Saturday, April 23, 2016


Louis Proyect reposts a review he wrote some years ago of a book by Cliff Connor, entitled A People's History of Science (I have not read that book). The review claims that "elite science" is not what it's cracked up to be, but is much more the work of the common man (and woman) than is assumed.

Surprisingly, I actually agree with Mr. Proyect, at least up to a point. He suggests that academic science is often a fraud.
Advanced degrees and professional societies become the norm, as does the tendency to give ethics the short shrift. Scientists become all too happy to produce scientific studies showing that tobacco will not cause cancer or that atomic energy is the safest source of electricity.
And surely this is right, and not just with tobacco or (arguably) nuclear power. Today's climate change fetish is another example, as are the longstanding nutrition guidelines promulgated by the federal government. Modern science is full of fads, fictions, internal politics, and dishonest people--a lot like the human race generally. Academic science is all that and worse.

Mr. Proyect brings our attention to Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691). Modern chemistry students still study Boyle's Law, which states that the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to it's pressure. Mr. Proyect claims that because Boyle was an aristocrat, and because he hired employees and assistants, therefore he is a complete fraud. Of course this is nonsense, and if that's the best example of "elite science" that Mr. Proyect can come up with, then his case is pretty sad.

Perhaps a better example is Antoine Lavoisier (1743 - 1794), the founder of modern chemistry, whose rules for stoichiometry still torment beginning chemistry students to this very day. The man was a first-rate genius, no doubt, and also an unapologetic aristocrat. But the story ends well for Mr. Proyect, whose political ancestors chopped off his head--all for scientific progress we may suppose.

These stories of "elite science" are not typical. Isaac Newton, who Mr. Proyect promotes to "elite," was born in middle class circumstances in Northern England. Today he would be diagnosed as autistic--he had no close friends, no romantic relationships, and was notoriously difficult to get along with. He got promoted as director of the Royal Mint precisely because the job had no real significance and it got him out of the way (or so they hoped). He was hopelessly obsessive-compulsive, keeping voluminous notebooks.

Mr. Newton, his genius notwithstanding, was insane. There is no way he can be described as "elite." For all that, Newton was much more self-aware than Mr. Proyect gives him credit for. The latter writes,
One of the most remarkable of these figures was a Soviet physicist named Boris Hessen, who was responsible for challenging the “Great Men of Science” approach in the same manner that Marxist historians of his time would highlight the efforts of working people and peasants in changing society throughout history. One of the major figures that Hessen reevaluated was Isaac Newton, the author of Principia, or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, a work that would seem to embody the idea-descending-from-above paradigm.
And yet Newton famously described himself as "standing on the shoulders of giants," by whom he meant people like Brahe and Kepler and Galileo. So even Newton didn't buy the "idea-descending-from-above paradigm."

Still, there is a grain of truth in Mr. Proyect's argument. Science is only rarely done by the "elite." Most of the time great things are accomplished by nut cases, folks more like Newton than Mr. Boyle. An excellent case in point is the Wright brothers.

The Wright brothers owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. Their business was successful and the proceeds were reinvested into what was then a top-rate machine shop. Though they had no academic training, they were incredibly smart guys and superb machinists and mechanics. While they couldn't have solved a differential equation if their life depended on it, somehow they understood that an airplane has more in common with a bicycle than with an automobile or a farm tractor.

That hunch, along with the necessary tools of the trade, eventually led to the first flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. Along the way they also developed the first lightweight, aluminum-cast engine.

They had lots of competition. There were large academic groups working on building an airplane in Boston and in Germany. All they produced are the endlessly entertaining film clips of improbable contraptions collapsing into a pile of rubble. They failed not because they couldn't solve differential equations, but because they lacked the skills of the trade. None of them had decades of experience working with lightweight mechanical devices, nor did they have access to the necessary machine tools. And they didn't understand the Wrights' core insight about bicycles.

So perhaps the airplane would have been invented even if the Wright brothers hadn't come along. That is the Marxist dogma--everything is "inevitable". But it would have taken decades--nobody else was even close. It may be that the rocket ship would have come first. Or perhaps new dirigible technology would have eliminated any immediate need for the airplane.

The point is that history--especially the history of technology--is highly contingent. It depends very much on the specific individuals who invented it. Our modern jet aircraft are heir to the Wright brothers in a very personal way. Inside every 747 lurks the spirit of a bicycle. The Wright brothers did build that!

Of course, like Newton, Orville and Wilbur also stood on the shoulders of giants, specifically Gottlieb Daimler, the inventor of the internal combustion engine. And just as important, the airplane depended crucially on the bicycle market in Dayton, Ohio in the 1890s. Had bicycles not been popular, the Wrights' business wouldn't have been successful, and the fancy machine tools wouldn't have been available. So Mr. Proyect is at least half right--social conditions do matter.

The Wright brothers in no way can be considered "elite scientists." They came out of nowhere. And like Newton, they were completely nuts. Their father was a bishop in this small, paranoid, conspiratorial, very disputatious religious sect--personality traits the brothers inherited. Their pathological secretiveness resulted in the patents being stolen right out from under them. The first commercially successful airplane was not built by Wright Flyers, but instead by Fairchild.

Mr. Proyect shares the received wisdom that scientific and technological progress is on some kind of continuous trajectory. I call this the Magic School Bus approach, which claims that science is an infinite frontier where, if we just dedicate enough NSF funding or more education dollars or inspire more third graders, then new discoveries are bound to happen.

But that's wrong. Most NSF money is completely wasted. Our investment in academic science may not add up to identically zero, but it's uncomfortably close. Putting thousands of people through grad school in biology or chemistry is a horrible waste.

Technological progress, instead, depends on the genius of a very few great men (no women). These people rarely come from the aristocracy, and even more rarely from academia. Instead they're oddballs, kooks, social misfits, nonconformists, who by genius, hard work, and luck happen to stumble on some great idea. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, there have been perhaps a thousand such men, who are responsible for the vast majority of the wealth we now enjoy.

William Perkin (1838-1907) was 15 when he started working as an assistant for the famous chemist August von Hofmann. One of the experiments went wrong and Mr. Perkin (then 18) found this useless, purple garbage at the bottom of his test tube. He didn't tell his boss about it, but had the presence of mind to take it home with him so he could find out what had happened on his own time.

The result was mauveine, the world's first artificial dye. And so was born the entire modern chemical industry. Mr. Perkin did become wealthy, but the industry soon moved to Germany, where the world's largest chemical industry still resides. The dye and textile industry has since settled in India and Bangladesh, where it employs millions of people to this very day--all from the serendipitous genius of an 18-year-old.

They're all nuts: autistics like Newton, psychopaths like Steve Jobs, devil-may-care risk-addicts like Aubrey McClendon (co-founder of Chesapeake Energy), crackpot control freaks like Henry Ford, conniving thieves like Thomas Edison. None of them are normal people. Many of them went to jail.

Robert Heinlein says it best:
Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. 
This is known as "bad luck.”
 Further Reading:

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