Monday, September 22, 2014

Science and Dark Ages

How did the Islamic world fall behind the West in science?
In the book "Lost Enlightenment," historian S. Frederick Starr chronicles the long tradition of scientists, mathematicians, engineers and literary intellectuals that flourished in the Iranian- and Turkish-speaking regions of Central Asia -- the region that encompasses modern-day Iran, Iraq and the “-stan” countries.

What we think of as the Islamic golden age -- lasting from roughly 800 A.D. through 1200 A.D. - was really a Central Asian golden age. It was there that al-Khwarizmi (from whose name we get the word “algorithm”) essentially invented applied mathematics. It was there that astronomer al-Biruni began to invent modern experimental physics and anticipated the work of Copernicus and Kepler. It was there that ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote the most important books of medicine up to that time, and kept alive the tradition of ancient Greek philosophy -- which would later have a huge influence on Europe. As Starr documents, the region was a hotbed of technological innovation and intellectual boundary-breaking.

Then it all went wrong. After about the year 1200, the region declined, and Islamic science and medicine and philosophy declined with it. Why did this happen? The conquests of the Mongol Empire, which destroyed many of the region’s huge, well-irrigated cities, were part of it. But Starr reveals that the decline had begun centuries before the Mongols showed up. The real culprit, he alleges, was an increasingly anti-science attitude on the part of the Muslim rulers of the region.

One of the most prominent anti-science leaders was Nizam al-Mulk, the unofficial leader of the Turkish Seljuq Empire. In the late 1000s A.D., he established a number of religious institutes, part of whose purpose to combat the rationalism that had emerged in Central Asia. Perhaps the most important figure in this anti-rationalist movement was al-Ghazali, an accomplished philosopher who had written a book attacking his contemporaries. Al-Ghazali used the tools of logic and reason themselves to argue that only faith, not rationalism and science, can offer insight into the truths of the world. Starr believes that it was thinkers like al-Ghazali who enabled Central Asia’s transition from center of global science to fundamentalist backwater.

If Starr’s explanation for Central Asia’s decline -- which was also the Islamic world’s decline -- is true, it’s a cautionary tale for modern America. Rationalism and science have come under attack here as well...
Don't Let the Dark Ages Happen Here (Bloomberg) It is commonly assumed that reason and empirical science are now permanent features of all human societies. But history shows that this is ephemeral as well. Is it possible they will be lost as we enter an age of Endarkenment? Related: How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything (The Week)
Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That's the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says "science" is something different. To most people, capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It is a thing engaged in by people wearing lab coats and/or doing fancy math that nobody else understands. The reason capital-S Science gives us airplanes and flu vaccines is not because it is an incremental engineering process but because scientists are really smart people. In other words — and this is the key thing — when people say "science", what they really mean is magic or truth.
The first proto-scientist was the Greek intellectual Aristotle, who wrote many manuals of his observations of the natural world and who also was the first person to propose a systematic epistemology, i.e., a philosophy of what science is and how people should go about it. Aristotle's definition of science became famous in its Latin translation as: rerum cognoscere causas, or, "knowledge of the ultimate causes of things." For this, you can often see in manuals Aristotle described as the Father of Science. 
The problem with that is that it's absolutely not true. Aristotelian "science" was a major setback for all of human civilization. For Aristotle, science started with empirical investigation and then used theoretical speculation to decide what things are caused by.
What we now know as the "scientific revolution" was a repudiation of Aristotle: science, not as knowledge of the ultimate causes of things but as the production of reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. 
Galileo disproved Aristotle's "demonstration" that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). What was so important about this Galileo Moment was not that Galileo was right and Aristotle wrong; what was so important was how Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment. 
This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon. What distinguishes modern science from other forms of knowledge such as philosophy is that it explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning about the ultimate causes of things and instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation. Science is not the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It's a form of engineering — of trial by error. Scientific knowledge is not "true" knowledge, since it is knowledge about only specific empirical propositions — which is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment. Many people are surprised to hear this, but the founder of modern science says it. Bacon, who had a career in politics and was an experienced manager, actually wrote that scientists would have to be misled into thinking science is a pursuit of the truth, so that they will be dedicated to their work, even though it is not. 
If you ask most people what science is, they will give you an answer that looks a lot like Aristotelian "science" — i.e., the exact opposite of what modern science actually is. Capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. And science is something that cannot possibly be understood by mere mortals. It delivers wonders. It has high priests. It has an ideology that must be obeyed. 
This leads us astray. Since most people think math and lab coats equal science, people call economics a science, even though almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments. Then people get angry at economists when they don't predict impending financial crises, as if having tenure at a university endowed you with magical powers. Countless academic disciplines have been wrecked by professors' urges to look "more scientific" by, like a cargo cult, adopting the externals of Baconian science (math, impenetrable jargon, peer-reviewed journals) without the substance and hoping it will produce better knowledge. 
Because people don't understand that science is built on experimentation, they don't understand that studies in fields like psychology almost never prove anything, since only replicated experiment proves something and, humans being a very diverse lot, it is very hard to replicate any psychological experiment. This is how you get articles with headlines saying "Study Proves X" one day and "Study Proves the Opposite of X" the next day, each illustrated with stock photography of someone in a lab coat. That gets a lot of people to think that "science" isn't all that it's cracked up to be, since so many studies seem to contradict each other. 
This is how you get people asserting that "science" commands this or that public policy decision, even though with very few exceptions, almost none of the policy options we as a polity have have been tested through experiment (or can be)....

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