faculty, as a group of professional historians, feels it must ward off anyone interested in studying science as a project that succeeds and makes progress, and at the same time encourage anyone who wants to study science as a purely social enterprise. What interests them is not scientific knowledge but the authority claimed by “scientists” — be they alchemists or phrenologists. What’s at stake here is not just the history of science, but also the claim, made over and over again by historians, that the past must be studied solely in its own terms — an approach which may lead to understanding, but cannot lead to explanation. So historians of witchcraft report encounters with devils as if the devils were real — and never ask what’s really going on.

7) What is science? I was dismayed to discover that students in my own university were being taught (by someone with a new PhD in history of science from a prestigious institution) that there was no such thing as science in the seventeenth century. But this, after all, is what Henry’s textbook says, and Dear in his 2012 review essay confidently asserts: “specialist historians seem increasingly agreed that science as we now know it is an endeavour born of the nineteenth century.” On her university website one distinguished historian of science is described thus: “Paula Findlen teaches history of science before it was ‘science’ (which is, after all, a nineteenth-century word).” ( dept/HPS/findlen.html, accessed 7 Dec 2015). How have we got to the point where it appears to make sense to claim that “science” is a nineteenth-century word? Because Newton, we are told, was not a scientist (which indeed is a nineteenth-century word) but a philosopher. Even if one charitably rephrases Findlen’s statement (or the statement made on her behalf) to read “‘science’ as we currently use the term is a nineteenth-century concept” it would be wrong unless, by a circular argument, one insists that earlier usages of the word can’t possibly have meant by science what we mean by science. The whole point of my book is to show that by the end of the seventeenth century “science” (as Dryden called it) really was science as we understand the term. To unpick the miscon- ception that there was no science in the seventeenth century you have to look at the history of words like “science” and “scientist” (noting, for example, the founding of the French Académie des Sciences in 1666), but also at an historiographical tradition which has insisted that what we think of as science is just a temporary and arbitrary social practice, like metaphysical poetry or Methodism, not an enduring and self-sustaining body of reliable knowledge.

8) What would have happened if I had left out the methodological and historiographical debates? I tried the alternative approach, of writing in layperson’s terms for commonsensical people, first. Just look at how my book Bad Medicine was treated by Steven Shapin, in the pages of the London Review of Books: http:/ /! The book was a success in that lots of people read it and liked it, many of them doctors (see; but historians of medicine brushed it off. So this time I have felt obliged to address the core arguments which supposedly justify ignoring progress — the arguments that have bamboozled the profession for the last fifty years — in the hope of being taken a little more seriously, not by sensible people (who can’t understand why I don’t just cut to the chase), but by the professionals who think that the history of science is like cardiac surgery — not something “the laity” (Shapin’s peculiar term) can possible participate in, understand, or criticise, but something for the professionals alone. In trying to address this new clerisy I have evidently tried the patience of some of my more sensible, level-headed readers. That’s unfortunate and a matter of considerable regret: but if the way in which history of science is taught in the universities is to change, someone must take on the experts on their own ground, and someone must question the notion that the history of science ought not to concern itself with (amongst much else) the history of scientific truth. By all means skip the beginning and concluding chapters if you have no interest in how the history of science (and history more generally) is taught; but please read them carefully if you do.


[1] There is a paywall: to surmount it google “Why Scientists Shouldn’t Write History” and click on the first link. For a discussion see I am grateful to Philip Ball for acknowledging that my book is very different in character from Weinberg’s, which saves me from having to stress the point.

[2] Patricia Fara thinks that social constructivism is “the idea that what people believe to be true is affected by their cultural context.” If that were the case then we would all be social constructivists and I really would be arguing with a straw person. But of course it isn’t, as I show over and over again in my book. It is, rather, the claim (made by her Cambridge colleague Andrew Cunningham) that science is “a human activity, wholly a human activity, and nothing but a human activity” — in other words that it is socially constituted, not merely socially influenced (the model for such an argument being, of course, Durkheim on religion). The consequence of this, constructivists rightly hold, is epistemological egalitarianism — any particular belief is to be regarded as being just as good as any other.

[3] Take for example William Donahue’s discussion of Galileo and the phases of Venus in Park and Daston, 585: “He argued... that this phenomenon was inconsistent with the Ptolemaic arrangement of the planets...” Galileo and his contemporaries understood perfectly well that Galileo had proved the Ptolemaic arrangements of the planets could not be right — the whole impact of Galileo’s discovery is lost by reducing it to a mere argument. Indeed Donahue does not acknowledge that it had any impact while I show the impact is measurable by counting editions of Sacrobosco.

[4] A colleague of mine unkindly calls this the Polo history: Polo Mints, to quote Wikipedia, “are a brand of mints whose defining feature is the hole in the middle.”

[5] The text is no longer on the Oxford University website, but can still be found, for example, at (accessed 7 Dec 2015).

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Can science be made to work better?

Here is a longer version of the leader that I wrote for Nature this week.


Suppose you’re seeking to develop a technique for transferring proteins from a gel to a plastic substrate for easier analysis. Useful, maybe – but will you gain much kudos for it? Will it enhance the reputation of your department? One of the sobering findings of last year’s survey of the 100 most cited papers on the Web of Science (Nature 514, 550; 2014) was how many of them reported such apparently mundane methodological research (this one was number six).

Not all prosaic work reaches such bibliometric heights, but that doesn’t deny its value. Overcoming the hurdles of nanoparticle drug delivery, for example, requires the painstaking characterization of pathways and rates of breakdown and loss in the body: work that is probably unpublishable, let alone unglamorous. One can cite comparable demands of detail for getting just about any bright idea to work in practice – but it’s the initial idea, not the hard grind, that garners the praise and citations.

An aversion to routine yet essential legwork seems at face value to be quite the opposite of the conclusions of a new study on how scientists pick their research topics. This analysis of discovery and innovation in biochemistry (A. Rzhetsky et al., Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 14569; 2015) finds that, in this field at least, choices of research problems are becoming more conservative and risk-averse. The results suggest that this trend over the past 30 years is quite the reverse of what is needed to make scientific discovery efficient.

But these problems – avoidance of both risk and drudge – are just opposite sides of the same coin. They reflect the fact that scientific norms, institutions and reward structures increasingly force researchers to aim at a “sweet spot” that will maximize their career prospects: work that is novel enough to be publishable but orthodox enough not to alarm or offend referees. That situation is surely driven in large degree by the importance attached to citation indices, as well as by the insistence of grant agencies that the short-term impact of the work can be defined in advance.

One might quibble with the necessarily crude measures of research strategy and knowledge generation employed in the PNAS study. But its general conclusion – that current norms discourage risk and therefore slow down scientific advance, and that the problem is worsening – ring true. It’s equally concerning that the incentives for boring but essential collection of fine-grained data to solve a specific problem are vanishing in a publish-or-perish culture.

A fashionably despairing cry of “Science is broken!” is not the way forward. The wider virtue of Rzhetsky et al.’s study is that it floats the notion of tuning practices and institutions to accelerate the process of scientific discovery. The researchers conclude, for example, that publication of experimental failures would assist this goal by avoiding wasteful repetition. Journals chasing impact factors might not welcome that, but they are no longer to sole repositories of scientific findings. Rzhetsky et al. also suggest some shifts in institutional structures that might help promote riskier but potentially more groundbreaking research – for example, spreading both risk and credit among teams or organizations, as used to be common at Bell Labs.

The danger is that efforts to streamline discovery simply become codified into another set of guidelines and procedures, creating yet more hoops that grant applicants have to jump through. If there’s one thing science needs less of, it is top-down management. A first step would be to recognize the message that research on complex systems has emphasized over the past decade or so: efficiencies are far more likely to come from the bottom up. The aim is to design systems with basic rules of engagement for participating agents that best enable an optimal state to emerge. Such principles typically confer adaptability, diversity, and robustness. There could be a wider mix of grant sources and sizes, say, less rigid disciplinary boundaries, and an acceptance that citation records are not the only measure of worth.

But perhaps more than anything, the current narrowing of objectives, opportunities and strategies in science reflects an erosion of trust. Obsessive focus on “impact” and regular scrutiny young (and not so young) researchers’ bibliometric data betray a lack of trust that would have sunk many discoveries and discoverers of the past. Bibliometrics might sometimes be hard to avoid as a first-pass filter for appointments (Nature 527, 279; 2015), but a steady stream of publications is not the only or even the best measure of potential.

Attempts to tackle these widely acknowledged problems are typically little more than a timid rearranging of deckchairs. Partly that’s because they are seen as someone else’s problem: the culprits are never the complainants, but the referees, grant agencies and tenure committees who oppress them. Yet oddly enough, these obstructive folk are, almost without exception, scientists too (or at least, once were).

It’s everyone’s problem. Given the global challenges that science now faces, inefficiencies can exact a huge price. It is time to get serious about oiling the gears.