Losing the appearances

Some science writer on ye Internet performed, yesterday, the dirty trick of pulling out an old Scientific American (here). It was from 2005, and featured fifty technological “breakthroughs,” organized into seventeen “trends,” which the editors imagined to be harbingers of the future in which we now sit, a decade later. She was curious to know how these predictions had “panned out.” I’ve given the link, so gentle reader may see for himself just how badly the magazine batted: in baseball terms, pretty close to seventeen consecutive strike-outs.

In defence of Scientific American, let me say it has not always been a tranch of worthless, unreliable, often mendacious pulp. When young I subscribed to it, and old copies from the ’sixties and ’seventies were still available to me through the parental attic, until a few years ago. It did not then indulge in this sort of eye-popper journalism, as I know from having returned to its pages several times. Articles from half a century ago, written usually by genuine experts working in each field (and not by “popular science writers”), from their direct experience, do not seem so pathetically “dated” — so cravenly reflective of passing fads — as those you will find in any current number.

An important exception should be noted. The front article — in the position where a short story or other fictional item would be placed in the traditional magazine format — was even then, almost invariably, a spray of liberal-sociological hogwash. But after passing over that, one would generally find, decades later, two or three articles of enduring interest, routinely presenting historical background that does not date. In the 1980s, the publishers realized that there was no longer an intelligent general audience for science, and that the editorial focus would have to be redirected to caressing half-educated, smartass twits. That is now a highly competitive market.

Yet the real issue goes much deeper, and back much farther in time. Pierre Duhem, the French physicist, major contributor to thermodynamics and physical chemistry, historian of science, and inquirer into scientific methods (1861–1916), expounded it in his attacks on the Cartesian method, exemplified in the works of the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell.

In Duhem’s critique, Maxwell’s approach to science was recklessly bold and unsystematic. He depended almost entirely on mathematical “models,” entirely abstracted from the phenomena he described. Worst, he made no effort to connect his observations and discoveries to the received body of knowledge inherited from the past. In a word, he was “post-modern.”

What we see today, in for instance the garbage science of “climate change,” and in the sort of techie futurism that pop science supplies, is the effect of more than a century of impacting what we might call “Maxwell’s silver hammer” on everything empirical science encounters. And as Duhem shows, it is older still, for it goes back to Descartes’ dramatic breach with the organic continuities. (A large part of Duhem’s life work, actively suppressed by the French academy of his day, and still characteristically neglected, consisted in demonstrating that the origins of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution lay overlooked, well back in the Middle Ages.)

Science today claims to know things it does not and cannot know; claims not to know things it does most certainly know; and there is no health in it. It lives in a future that does not now and will never exist: a “postulated future.” It depends upon levels of gullibility only possible to maintain through over-specialization and half-education. And because of this, it has become dangerous, even demonic. (One of my correspondents calls this “the age of deferred consequences.”)

Yet the growth of classical science remains not only possible, but actual in the background. This is because the more accomplished scientists, regardless of what they think of themselves, are in fact closet Aristotelians. That is to say, they adhere to a body of knowledge that is founded on broad but careful observation, kept constantly in a self-consistent, holistic view. They are building an edifice which is not detached from the larger considerations; which is not mindlessly free of context. For there is a continuum through physics and metaphysics that fully deserves the title of “natural philosophy.” Man is capable of it, and should not reduce himself to an impulsive child, playing whimsically with lethal toys.