piet_hut's picture
professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton
Professor of Astrophysics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

The Real Purity of Pure Science

I grew up reading heroic stories about progress in science, the absolute superiority of the scientific method, the evil of superstition, and other one-dimensional optimistic views.

Almost half a century later, I have a much more nuanced view of progress, method, and ways of looking at the world. What has been presented as the scientific method, at any given time, has been a simplified snapshot of an intrinsically much more opportunistic enterprise. As such, much damage has been done by suggesting that others areas, from social science and economy to politics, should adopt such a simple and always outdated picture.

The strength of science is not at all its currently accepted method. The strength is the fact that scientists allow the method to change.

The way the method changes is the exact same way through which progress is made by applying the method in doing everyday research. Change of method takes place slowly and carefully, through long and detailed peer discussions, and may be almost imperceptible in any given field during the lifetime of a scientist. The scientific method is like spacetime in general relativity: it provides the stage for matter to play, but the play of matter in turn affects the stage.

The real basis for the success of science is its unique combination of progressive and conservative elements. A scientist gets brownie points for crazy new ideas, as long as they are really interesting and stimulating, and also for being extremely conservative in criticizing any and all new ideas, as long as the criticism can be shown to be valid. What is interesting in new ideas and what is valid in criticism thereof is determined solely by peer review, by the collective opinions of the body of living scientists, not by falling back on some kind of fixed notion of a method.

My optimism is that other areas of human activities can learn from science to combine conservative and progressive approaches, taming the usual black-white duality in a collaborative dance of opposites.

Pure science has been held up as a beacon of hope, as a way to allow scientists to pursue their own intuitions, and thus to find totally new solutions to old problems. This is seen in contrast to applied science, where short-term goals do not allow sufficient room for finding really new approaches. Indeed, the irony here is that the best applications of sciences are ultimately based on pure, rather than applied research.

The moral of the story has been to say that long-term research should not focus on goals, but rather it should let the scientific method follow its own course. Purified from goals, the scientific method is held up as the beacon to follow. But I think this story is still misleading. The greatest breakthroughs have come from a doubly pure science, purified from goals and methods alike. In small and large ways, each major breakthrough was exactly a breakthrough because it literally broke the rules, the rules of the scientific method as it had been understood so far. The most spectacular example has been quantum mechanics, which changed dramatically even the notion of experimental verification.

I am optimistic that all areas of human activities can be inspired by the example of science, which has continued to thrive for more than four centuries, without relying on goals, and without even relying on methods. The key ingredients are hyper-critical but non-dogmatic conservatism, combined with wildly unconventional but well-motivated progressiveness. Insofar as there is any meta-method, it is to allow those ingredients to be played off against each other in the enactments of scientific controversies, until consensus is reached.