Is science dying?


In 1996, science writer John Horgan wrote a book called The End of Science, in which he put forth the idea that there were no big discoveries left for science to make. If true, then all that was left for scientists to do was to expound upon increasingly smaller areas of focus and to perform subjective interpretations of the material gathered, a sort of literary analysis. Many in the scientific community responded in uproar, perhaps none more than theoretical physicists, who wrote off Horgan as uninformed and cynical. Since 1984 theoretical physicists had become consumed with string theory, a bizarre collection of ideas that nevertheless contained portents to offering scientists a unified theory of everything- a theory that could literally predict everything. For Horgan to claim science to be dying, physicists and other scientists thought, was both amusing and erroneous.

Of course, fifteen years later string theory has essentially failed; it makes no verifiable predictions, and two experiments that would have at least supported some iteration of the infinite iterations of the theory have gone against its favor at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. In order to work, string theory predicts an infinite number of universes other than our own, something wholly unverifiable that nevertheless has been accepted by a considerable margin of the physicist community. The acceptance of such fantastical claims is what prompted the physicist and expositor of science Richard Feynman to state that “Scientists make predictions. String theorists make excuses.” Many physicists have quietly become fed up with such pseudo-science, as they have anonymously confided with adversaries of string theory. But most of these physicists do not dare publicly oppose string theory, for this would cause them to lose favor with the leading members of their field- and in turn lose financial support. And so theoretical physics ambles on in a dangerously useless direction, one that has seemed to give up on any sort of empirical support, much less any effort to explain the mysteries of the universe. Physics has ‘given up’, as Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit calls it.

Giving up, a phrase first used by physicist David Gross to refer to those who have abandoned scientific exploration of the universe in favor of the questionable realms the current dogma takes them. Physics wasn’t alone in this curious trend. Around the turn of the millennium, biologists eagerly awaited the complete mapping of the Human Genome, in which they expected to see upwards of a hundred-thousand genes that would confirm the complexity of Homo Sapiens compared to all other living things. Instead, the Human Genome yielded somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 genes, comparable to a blade of grass. The promise that genes would yield complete understanding of life- giving us answers to everything, from how diseases form to why people behave the way they do- became increasingly unlikely to ever be met. And yet the dogmatic view that genes ought to be the central focus of biology persists to this day. Therapeutic, medical, and evolutionary ideas relying on genetics became increasingly disparate, unrelated, contradictory and often misleading, leading to a slew of overly simplistic media headlines regarding genes that were said to be related to alcoholism, homosexuality, and a myriad other traits far too complex to be reduced to one mechanism alone. Funding for biology comes almost purely for medical research, and thus these specialized categories continue to separate further and further from one another in hopes of finding the latest gene, pathway, or cure. Unlike string theory, which promised to give a theory of everything, the desire to paint a broader picture in biology is nonexistent- the only theory the field truly has is that of evolution- and so the field that was once hailed as the science of the twenty-first century enters increasingly greater states of entropy. Leaders of the field, such as Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson, have turned their efforts towards giving social commentary through biology, even while others such as the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould feared such commentaries were untenable and could lead to dangerous assumptions, as he outlined in his book The Mismeasure of Man.

The mismeasure of man, as in the use of psychometrics to judge some men- for they were always white, Nordic men- to be superior to other humans. Eugenics, the desire to weed out those people believed to possess undesirable traits in favor of preserving a higher pedigree was, in the words of Rutgers Camden psychologist William Tucker, the ‘Faustian pact’ that American psychologists in the 1920s made with the ruling class in an attempt to become a respectable science, and is the most disturbing example in psychology’s history of chasing fads in hopes of relevance. Psychology- forever perceived as a soft science in the eyes of biologists and physicists- has always sought legitimacy, leading to the American version of the field to cling to a purely experimental perspective from its inception in the 1890s onward, using the conditioning work of physiologists like Ivan Pavlov as their main source of inspiration. To this day American psychologists like to treat the mind as a black box- whatever goes on inside of it is largely irrelevant, so long as what it spits out agrees with the psychologists’ predictions- and back at the dawn of the twentieth century these experimenters largely despised Europeans who were plumbing the depths of the mind, men like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, to the point of being openly reluctant to allow them to speak at American universities and creating a misinformed disdain of the psychoanalytic school of thought that continues to this day. American psychologists have stubbornly clung onto their belief that the mind can be understood through indirect, materialist means- a notion that Jung described as noble, “if only it were possible.” For unlike the universe or our biology, the mind is something inherently abstract, and as such, cannot be studied well by experimental methods. But psychologists have remained entrenched, resulting in a wildly dispersed field with no central tenets other than the trend to follow the latest fad, whether that fad is heuristics today or eugenics yesterday.

The idea that science is over is nothing new. Physicists and biologists alike have come close to proclaiming this many times over the past century, certain that they had figured it all out, before some bizarre new idea like quantum mechanics forced them to begin anew. What is different now is that the thought of science’s end comes from a complete lull in new ideas. Scientists have hit something of a wall, and instead of boldly searching for alternative hypotheses to those that aren’t working- for the grants and publicity don’t freely allow that- they instead have entered the kind of postmodernist nonsense that Horgan envisioned.

The number of scientists researching problems so central to existence is few, and indeed, little of society is going to care or change if tomorrow the physics community officially gives up on string theory. But for those of us eager to find answers to questions like why we are here, the only hope left is that somehow, someday, there is a revolution of thought that saves science from certain nihilism.


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