DOES SCIENCE PROGRESS?
In response to my first Scientific American column.

From Why People Believe Weird Things, (Chapter 2)
by Michael Shermer

SCIENCE AND PROGRESS

I believe that science and scientific paradigms are not only different from all other non-scientific paradigms, but contain certain features that make them progressive. Progress, taken in a value-neutral sense, means the cumulative growth of knowledge over time. Let us examine first what a paradigm is, and then, what constitutes progress.

The Kuhnian usage of paradigm is generally adopted here, where a paradigm defines the "normal science" of an age, founded on "past scientific achievements--that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice." Today, textbooks are the primary proselytizers and protectors of the paradigm, presenting to the next generation the past generations' knowledge and theories. Before textbooks, Kuhn notes that the classics served in this capacity. They did so in two ways that form the basis for Kuhn's definition of paradigm:

Their achievement was sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity. Simultaneously, it was sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practioners to resolve. Achievements that share these two characteristics I shall henceforth refer to as 'paradigms,' a term that relates closely to 'normal science'."

Kuhn was challenged by Margaret Masterman for not defining paradigm clearly. His 1977 expanded definition of "all shared group commitments, all components of what I now wish to call the disciplinary matrix," without extensive examples and discussion, still fails to give the reader a sense of just what Kuhn means by paradigm. Because of this lack of clarity, the following definition will be used, based on that given for science:

A scientific paradigm is a mental model shared by most but not all members of a scientific community, designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.

A paradigm is usually shared by most but not all because most of the time competing paradigms coexist--a necessity for new paradigms to displace old ones. But paradigms are not equal. For some, tea-leaf reading and economic forecasting, sheep's livers and meteorological maps, astrology and astronomy, all equally determine what is reality, in an ontological sense. Obviously I do not accept this, which is why I added the modifier "scientific" to my definition. As difficult as it is for economists and meteorologists to predict the future, they are still better at it than tea-leaf readers and sheep's liver divin ers. Astrologers cannot explain the interior workings of a star, predict the outcome of colliding galaxies, or chart the course of a spacecraft to Jupiter. Astronomers can for the simple reason that they operate in a scientific paradigm that is constantly refined against the harsh judge of nature herself.

I also assume that science is progressive because science has certain built-in self-correcting features: experimentation, corroboration, and falsification. These characteristics make scientific paradigms different from all other paradigms, which include pseudoscience, non-science, superstition, myth, religion, and art. The reason that pseudoscience, non-science, superstition, myths, religion, and art are not progressive is that they do not have the goal or the mechanism to allow the accumulation of knowledge that builds on the past. Progress, in this cumulative sense, is not their purpose. This is an observation, not a criticism. Individuals in these paradigms do not stand on the shoulders of giants in the same manner as scientists. While there is change in myths, religions, and art styles, it is not progressive change. Artists do not improve upon the styles of their predecessors, they change them. (Materials and techniques may improve, but these changes are incorporated to enhance the skill of the artist, not to help the style of art progress.)

Priests, rabbis, and ministers do not attempt to improve upon the sayings of their masters; they parrot, interpret, and teach them. Pseudoscientists do not correct the errors of their predecessors, they perpetuate them. Science has a self-correcting feature that operates like natural selection in nature. Science, like nature, preserves the gains and eradicates the mistakes. When paradigms shift (for example, during scientific revolutions) scientists do not abandon the entire science; just as a new species is not begun from scratch. Rather, what remains useful in the paradigm is retained, as new features are added and new interpretations given. Einstein emphasized this point in reflecting upon his own contributions to physics and cosmology:

"Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting point and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up."

The shift from one scientific paradigm to another may be a mark of improvement in the understanding of causality, the prediction of future events, or the alteration of the environment. There can be cumulative growth and paradigmatic change. This is scientific progress, which in the context of this analysis may be defined as follows:

Scientific progress is the cumulative growth of a system of knowledge over time, in which useful features are retained and non-useful features are abandoned, based on the rejection or confirmation of testable knowledge.

Though I have defined science as progressive, I admit it is not possible to know if the knowledge uncovered by the scientific method is positive ("certain"), or not, because we have no outside source--no Archimedean point--from which to view Reality. There is no question that science is heavily influenced by the culture in which it is embedded, and that scientists may all share a common bias that leads them to think a certain way about nature. But this does not take anything away from the progressive nature of science. Progress in this sense is meant as a value-neutral description. Progress is neither good nor bad; it simply is. Many think progress is good, but there are plenty who think progress is destructive, and they, in turn, generally dislike science and technology--at least they are consistent.

It must be noted as well that those who do not embrace science and technology may be just as happy as those who do, maybe even more so. But this is an a-scientific statement because happiness is a subjective, nonquantifiable emotion. We cannot judge or define progress based on happiness. We cannot, in any absolute sense, equate happiness with progress, or progress with happiness. But if an individual finds happiness in the progress produced by science and technology, there is a rational way to quantify and define how this progress can be accomplished. As scientific progress was defined above, the definition for technological systems can similarly be made:

Technological progress is the cumulative growth of a system of knowledge and artifacts over time, where useful features are retained and non-useful features are abandoned, based on the rejection or acceptance of the technologies in the market.

Therefore it becomes possible to make a rational distinction between progressive and non-progressive cultures (that makes no judgments on whether these differences are good or bad, moral or immoral):

Progressive cultures have as a primary goal the cumulative growth of a system of knowledge and artifacts over time, where useful features are retained and non-useful features are abandoned, based on the rejection or confirmation of testable knowledge, and the rejection or acceptance of artifacts.

Cultural progress is inextricably linked with both scientific progress and technological progress. Culture, of course, involves much more than science and technology, but for a cultural tradition to be progressive, it must meet the above definition of cumulative growth through an indebtedness to the past. In science, useful features are retained and non-useful features are abandoned through the confirmation or rejection of testable knowledge. The scientific method, in this way, is constructed to be progressive. In technology, useful features are retained and non-useful features are abandoned based on the rejection or acceptance of the technologies in the market. For science, the market is primarily the community of scientists. For technology, the market is primarily the consuming public. Other cultural traditions (art, myths, religion) may retain some of the features found in science and technology, such as being accepted or rejected within their own community or by the public, but none have as their primary goal cumulative growth through an indebtedness to the past. Thus, only science and technology are truly progressive.

Cultures that encourage the development of science and technology will be progressive. Cultures that inhibit the development of science and technology will be nonprogressive. This does not make one culture better than another culture, or one way of life more moral than another way of life, or one people happier than another people. But if an individual or group desires a lifestyle that includes the vast diversity of knowledge and artifacts, cherishes novelty and change, seeks an ever-growing standard of living as defined in the Industrial West, then a progressive system based on science and technology will produce that culture.

No doubt this is not a popular position. Among academics as well, the word "progress" has taken on a pejorative meaning, implying superiority over those who have not progressed as far. In my oral doctoral defense I was firmly advised by my committee to replace the modifier "progress" with "change when referring to science. My response to those who challenge the validity of science and the scientific method as a means of understanding causality in the world, is to quote one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, if not the millennium, Albert Einstein:

"One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike--and yet it is the most precious thing we have."