How Not To Save Science

Over the last few years, more and more people in the scientific community have realized the scale of the threat to industrial civilization posed by peak oil, other forms of resource depletion, global warming, and the rest of the rising spiral of crises we face nowadays. One common response has been to look for ways to save today's science and technology. In the abstract, at least, it's a good idea. I'm not at all sure the world of the future really needs to know how to build nuclear warheads or synthesize DDT, but there's plenty of modern science that's well worth saving.

So far, though, nearly all the discussion of this useful idea has centered on one specific plan for making it happen. The proposal is that a panel of scientific experts ought to be commissioned to write a book outlining everything modern science has learned about the universe, and the book produced en masse on durable paper, so that some copies make it through the decline and fall of industrial society and reach the hands of future generations. James Lovelock's 1998 essay "A Book for All Seasons" describes this proposed book as "the scientific equivalent of the Bible." This essay played a key role in launching the discussions just referred to, but Lovelock isn't the only important figure who's backed the plan.

It's hard to think of a better piece of proof that most scientists don't learn enough about the history of their own disciplines -- or a better piece of evidence that they need to. A book of the sort Lovelock and others have proposed would be a very, very bad idea. I don't simply present this claim as a matter of opinion. The experiment has been tried before, and the results were, to put it mildly, not good.

In the twilight years of Roman civilization in Western Europe, as the old institutions of classical learning were giving way to the Dark Ages, Isidore of Seville (560-636) -- a Christian bishop and theologian in Spain -- compiled a book along the same lines as the one being discussed today. Titled Etymologiae (Etymologies), it was the world's first encyclopedia, and it was a huge success by the standards of the time. The single most popular general reference work in medieval libraries, it was still so widely respected in the Renaissance that it saw ten print editions between 1470 and 1530.

During the Dark Ages, the Etymologiae served a useful purpose as a compendium of general knowledge. Over the longer term, though, its effects were far less positive. Because Isidore's book quickly came to be seen as the be-all and end-all of learning, other books -- many of which would have been much more useful to the renaissance of learning that spread through Europe after the turn of the millennium -- were allowed to decay, or had their parchment pages recycled to produce more copies of the Etymologiae.

Worse, the reverence given to Isidore's work gave a great deal of momentum to the medieval belief that the best way to learn about nature was to look something up in an old book. That same reverence came to be applied to the works of Aristotle after these latter were translated out of Arabic in the 12th century, and thus succeeded in hamstringing natural science for centuries. It took the social convulsions of the 16th and 17th centuries to finally break Aristotle's iron grip on scientific thought in the western world and make it acceptable for people to learn from nature directly.

This is exactly what Lovelock's "scientific equivalent of the Bible" would do. Like Isidore's encyclopedia, a modern compendium of science would inevitably contain inaccurate information -- today's scientists are no more omniscient than those of 50 years ago, when continental drift was still considered crackpot pseudoscience, or 110 years ago, when Einstein and the quantum physicists hadn't yet proved that the absolute space and uniform time of Newtonian cosmology were as imaginary as Oz. Like Isidore's encyclopedia, it would teach people that the way to learn about nature was to look facts up in a book, rather than paying attention to what was actually happening in front of their noses -- and it might well ensure that, in a time that had limited resources for the preservation of books, copies of a book of scientific doctrines could be preserved at the expense of, say, the last remaining copy of Newton's Principia Mathematica, Darwin's Origin of Species, or some other scientific classic that would offer much more to the future.

A book of scientific doctrines would also ensure that the most important dimension of science itself would be lost. Science, it's crucial to remember, is not a set of doctrines about the universe. At its core, science is a system of practical logic, a set of working rules that allow hypotheses to be tested against experience so that they can be discarded if they're false. That set of rules isn't perfect or flawless, but it's arguably the best method of investigating nature our species has invented so far, and it's worth far more to the future than any compendium of currently accepted scientific opinions.

In his essay, Lovelock imagines a survivor in some postcollapse society faced with a cholera epidemic, and equipped with nothing but a book on aromatherapy. It's a compelling image. What, though, if the survivor has to deal with a new disease -- one that hasn't yet jumped to human beings from its original animal host, let's say? A textbook focused on existing knowledge circa 2006 would offer little help. Nature is constantly changing. Science as a method of inquiry can keep track of those changes; science as a set of doctrines can't.

A book that might actually succeed in saving science for the future would be a very different book from the one Lovelock et al. have envisioned. Rather than projecting the omniscience that a phrase like "the scientific equivalent of the Bible" suggests, it would present the scientific method as an open-ended way of questioning nature, and provide enough practical tips and examples to help readers learn how to create their own experiments and ask their own questions. It would treat its readers in the present and future alike as participants in the process of science, not simply consumers of its products. The role of participant is not one that many scientists today are comfortable seeing conferred on laypeople, but if today's science is going to be saved for the future, getting past that discomfort is one of the first and least negotiable requirements.