The Transformations of Science

Essay by Geoff Anders: “In November of 1660, at Gresham College in London, an invisible college of learned men held their first meeting after 20 years of informal collaboration. They chose their coat of arms: the royal crown’s three lions of England set against a white backdrop. Their motto: “Nullius in verba,” or “take no one’s word for it.” Three years later, they received a charter from King Charles II and became what was and remains the world’s preeminent scientific institution: the Royal Society.

Three and a half centuries later, in July of 2021, even respected publications began to grow weary of a different, now constant refrain: “Trust the science.” It was a mantra everyone was supposed to accept, repeated again and again, ad nauseum

This new motto was the latest culmination of a series of transformations science has undergone since the founding of the Royal Society, reflecting the changing nature of science on one hand, and its expanding social role on the other. 

The present world’s preeminent system of thought now takes science as a central pillar and wields its authority to great consequence. But the story of how that came to be is, as one might expect, only barely understood…

There is no essential conflict between the state’s use of the authority of science and the health of the scientific enterprise itself. It is easy to imagine a well-funded and healthy scientific enterprise whose authority is deployed appropriately for state purposes without undermining the operation of science itself.

In practice, however, there can be a tension between state aims and scientific aims, where the state wants actionable knowledge and the imprimatur of science, often far in advance of the science getting settled. This is especially likely in response to a disruptive phenomenon that is too new for the science to have settled yet—for example, a novel pathogen with unknown transmission mechanisms and health effects.

Our recent experience of the pandemic put this tension on display, with state recommendations moving against masks, and then for masks, as the state had to make tactical decisions about a novel threat with limited information. In each case, politicians sought to adorn the recommendations with the authority of settled science; an unfortunate, if understandable, choice.

This joint partnership of science and the state is relatively new. One question worth asking is whether the development was inevitable. Science had an important flaw in its epistemic foundation, dating back to Boyle and the Royal Society—its failure to determine the proper conditions and use of scientific authority. “Nullius in verba” made some sense in 1660, before much science was settled and when the enterprise was small enough that most natural philosophers could personally observe or replicate the experiments of the others. It came to make less sense as science itself succeeded, scaled up, and acquired intellectual authority. Perhaps a better answer to the question of scientific authority would have led science to take a different course.

Turning from the past to the future, we now face the worrying prospect that the union of science and the state may have weakened science itself. Some time ago, commentators raised the specter of scientific slowdown, and more recent analysis has provided further justification for these fears. Why is science slowing? To put it simply, it may be difficult to have science be both authoritative and exploratory at the same time.

When scientists are meant to be authoritative, they’re supposed to know the answer. When they’re exploring, it’s okay if they don’t. Hence, encouraging scientists to reach authoritative conclusions prematurely may undermine their ability to explore—thereby yielding scientific slowdown. Such a dynamic may be difficult to detect, since the people who are supposed to detect it might themselves be wrapped up in a premature authoritative consensus…(More)”.