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Is scientific progress real?
David H. Bailey
Updated 22 June 2022 (c) 2022
Denials of scientific progress from the right and the left
The fact that scientific research has made immense progress over the past years, decades and centuries is taken for granted among professional scientists and most of the lay public as well. But there are others, from both the left wing and the right wing of society, who question, dismiss or even reject the notion that science progresses. One group, which is mostly rooted in the socio-political right wing of society, rejects the scientific consensus on evolution, as with the creationism and intelligent design movements, or, tragically, with the scientific consensus on global warming that has warned of many more severe natural disasters unless decisive action is taken soon. The other group, namely the "postmodern science studies" movement, which is mostly rooted in the socio-political left wing, questions fundamentally whether scientific research even uncovers truth at all, much less progresses to an ever sharper view of nature.
Much of today's postmodern science studies literature is rooted in the writings of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, although the postmodern writers go much further than either Popper or Kuhn. British economist and philosopher Karl Popper argued that falsifiability was the key distinguishing factor between reliable and unreliable science, a view he presented in his oft-cited book The Logic of Scientific Discovery [Popper1959, pg. 40-41]. His basic view is now rather widely accepted in modern scientific thinking, although many have pointed out that this view cannot be taken to its logical extreme, given the uncertainties of real-world experimental science.
Kuhn's work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argued that key paradigm shifts have often not come easily in the history of science [Kuhn1970]. Unfortunately, his work includes some very dubious and immoderate analysis, such as where he denies that paradigm shifts carry scientists closer to fundamental truth [Kuhn1970, pg. 170], or when he argues that paradigm shifts very often occur due to non-experimental factors [Kuhn1970, pg. 135]. Further, Kuhn's "paradigm shift" model has not worked as well in recent years. As a single example, the "standard model" of physics completely displaced previous theories of particle physics, after a very orderly transition covering just a few years [Tipler1994, pg. 88-89].
More recent writings in the postmodern science studies field have greatly extended the scope and sharpness of these critiques, declaring that much of modern science, like literary and historical analysis, is "socially constructed," dependent on the social environment and privileged power structures of the researchers, with no claim whatsoever to fundamental truth or progress [Koertge1998, pg. 258; Madsen1990, pg. 471; Sokal1998, pg. 5-91, 229-258]. Here are just a few of the many examples that could be cited:
- "The validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences is in no way affected by the factual evidence." [Gergen1988, pg. 258; Sokal2008, pg. 230].
- "The natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge." [Collins1981; Sokal2008, pg. 230].
- "Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome -- Nature -- to explain how and why a controversy has been settled." [Latour1987, pg. 99; Sokal2008, pg. 230].
- "For the relativist [such as ourselves] there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such." [Barnes1981, pg. 27; Sokal2008, pg. 230].
- "Science legitimates itself by linking its discoveries with power, a connection which determines (not merely influences) what counts as reliable knowledge." [Aronowitz1988, pg. 204; Sokal2008, pg. 230].
In a sad and curious turn of events, these postmodern science writers, by attempting to undermine scientists' claim to objective truth, have unwittingly provided arguments and talking points for the creationism, intelligent design and climate change denial movements of the socio-political right [Otto2016a; Otto2016b].
In a recently published interview of Kuhn by Scientific American writer John Horgan, Kuhn was deeply upset that he has become a patron saint to would-be scientific revolutionaries: "I get a lot of letters saying, 'I've just read your book, and it's transformed my life. I'm trying to start a revolution. Please help me,' and accompanied by a book-length manuscript." Kuhn emphasized that in spite of the iconoclastic way his writings have been interpreted, he remained "pro-science," noting that science has produced "the greatest and most original bursts of creativity" of any human enterprise [Horgan2012].
Examples of scientific progress
While philosophers and postmodern writers may debate whether science fundamentally progresses, what are the facts? Even after properly acknowledging the tentative, falsifiable nature of science as taught by writers such as Popper and Kuhn, it is clear that modern science has produced a sizable body of broad-reaching theoretical structures that describe the universe and life on Earth ever more accurately with each passing year. Keep in mind that each year over two million new peer-reviewed scientific research papers are published worldwide [Ware2012]. It is easy to be indifferent and dismissive to this progress, but consider for a moment a few of the remarkable developments of the past 120 years:
- Relativity. In 1905, Albert Einstein published what is now known as the special theory of relativity, which extended the classical Newtonian physics to the realms of very fast moving objects and systems. Then in 1917, his general theory of relativity extended to accelerating systems, and in the process explained gravity and a host of other phenomena in a very mathematically elegant framework. Relativity has now passed a full century of the most exacting tests, including, as a single example, periodic changes in frequency of binary stars (which agree with theory to astonishing precision). In the process, relativity has pushed aside several other competing theories [General2019; Leach2018]. Today's GPS technology crucially relies on both Einstein's general relativity and special relativity, and if either of these theories were in error to any significant degree, the entire GPS system and applications that rely on it would quickly fail [Global2019].
- Quantum physics. Another 1905 paper by Einstein proposed that light shine in discrete packets, now called "quanta," rather in continuous beams. Subsequently physicists such figures as Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger developed what is now known as quantum physics, which governs phenomena at the submicroscopic realm. Quantum physics has also passed a full century of the most exacting tests imaginable, from confirmations of the perplexing predicted behavior of electrons traveling through slits to numerous measurements of fundamental chemical and nuclear properties. As a single example, the numerical value of the magnetic dipole moment of the electron (in certain units), calculated from the theory on one hand, and from the best experimental measurements on the other, are [Sokal1998, pg. 57]:
Theoretical: 1.001159652201 (plus or minus 30 in the last two digits).
Experimental: 1.001159652188 (plus or minus 4 in the last two digits).
Is this agreement, to within one part in 70 billion, just a coincidence? Quantum physics is the basis for chemistry, semiconductor technology and materials science, and thus has far-reaching and absolutely indispensable applications in today's world. It is not an exaggeration to say that quantum physics underlies virtually every electronic circuit, device and system in use today, and they would quickly fail if the theory were significantly in error.
- Standard model. In the 1970s, quantum electrodynamics (QED) was extended to what is now known as quantum chromodynamics (QCD), and, together with relativity, constitute what is known as the "standard model" of modern physics. Perhaps the most dramatic confirmation of the standard model was the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson [Overbye2012a]. In the past 30 years other attempts have been made to extend the frontiers of physics, including supersymmetry and string theory, but so far the standard model continues to reign supreme, even though researchers recognize that ultimately either relativity or quantum physics or both must give way to a more fundamental theory.
- Structure of DNA. Surely the discovery of the structure and function of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson (with assistance from several others, notably Rosalind Franklin) must rank as one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century, and arguably the single most significant discovery in molecular biology of all time. As the two researchers modestly observed at the conclusion of their original paper, "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." [Watson1953; Pray2008]. The full impact of this discovery in medicine and biology is only now being realized, with the advent of inexpensive full-genome sequencing and gene editing (see below).
- Accelerating universe. Astronomers and physicists were startled when in 1998, two different observational teams found that the expansion of the universe, long assumed to be gradually slowing due to gravitation, was actually accelerating [Wilford1998]. This finding has enormous impact on cosmological models of the universe, and has caused considerable consternation in the field, yet latest studies continue to confirm this finding [Susskind2005, pg. 22, 80-82, 154; Amit2017].
- Extrasolar planets. Following some initial discoveries by astronomers in the 1990s, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars, in a development that has significant implications for the existence of life outside the Earth. As a single example of these discoveries, in 2017 astronomers found seven roughly Earth-size planets orbiting a star named Trappist-1, about 40 light-years away. At least one or two of these planets appear to have a temperature regime that would support life, although it is still much too soon to say whether or not any life actually exists there [Chang2017].
- Gravitational wave astronomy. In 2016, a team of researchers operating the new Long Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO) system announced that they had detected a brief chirp, the "sound" in the fabric of the universe of two black holes colliding, as predicted by Einstein's general relativity. This discovery heralds the start of a new era of astronomy, one where optical and radio telescopes are combined with gravitational wave detections to explore the universe [Overbye2016].
Of course, this is just the briefest summary of highlights. For every item listed above, 1000 very significant other items could have been included. Scientific progress is very real.
Examples of technological progress
Similarly, it is very easy to take for granted our current technology, which is merely the endpoint of a tidal wave of scientific and technological advances in our modern era. But consider just for a moment what has been accomplished:
- Medical technology. Eyeglasses, from their widespread adoption in the 19th century, have restored clear vision to billions of otherwise blind or nearly blind persons. A recent analysis listed eyeglasses as the fifth most significant invention of all time, one that has "dramatically raised the collective human IQ" [Fallows2013]. Yet vision is just one detail in a huge body of medical technology, mostly developed in the 20th and 21st century, including: (a) vaccination and antibiotics, which have saved billions of persons from otherwise debilitating and deadly disease; (b) x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging; (c) surgical procedures; (c) effective painkillers and pharmaceuticals; and (d) dental procedures that have saved the teeth of billions of persons worldwide. As a result of this technology, worldwide life expectancy has soared from 29 in 1880 to 71 today [Pinker2018, Chap. 5]. The most recent item here is the miraculously rapid development of effective Covid-19 vaccines in 2021-2022, a development that has saved many millions of lives worldwide [Kolata2022].
- Transportation. Today's worldwide rail network, which serves a large fraction of humanity, has grown from a few miles in England, Europe and the U.S. in 1830 to millions of miles today. Even more amazing is the growth, beginning in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in highways and automobiles, with over one billion vehicles in use today [Motor2019]. Additionally, a whopping 3.5 billion airplane trips are taken each year, and although 80% of the world's population has never flown, each year 100 million fly for the first time [Gurdus2017]. More remarkably, very likely within 25 years or so, human passengers (not just a handful of astronauts) will travel to the Moon and Mars, an achievement that only a few years ago was the realm of fantasy [Drake2017].
- Moore's Law and computer technology. No other single statistic is as compelling a demonstration of technological progress as Moore's Law, namely the observation that beginning in 1965, when Intel pioneer Gordon Moore first noted it [Moore1965], the number of transistors that can be crammed onto a single integrated circuit roughly doubles every 24 months. Moore's Law has now continued unabated for over 50 years, and the end is not yet in sight. As of 2022, state-of-the-art devices (e.g., flash memory chips) have more than one trillion transistors, an increase by more than a factor of 400 million over the best 1970-era devices [Transistor2022]. This staggering number of on-chip transistors translates directly into memory capacity and processing speed, endowing a broad range of high-tech devices with capabilities unthinkable even a few years ago. For example, 2022-era supercomputers compute over one million times faster (1018 flop/sec), and include more than one million times as much memory (1016 bytes), compared to supercomputers just 25 years ago [Top500]. With technologies such as nanotechnology and quantum computing in development, even more futuristic applications are in the works.
- Communication. Human society leaped forward in the 15th century with the printing press, which directly contributed to the birth of modern science, literature, music, art and government. Similarly, the development of the telegraph and telephone facilitated the huge technological boom of the 19th and 20th century. Now we are seeing the effects of an even more far-reaching communication revolution, namely the Internet, which quite literally brings the entire world's cumulative knowledge to one's computer or smartphone. Some of the older generation may recall when telephone service was first provided to individual homes, via "party lines," back in the 1940s and 1950s. Long-distance calls were possible, but only at very high rates -- typically around $1.00 per minute within first-world countries, and $3.00 to $5.00 per minute to other countries. Nowadays, via the Internet and services such as Zoom, Apple's FaceTime and Microsoft's Skype, one can communicate by high-resolution color video, for free, to virtually anywhere worldwide.
- Smartphones. No teenager needs to be lectured about the miracle of a smartphone, which quite literally connects nearly the entire world's population in a communications network, provides full access to Internet resources and includes a GPS mapping facility that by itself would astound anyone of an earlier era. As of 2022, over 6.6 billion persons, or roughly 83% of the entire world population, own a smartphone [Smartphone2022]. 2022-era smartphones typically include at least two high-resolution cameras, 256 GByte or more storage, and can perform more than one trillion operations per second, a speed faster than that of the most powerful supercomputers 25 years earlier. Now many of these smartphone capabilities are being delivered in smartwatches, which, for instance, can monitor health and fitness (e.g., with electrocardiograms) and can automatically call emergency services, with the GPS location, if it detects that the wearer has fallen and was not able to rise.
- Genome sequencing. The first complete human genome sequence was completed in 2000, after a ten-year effort that cost approximately $2.7 billion [Genome2010]. But in the wake of several waves of new technology since then, this cost has dropped to less than $1,000, and by December 2022 will drop to only $100 [Coldewey2022]. This $100 price represents a drop by a stunning factor of 27 million in only 22 years, even faster than Moore's Law. Partial genome sequencing is already being used to identify the national origin of one's ancestors and to identify possible genetic defects. What's more, this same sequencing technology has enabled biologists to study the genomes of many thousands of biological species, producing, for instance, indisputable evidence of common ancestry between species. In a closely related development, researchers have discovered a technique for gene editing ("CRISPR"), a development that is certain to have far-reaching applications in medicine and almost certainly will merit a Nobel Prize [Zimmer2015c].
- Artificial intelligence. Although the notion of artificial intelligence (AI) was first articulated by 1950, early optimism soon faded as researchers realized that AI was very much more difficult than first envisioned. In 1997, in a seminal event for the field, an IBM computer system defeated the world's champion chess player. In 2011, in a much more impressive AI achievement, an IBM computer named "Watson" defeated two champion contestants on the American quiz game Jeopardy. In 2017, a computer program developed by Google's DeepMind defeated the world champion Go champion, an achievement that many had thought would not come for decades, if ever. One of the most significant recent achievements is the "AlphaFold" tool, developed by DeepMind, which uses an AI-machine learning approach to predict the three-dimensional shape of proteins. It is so much more successful than previous protein-folding programs that it has been called a "revolution" for the biomedical field [Callaway2022]. This same AI-machine learning approach is now being applied in numerous commercial developments, ranging from self-driving cars and trucks to software programs that automatically detect scientific laws in raw data [Bailey2018; AIModels2022; Stock2022].
It is a sad commentary on our current society that so many are so absorbed by day-to-day bad news that they do not recognize unmistakable evidence of longer-term progress, across a broad range of scientific, social, health and economic measures. Crime is down significantly from earlier decades (even given the uptick in 2021-2022); life expectancy is up worldwide; numerous diseases have been conquered; hundreds of millions fewer worldwide live in extreme poverty; many fewer are dying in military conflicts or in accidents; many more worldwide live in democratic societies where basic human rights are defended; and literacy is on the rise in every nation for which reliable data are available [Pinker2011b; Pinker2018].
At the same time, and in spite of continuing naysaying from both the socio-political right wing (the creationism, intelligent design and climate change denial movements) and the left wing (the postmodern science studies movement), the engine of scientific and technological progress charges on unabated. Just in the past 25 years, scientists have discovered that the universe's expansion is accelerating, have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars, and have catalogued the entire human genome. The latter task cost roughly $2.7 billion when it was completed in 2000, yet dramatic improvements since then have reduced the cost to just $100. Computer and information technologies continue their relentless advance with Moore's Law. More than 6.6 billion, or roughly 83% of the entire world human population, now own smartphones. And technologies such as genome sequencing, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and commercial space travel are just starting.
There is no sign that this torrid rate of progress is slowing down -- in 20 years hence we will look back to our own time with just as much disdain as we do today when we recall the world of 20 years ago. So we have much to look forward to. The future is destined to be as exciting as any time in the past. It truly is a great time to be alive.