Science, and how it works

NON- FIC­TION The Se­cret Life of Science: How It Re­ally Works and Why It Mat­ters by JEREMY J. BAUMBERG

Cosmos - - Spectrum - — STEPHEN FLEISCHFRESSER STEPHEN FLEISCHFRESSER is a lec­turer at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne’s Trin­ity Col­lege and holds a PHD in the his­tory and phi­los­o­phy of science.

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.