Addendum on Reticulate Science

The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge

In Reticulate Science I argued that the large scale structure of science in historical time is likely to be a simultaneous progression of division into narrower specializations and a synthesis into greater wholes that seek to provide a big picture understanding of the world that is not to be found in the more precise and compartmentalized knowledge derived from specialization. These dual epistemic processes are played out at the same time, synchronically, though one tendency or the other may dominate a given epoch of human thought, so that history gives the diachronic appearance of divergence followed by convergence, followed by further divergence, and so on, world without end.

This is as much as to say that the history of science is dialectical. Since the history of science is itself a specialization within an ideal history of all human activity, we should expect that, if human history exhibits a dialectical structure, then the history of science, which supervenes upon human history, will also exhibit a dialectical structure. Analysis and synthesis, departure and return, expansion and contraction, divergence and convergence, inwardness and outwardness, are all manifested in the human, all-too-human history of science.

The reticulate structure of science also plays a role in the sociology of knowledge that allows science to continue to renew itself despite the historical forces that usually lead to stagnation and eventual decline and decay. Science, unlike traditional institutions of human society, cannot allow itself to stagnate without losing what uniquely characterizes science. A traditional institution, once conceived and implemented, can remain in its traditional form and still serve its function. Science, by contrast, must allow for the ongoing growth of scientific knowledge; if science converges on some final totality of knowledge, it ceases to be science and would become a kind of exhaustive epistemic catalogue.

Carroll Quigley identified what he called the “institutionalization of the instrument,” which is when an instrument by which a society seeks to achieve some definite end is transformed into an institution that comes to understand itself as an end in itself. When an activity conceived as an instrument is transformed into an institution, it becomes a less efficient instrument, and this becomes a drag on a society that requires the original instrument to attain its desired social ends. And certainly when science is institutionalized it can be compromised by its institutional commitments. However, science has always had a difficult and troubled relationship with being a social instrument, and in the present light we can see how and why this has been to the advantage of science.

Many if not most scientists see knowledge as a good and an end in itself, though when a society funds scientific research it does so in the hope that funding science will have beneficial consequences for that society. The social whole may view science instrumentally, but the actual persons engaged in scientific research usually do not view science as a pragmatic instrument, and this is a source of fruitful tension: scientists seek resources for basic research, but are forced to justify their desire to do basic research by making the case for the social benefit of their scientific work. (In a properly scientific civilization, that is to say, in a civilization that takes science as its central project, this would not be the case, and the reverse would be true: social initiatives would have to prove their scientific benefit.)

It is to be expected and acknowledged that in the sciences, as in any human endeavor, there are careerists who are interested not in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but for the sake of social advancement and recognition. Probably the individuals who have advanced the farthest in scientific institutions (which, in contemporary western civilization, means research universities) are careerists of this kind, but rank-and-file scientists will generally put scientific knowledge before career, and often also before family, finances, and personal well being. The pursuit of scientific knowledge is often a passion — the passion for truth — that turns aside other demands as being beneath its dignity.

Science would become moribund if it were not continually renewed from within, by the intrinsic desire for knowledge by those entering into scientific institutions, and this continues to be the case because young scientists have this passion for truth that overcomes what might delicately be called one’s “better judgment” to pursue a more remunerative calling. Science would also become moribund if these young scientists were not able to enter into fields, making contributions and being recognized for these contributions. This is where the significance of reticulate science comes in: with the continual formulation of specialized subdisciplines and novel interdisciplinary studies, fields of research come into being de novo, meaning new positions, new journals, new appointments, and perhaps eventually new departments, new department heads, and new chairs, all of which are within the reach of new researchers, whereas these positions would be completely out of reach for newcomers to established disciplines.

It has been said that science advances one funeral at a time, as eminent scientists pass away and thus by default allow for new voices to be heard in the wake of their passing. This has become a familiar theme of Kuhnian philosophy of science, which holds that past paradigms of scientific knowledge only disappear when their institutional advocates die.

While this is a thesis in the philosophy of science, rather than being science in the narrow sense, scientific papers have been written about this as well, and I discussed one of these papers in a post from 2015, concerning the paper, “Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?” by Pierre Azoulay, Christian Fons-Rosen, and Joshua S. Graff Zivin (PDF). In the abstract of the paper the authors assert, “Intellectual, social, and resource barriers all impede entry, with outsiders only entering subfields that offer a less hostile landscape for the support and acceptance of ‘foreign’ ideas.” This points to the formation of subfields both more specialized and more comprehensive than established fields dominated by “superstar” researchers. In the conclusion of the paper the authors state that, “…increase in contributions by outsiders appears to tackle the mainstream questions within the field but by leveraging newer ideas that arise in other domains.” This implies the fruitfulness of interdisciplinarity when conditions are ripe for new ideas to enter into an established field. One can think of novel interdisciplinary big picture sciences as incubators that generate ideas in the diaspora that eventually make their way home, entering into the mainstream of institutional science.

Scientific advancement is more efficient if it does not have to await the death of eminent scientists, and one way in which this can be accomplished is through the intentional founding of new sciences, whether these new sciences be new specializations or new big picture disciplines. Within new specialized subdisciplines and new interdisciplinary sciences, both the growth of scientific knowledge and the establishing of careers in science is possible even when mainstream science has entered into a phase of stagnation.

Science has endured for long enough for us to have seen periods of stagnation disrupted by new ideas that eventually take a central position in mainstream science and become their own orthodoxy in turn. Classical physics was first challenged by relativity and quantum theory, which are now at the heart of mainstream physics. Biology was first challenged by evolution, which is now at the heart of mainstream biology. That which was once an individual research program of one or a few individuals has taken over the established mainstream of science, and it is by this mechanism that science can and must remain relevant, renewing itself by way of the authentic scientific spirit.

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