In the first post in this series (available here), we explored the difference between art and science. Science is an art with constraints, we said. There are three such constraints:
science = art + a subject + a method + a report
We have analysed some of the consequences of the existence of a record of scientific work. In particular, we have shown how this constraint affects the scientist’s capacity for innovation. This second post is dedicated to the subject.
1 | Not all subjects are scientific.
Only experiments that are a) repeatable, b) at will, and c) by anyone are eligible for scientific work. This restriction has two consequences:
1. Scientific truth cannot be the truth of the world
This restriction of the scope of scientific investigation is important in the perspective of the discussion we had on the status of science, in the series of posts in Feyerabend’s book (to be read here, for example). It can be said as follows: scientific truth cannot be the truth of the world because scientific truth is restricted. It concerns only a tiny fraction of the world: that of experiments that can be repeated, at will, by anyone.
For a long time, we thought it was not a restriction. The universal laws that were discovered through scientific experiments made it possible to explain everything else, either by deduction or by calculation. This is what has been called determinism. In this thought, all that happens in the world, from the movements of the stars to human affects, would derive from a small number of universal laws. Once these are known (and all the explicit starting parameters), everything that follows is known. In particular, the future of the world. (But not only: the past too!)
This thought has been shattered twice. The first time was with the discovery of quantum mechanics in 1905. We understood that the fundamental laws were statistical. There is a fundamental uncertainty that cannot be overcome. It was shattered a second time with chaos theory. It was understood that the smallest uncertainty about the values of some observables could change everything about the development of some experiments. Since you can’t measure anything without uncertainty, you can’t predict everything. Weather is a good example of a subject for which there will never be scientific certainty.
At the present stage of our understanding of science, scientific truths are therefore restricted to a small number of subjects, and they cannot claim to provide answers outside these subjects. Scientific truths are universal in the sense that every apple falls in the same way. But they are not universal in the sense that not everything that falls is an apple. Worse than that: not everything falls!
2. A universal truth can emerge from a singular truth.
From an innovation perspective, it is interesting to ask to what extent the restriction on the subject prevents science from making discoveries. The question can be asked as follows: to what extent can a deeply subjective experience (singular, not shareable by anyone, and therefore not eligible for scientific work) lead to a universal truth?
To this question, there is an obvious first answer: yes! It’s all literature, for example. The story that is told in the book If it is a man, is the story of the individual Primo Levi. But this story, as it is told, touches on a universal truth about what it means to be a human being. The same is true of the Odyssey. In truth, it is the same for any work of art when it is that: a work of art, and not just the expression of an individual’s subjectivity.
There is a second answer that is identical on the form (the answer is “yes!”), although it is a little more subtle on the substance. For it happens that the subjective expression of the dream or aspiration of a single individual leads an entire community to realize that it is carrying the same dream. And what was initially only the expression of an individual subjectivity (singular, not shareable by anyone, and therefore not eligible for scientific work) acquires a collective value. In a way, the individual crystallizes in reality a form of latent collective imagination.
This “collective value” is not a universal truth. It is not even a “collective truth”, because it is not just a truth. But it is collective and it changes everything, since it can be shared with (almost) anyone. It thus becomes a scientific subject. We are in a situation where subjective experience reveals a latent scientific subject. In this case, it can lead to major discoveries. Because all of a sudden, something is mobilized in the real world, in unexplored directions. What is interesting to understand is that these directions are unexplored because they are unjustifiable. The only possible justification is a form of collective hallucination.
This “collective value” is the one found in urban legends, for example. What makes them propagate is the collective value of the imaginary material they carry. When we think of urban legends, it immediately comes to mind that examples of collective mobilization that are both senseless and tragic are cultivated: the rumour of Orléans, France, in 1969, for example. But it also happens that these urban legends generate more fertile and, to a certain extent, more luminous movements. The story of Priest John illustrates this case. I am reproducing below an excerpt from a book I published in 2013*:
“The very first meeting between Europe and India was accomplished in the Western imagination. It does not date from 1498. It occurred during a series of feverish nights in the 12th century, somewhere in the common imagination of several thousand men and women of the Christian world, on a promontory of their dreams. At that time, the West was facing a major crisis. The people are oppressed and the crusades are a failure. Christian Europe is in a deadlock.
It is then that the rumour spreads that there would exist beyond Arabia (somewhere in India or Eritrea) a kingdom where all the promises of Christianity would be kept. In this place, one would find abundance of goods, happiness of the soul, social harmony, political harmony. This Edenic kingdom would be ruled by a king-priest whose name can be summed up in a single first name: Priest John.
Because this legend responds very precisely to the aspirations of the West, it will grow in the collective imagination like a fever, despite the obvious inconsistencies, approximations and falsehoods. Since it represents the unprecedented hope of a new political alliance, it will be relayed by the ruling powers throughout the 12th century.
The collective desire, when it is brought to its peak, is incarnated. Our dreams affect reality. Chimeras write. Some of us receive their messages. Thus the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus announces that he has received an autograph letter from the Priest John. The latter would have communicated it without delay to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who would have it translated from Greek into Latin. Traces of this letter can be found as early as 1160 and its existence was confirmed in 1165.
In this letter, Priest John gives details of his religion, kingdom, government, peoples and even the beasts living under his sceptre. It’s an avalanche of wonders. Seventy-two kings paid tribute to him. It is served by princes and counts. The rivers of its regions carry precious stones. In his empire, property does not exist. Peace reigns. Everything belongs to God and his high priest, who officiates crown in first place.
In conclusion to this text, Priest John makes an invitation: “If you want anything that is in our power, ask us. »
Of course, this letter is a fake. But this is so irrelevant in terms of the hope it creates. Pope Innocent IV, King St. Louis of France, King Henry IV of England, King Alfonso V of Aragon, King John I of Portugal, and others, all will not rest until they have found the kingdom of Priest John. All sent him ambassadors with a covenant message. For the most famous, these messengers were called Marco Polo, Bartolomeu Dias, Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama.
Vasco da Gama is driven by the dream of a Christian country beyond Arabia, and that is why, when he reaches the goal in Calicut in the spring of 1498, he expects to see a church. »
This story illustrates Paul Arden’s quote: “Start by deceiving yourself, and everything becomes possible”. Among all the possible mistakes, there is the one of believing that your dream has value beyond your person.
2 | Not all subjects are considered scientific.
Even among the subjects who are eligible for scientific work, there are subjects who are not considered scientific. First and foremost, there is sex.
In 1938, Alfred Kinsey was 44 years old. He is a professor of zoology at Indiana University in the United States. His research focuses on Cynipidae, what we commonly call “wasps with galls”. The articles he wrote on this subject have made him a world reference. But Alfred Kinsey remains curious. He happens to be concerned about his own sexuality, which he cannot classify into either of the two categories that existed at the time: heterosexual versus homosexual. In discussions with his students and colleagues, he notes a paradox: scientists have accumulated more knowledge about insect sexuality than human sexuality! So he decided to redirect his research. He will use his scientific skills to explore this subject, which he considers to be major and neglected.
As early as 1938, he and his wife Clara McMillen began interviewing men and women about their sexuality. The protocol is scientific. The subjects come from all social classes. Each interview contains more than three hundred extremely intimate questions. It lasts several hours. In this way, they capture a completely different reality than the one that prevailed at the time: a sexuality of Christian obedience, that is, one that is heterosexual, marital and restricted to vaginal penetration.
They will soon be joined by other researchers. In 1947, this group received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which allowed it to federate under the name of the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University. 15 years after they began, the researchers had a total of 5300 men and 5940 women (all of European phenotype). All the data collected will be the subject of two books. The first is entitled, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male”. It will be published in 1948. The second is titled and “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female”. It will be published in 1953. These two books will cause an extraordinary shock wave in American society and beyond.
In such a case, the researcher is expected to face moral, political and religious criticism. They were numerous and so vehement that they led to the Rockefeller Foundation withdrawing its financial support from the Institute for Sex Research in 1952. Criticism is also expected about the experimental protocol. They were present, which focused on the representativeness of the sample they had analyzed. But these criticisms, when relevant, were not likely to affect the conclusions of his work. On the other hand, there is less expectation of criticism within the field of science about the desirability of well-conducted scientific research on a neglected subject. However, some were also found. Thus the American Social Hygiene Association explained very simply: “There should be a law against doing research dealing exclusively with sex.” (There should be a law that prohibits research that focuses exclusively on sex.)
This opposition is particular in that it considers that the subject should not be the subject of a scientific investigation, even though he is eligible for it. Unfortunately, this opposition is neither anecdotal nor cyclical. In an article entitled Long After Kinsey, Only the Brave Study Sex, which she published in the New York Times on November 9, 2004, journalist Benedict Careynov analyzed the situation of scientists working on the subject. His conclusion is impressive: there is systematic opposition to this type of study. It is an opposition in principle. “In July 2003, for example, Congress threatened to stop several highly regarded sexual studies, including studies on sexual emotion, sexual arousal, and massage parlour staff. Last summer, health officials refused to fund a long-awaited proposal to support and train students interested in studying sexuality. This proposal was supported by three major universities. »
The first publication of Isaac Newton’s book Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), which founded modern experimental sciences, dates from 1687. It took 251 years for these principles to be applied to a major subject, which has all the characteristics of a scientific subject. Even today, 331 years after Newton, the researchers who invest in this subject have neither the same means nor the same freedom as those who seek on elementary particles.
3 | Not all subjects are eligible for funding
The modern functioning of science is marked by the rise of research agencies. These are organizations that are responsible for selecting research subjects that are eligible for funding, and therefore for scientific study. In France, it is the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR). In Canada, it is the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). In the United States, it is the National Science Foundation (NSF).
This increase in power represents a major turning point in research management. Before, it was left to the curiosity of the scientist to choose his subject. We were only judging the result: was the study done according to scientific standards? Now, we select the topics in advance. The scientific study is therefore judged twice: both the subject and the way the study is conducted. This evolution has introduced a fundamental bias: it is much more difficult to finance original, emerging, promising topics; rather than old topics that are known to have already produced results. However, as the physicist Niels Bohr said: “The light bulb was not invented by improving the spark plug”.
It can be put another way: we will never know what research could have led to major discoveries but has never been funded.
4 | Concluding remarks
The scientific subject is therefore three times restricted. It is restricted for the first time because of the scientific rule. It is restricted a second time due to scientific culture. It is restricted a third time due to scientific funding. All these restrictions act against discovery. They reduce the effectiveness of science in being innovative.
There is a fourth restriction that is less obvious and, perhaps, less strong, but it still remains castrating. Science suffers from a fundamental bias that is due to the sociology of scientists. Of all the biases, the most obvious is a gender bias. As scientists are predominantly male, specifically female subjects are systematically under-represented in research choices. As a result, endometriosis has not yet received the attention it deserves.
Endometriosis is a gynaecological disease that affects 10 to 20% of women. If we know that it manifests itself through painful periods, we know very little about this disease: neither its etiology nor its evolution nor its physiopathology. This ignorance contrasts with the number of people who are affected. On 28 September 2015, journalist Jessica Glenza published an article in the Guardain entitled Endometriosis often ignored as millions of American women suffer. In this article, she reports this figure: for every person who has developed diabetes, in the United States, the National Institute for Health (NIH: the US health research funding agencies) has spent $35.66 annually to find a cure. For each person with endometriosis, the figure is $0.92.
Of course, gender bias is not the only one: subjects specific to visible minorities (e. g. Aboriginal people) or invisible minorities (e. g. LGBT) do not receive equal attention with subjects of importance to the dominant classes.
Certainly, it is difficult to compare art and science in the field of sociology of the main actors. It is not obvious that the biases are not as strong, if they are not similar. At least, art requires less diploma studies: the educational filter is therefore weaker.
* Vasco da Gama syndrome, here.
Photo credit: David Werbrouck (unsplash.com)