Science, and how it works
NON- FICTION The Secret Life of Science: How It Really Works and Why It Matters by JEREMY J. BAUMBERG
Princeton University Press (2018) RRP $59.95
AS PERHAPS THE greatest force for change over the past century, science is increasingly taking centre stage in the global cultural consciousness. In his new book, Jeremy J. Baumberg, professor of nanotechnology and photonics in the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, UK, seeks to expose the inner workings of the powerhouse that is science. Insight into this global engine of transformation is timely – now more than ever, we need to understand how science works.
At the centre of The Secret Life of Science is a driving metaphor: ecology. Baumberg focuses on the idea that the wider system of science is like an ecosystem, full of tensions, pressures and feedback loops that settle the enterprise into an uneasy equilibrium. This balance is not always beneficial.
Another central feature is either a coy or unwitting silence on the topic of epistemology. The Australian philosopher Alan Chalmers begins his classic textbook What is This Thing Called Science? with the standard view of the subject: it is proven knowledge, rigorously derived from experiment and observation, and prejudice and preference play no part in an objective, reliable science. Chalmers then explores all the reasons that we might doubt such common-sense axioms. Baumberg, on the other hand, never moves past these assumptions. Those seeking a critical evaluation of knowledge produced by the scientific enterprise had best look elsewhere.
Nonetheless, the author provides a comprehensive view of the mechanics of science, beginning with an account of what it is. He invokes a bluntly unphilosophical definition used by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: “creative work undertaken on a systematic basis to increase the stock of knowledge, and its use to devise new applications.”
In one of the book’s more fascinating insights, Baumberg does away with the familiar ideas of ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science and scientists. Instead, he suggests a more useful grouping into ‘simplifiers’ and ‘constructors’. Simplifiers try to explore and explain the natural world. They reduce the universe to its simplest components and discover their lawlike behaviour, thereby explaining and predicting nature’s complexity.
Using this knowledge, constructors contort the natural world into new configurations. They ask how nature might work differently and strive to make it so. Constructors can work toward application, but just as often they work for theoretical comprehension or experimental curiosity. Baumberg argues that these two modes of science intermingle: most scientists are both simplifiers and constructors.
From here he maps the science ecosystem, traversing the Nobels and the quest for esteem, and the complicated world of scientific publishing with its highimpact journals, h-factors and the neverending drive for citations. Then there’s the ever-expanding demand that scientists attend conference after conference, each competing for attendees, there to network and self-promote at the expense of time spent doing actual science. The role of science journalism and media is discussed and the machinations of the process of scientific funding are uncovered. Baumberg also reveals the pressures and madness of scientific training and careers.
Above all, we see a picture of an increasingly global scientific ecosystem that is becoming dominated by a capitalist market-driven model promoting competition at the expense of the diversity and health of science itself.
In a tenuous addendum, the last chapter offers some alternatives. Baumberg floats possible schemes to refocus competition to produce better outcomes for the health of the science ecosystem. He envisions different ways for scientists to connect. Among these, he suggests putting caps on conference attendance and developing artificial intelligence systems to help scientists navigate the abundance of scientific knowledge that props up the starkly hierarchical publishing industry. Finally, he proposes ideas to reform funding, training and career structures to promote healthier and happier scientists. Baumberg has provided an insider’s view of how
science works. This is both a benefit and a burden. Insiders have valuable insight but are often too enmeshed, too immersed in the disciplinary culture, to have the analytic distance to see their endeavour for what it really is. For example, while it is expected that historians of medicine are trained physicians, those that become great in the field do so largely in spite of their training, not because of it. Nonetheless, Baumberg delivers an intimate account that will please some, if not all.
There is a long tradition of academic disciplines investigating the natural sciences: studies in the history and philosophy of science, science and technology, and the sociology of scientific knowledge among them. Baumberg’s book will do little to please readers familiar with such thinking. There are more searching and profound inquiries in the works of Kuhn, Feyerabend, or Latour.
Professional scientists, insiders themselves, will find much of the book all-too-familiar. Despite this, there are certainly insights in the work that will surprise: a new interpretation, a grim inference, a possible way forward.
The readers that will, I suspect, get the most from this book are non-scientists. For such readers the brutally competitive social and economic workings of science may well come as a shock, a surprising counterpoint to its calm veneer.
And this is how we should see the book – as an insight into the promise and pitfalls of the global behemoth of science, and as a window into how science sees itself. It is a valuable addition to the project of trying to build a scientifically literate public and a glimpse of a rare moment of scientific self-reflection. As such, it can do little but contribute to a better understanding of how science works and why it matters.