The Growth of Science


We often think that science grows by progressing slowly but steadily along some kind of path towards the final ‘Truth’. However, the growth of science is not really like this clear-cut, straightforward progression at all. There are a number of different factors that affect the way and the direction in which our scientific knowledge develops, some of these are:


First, the choice of problems on which the scientist decides to work depends on such considerations as political and social pressures (e.g. for pollution control and population control, and against investigating genetic factors in intelligence); financial rewards (e.g. what the government will subsidize or industry support); ethical incentives (e.g. “it is better to do biology than physics”); expediency or the state of the discipline (e.g. the availability of computers and other equipment); the urgency of the problem compared with its difficulty (biologists, for example, are now facing the decision as to whether it is worthwhile to complete the taxonomy  of living creatures)


Second, there are fortuitous, or chance, elements in scientific progress; some famous discoveries have been accidental (Fleming and penicillin, Büchner and enzymes, Becquerel and the radioactive emission from uranium). There are fashions in ideas; ecology is now “in”; Mendel’s paper was ignored for decades. There are, moreover, accidents of personality (in scientific ability, in who makes up the scientific establishment).


Third, how the scientist hits on a new hypothesis is a mystery (“like a flash … an act of insight”—Peirce; “by intuition, based upon Einfühlung”—Einstein). What has been called the logic of discovery is obscure, perhaps below the level of conscious awareness, perhaps similar to the creativity of the artist. Even the designing of an experiment “becomes an art” (Kelvin). The scientist is not ipso facto the best judge of his own mental processes, any more than anyone else is.

Fourth, there are extrascientific influences, not merely on the choice of problems by the scientist, but on the conclusions at which he arrives: religion (against Darwinian evolution) ; politics (for Lysenko and the transmission of acquired characteristics, in the Soviet Union); philosophy (toward deterministic or indeterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics) ; social policy (the French Academy denied for a long time that there were any such things as meteorites, because they feared that an ignorant peasantry might consider them to be supernatural).


Adapted from Reuben Abel’s ‘Man is the Measure’ (Chapter 10)