the progress of science

My colleagues and I in Tisch College’s small but mighty Civic Science program recently read and discussed these three works together:

  • Arendt, Hannah. “Man’s Conquest of Space.” The American Scholar (1963): 527-540.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
  • Polanyi, Michael. 1962. “The Republic of Science.” Minerva 1 (1): 54-73.

Polanyi is interested in how scientists coordinate. A “multitude of scientists, each of whom is competent to assess only a tiny fragment of current scientific work,” must collectively decide what to study next, which methods to use, what findings to publish and cite, and what the results mean. You become a scientist by joining a “network of mutual appreciation extending far beyond [your] own horizon.” This network is governed by the community of science through such means as blind peer-review and citation. These tools play the same role as prices in a market: they communicate information about what is valued without resort to a central authority, which would lack sufficient knowledge and would be untrustworthy.

Science is “an association of independent initiatives, combined towards an indeterminate achievement. It is disciplined and motivated by serving a traditional authority, but this authority is dynamic: its continued existence depends on its constant self-renewal through the originality of its followers.” Science is not exactly goal-directed, because no one knows what it will discover. But it is value-driven, because the “explorers strive toward a hidden reality, for the sake of intellectual satisfaction.”

Polanyi developed the idea of “spontaneous order,” which Hayek used to advocate for minimally regulated markets. But Polanyi distinguished himself from classical liberalism. “It appears, at first sight, that I have assimilated the pursuit of science to the market. But the emphasis should be in the opposite direction. The self-coordination of independent scientists embodies principle which is reduced to the mechanism of the market when applied to the production and distribution of material goods.” In other words, science is better than a market because the motives of all the independent but coordinated decision makers are superior to those of buyers and sellers.

Polanyi paints a comfortable picture of constant progress–the steady accumulation of knowledge. In contrast, Kuhn focuses on scientific “revolutions.” He observes that all the scientists working at a given time tend to share one overall “paradigm,” composed not only of foundational beliefs but also of methods and instruments. These paradigms “shift” occasionally when the current one ceases to explain the data. Kuhn introduces a modest kind of relativism by suggesting that scientists at any given time see the world through, or with, a paradigm that will later become obsolete. Yet nature or reality plays a substantial role in changing our paradigms. It is because the earth really moves around the sun that the Ptolemaic system falls to the Copernican system once scientists have obtained enough data to shake the former view.

Both of these theories are progressive and take an essentially benign view of science. They seek to explain the apparent fact that science is successful. Arendt’s stance is very different. She notes that “physicists split the atom without any hesitations the very moment they knew how to do it, although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities of their operation.” This is an example of the fundamental amorality of science. “The scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matter, about the survival of the planet itself.”

Not only does science yield catastrophic practical results–including the possible extinction of the human race–but it also alienates us from nature and ourselves. As scientists discover aspects of reality that are deeply counter-intuitive (for instance, invisible living organisms in our noses; distant ancestors that were apes and even bacteria; light as both wave and a particle), knowledge becomes unmoored from experience. Science culminates with the figure of “the astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridden capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death.”

For Arendt, the problem is built into the logic of science and the mentality and motivation of scientists. (It is not nature’s fault that we study it as we do.) Polanyi admires scientists’ motives and defends their refusal to look at ultimate consequences. Results should be “emergent” rather than planned. The contrast between these two authors raises interesting questions about the motivations and underlying commitments of actual scientists.

But the governance of science is a different issue from the mentality of scientists. I think Polanyi errs in assuming a well-functioning system. What about bias, status hierarchies within labs, replication crises, selling out to industry? Kuhn might offer some insights about why revolutions are sometimes necessary. Meanwhile, Arendt misses the problem of collective action. An individual physicist could opt not to study atoms ca. 1935 because that research might lead to atom bombs. But this physicist would reasonably believe that other scientists–possibly Nazi scientists–would go ahead with the research anyway. To stop scientific investigation of a particular topic is a problem of governance.

Polanyi is too cheerful about the actual governance of what he calls the “republic of science,” but Arendt (despite being a great republican political theorist) strangely neglects it. I suspect this is because she views republics as autonomous political entities that have plenipotentiary power within their geographical borders. She would subsume scientists to their respective republican states. She misses the possibility that science is a republic of its own, overlapping political borders. But then the question is how that republic should be governed.

See also: science, UFOs, and the diminishment of humankind; The truth in Hayek; adding democracy to Robert Merton’s CUDOS norms for science; vaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; mixed thoughts about the status of science.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.