Boundary Conditions on the Scientific Revolution

One of the Science of Discworld books claimed that you can’t have an individual scientist because scientists must always check each other’s work or it’s not science. This has always struck me as wrong-headed and gives too much weight to peer review and not enough to observational testing. I like this interpretation - there simply different kinds of science - much better.

So what is it that distinguishes the science of the ancient world from modern science? Modern science has developed far beyond ancient science primarily due to the organization of the scientific community which has developed institutions that facilitate the dissemination of knowledge. In antiquity, even the greatest scientists usually worked alone, or at most had a few students. The isolation of scientists meant that idea diffusion was severely limited compared to what it is today, and it also meant that ancient science never embodied what philosopher of science Imre Lakatos called a scientific research program.

While the scientific revolution was a unique historical event that had to wait for Goldilocks conditions to obtain before it could occur, science without a scientific revolution was not historically unique. Nor have scientific research programs been unique to modern civilization. It would be fair to say that there was an ancient scientific research program, and indeed also a medieval scientific research program, but it must also be said that these early research programs differed from modern research programs in important ways. And while the difference between early and modern scientific research programs may be a difference of degree rather than a difference in kind, as we know from the study of emergent complexity, sometimes more can be different.

The tightly-coupled scientific research programs of today converge on results (or even upon falsification) much more rapidly than the loosely-coupled scientific research programs of the past, which might produce an interesting result every few hundred years.

Via +Winchell Chung.

Originally shared by Nick Nielsen

Boundary Conditions of the Scientific Revolution (Part I)

Addendum on the Boundary Conditions of the Scientific Revolution (Part II)

Boundary Conditions of the Scientific Revolution (both parts edited together as a single post on Medium)


Giving proper credit: I swiped this post from friends on G+.

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A post was merged into an existing topic: Robert Byer’s Honesty Test


I believe you’re quite right in saying that the success of modern science has much to do with massive organisation (and funding, of course). I don’t think it’s unique, though, nor guaranteed to produce the science we have - that depends on the philosophical propositions agreed by this large body of workers.

To illustrate, consider not the lone Greek philosopher-scientist, but the Babylonian system of science, developed as an elite, state-sponsored priesthood which developed its traditions and data over a couple of thousand years.

Francesca Rochberg documents this in Before Nature which, as the title suggests, shows how a body of empirical work was built up without even the concept of nature, but on the philosophical presumption that there were correspondences between observable events and the decrees of the gods.

Its shape and conclusions were therefore different from ours (we can use the astronomical data, but tend to ignore the data on omens!), but it was the same kind of corporate effort we see in modern science, though of much longer duration.