After science: Has the tradition been broken?
Bruce G. Charlton
Medical Hypotheses. 2010; 74: 623-625
The majority of professional scientists make use of the artefacts of science but lack understanding of what these mean; raising the question: has the tradition of science been broken? Explicit knowledge is only a selective summary but practical capability derives from implicit, traditional or ‘tacit’ knowledge that is handed on between- and across-generations by slow, assimilative processes requiring extended human contact through a wide range of situations. This was achieved mainly by prolonged apprenticeship to a Master. Such methods recognize the gulf between being able to do something and knowing how you have done it; and the further gap between knowing how you have done something and being able to teach it by explicit instructions. Yet the ‘Master–apprentice’ model of education has been almost discarded from science over recent decades and replaced with bureaucratic regulation. The main reason is probably that scientific manpower has expanded so rapidly and over such a long period as to overwhelm the slow, sure and thorough traditional methods. In their innocence of scientific culture, the younger generation of scientists are like children who have been raised by wolves; they do not talk science but spout bureaucratic procedures. It has now become accepted among the mass of professional ‘scientists’ that the decisions which matter most in science are those imposed upon science by outside forces: for example by employers, funders, publishers, regulators, and the law courts. It is these bureaucratic mechanisms that now constitute the ‘bottom line’ for scientific practice. Most of modern science is therefore apparently in the post-holocaust situation described in A canticle for Liebowitz and After Virtue, but the catastrophe was bureaucratic, rather than violent. So, the tradition has indeed been broken. However, for as long as the fact is known that the tradition has been broken, and living representatives of the tradition are still alive and active, there still exists a remote possibility that the tradition could be revived.
After science: has the tradition been broken?
Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a know-nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless all these fragments are re-embodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.
From After Virtue – Alasdair MacIntyre 
The classic science fiction novel A canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller  portrays a post-nuclear-holocaust world in which the tradition of scientific practice – previously handed-down from one generation of scientists to the next – has been broken. Only a few scientific artefacts remain, such as fragments of electronic equipment. It turns out that after the tradition has been broken, the scientific artefacts make no sense and are wildly misinterpreted. For instance a blueprint is regarded as if it was a beautiful illuminated manuscript, and components such as diodes are regarded as magical talismans or pills.
I will argue that modern science may have entered a similar state in which for the majority of professional scientists the artefacts of science remain – such as the academic hierarchy, laboratory techniques and machines, statistical methods, and the peer review mechanism – but understanding of what these mean has apparently been lost; raising the question: has the tradition been broken?
A theme associated with philosophers such as Polanyi  and Oakeshott  is that explicit knowledge – such as is found in textbooks and scientific articles – is only a selective summary that misses that the most important capability derives from implicit, traditional or ‘tacit’ knowledge. It is this un-articulated knowledge that leads to genuine human understanding of the natural world, accurate prediction and the capacity to make effective interventions.
Tacit knowledge is handed on between- and across-generations by slow, assimilative processes which require extended, relatively unstructured and only semi-purposive human contact. What is being transmitted and inculcated is an over-arching purpose, a style of thought, a learned but then spontaneous framing of reality, a sense of how problems should be tackled, and a gut-feeling for evaluating the work or oneself, as well as others.
This kind of process was in the past achieved by such means as familial vocations, prolonged apprenticeship, co-residence and extended time spent in association with a Master – and by the fact that the Master and apprentice personally selected each other. The pattern was seen in all areas of life where independence, skill and depth of knowledge were expected: crafts, arts, music, scholarship – and science.
Although such methods sound a bit mysterious, not to say obscurationist, to modern ears – in fact they are solid realism and common sense. Such methods for ensuring the transmission of subtle knowledge recognize the gulf between being able to do something and knowing how you have done it; and the further gap between knowing how you have done something and being able to teach it by explicit instructions.
Such systems as apprenticeship recognize that the most important aspects of knowledge may be those which are not known or understood to be the most important, or may even be in opposition to that which is believed or supposed to be important. The educational ‘method’ was that an apprentice should spend a lot of time with the Master in many situations; and as for educational evaluation, the best way for a Master to know that his skill really has been passed-on, is for him to spend a lot of time with the apprentice in many situations.
Imperfect as it inevitably was, traditions were maintained and often improved over centuries by means of apprenticeship – which was regarded as the safest and surest way of ensuring that the knowledge and skills could be sustained and developed.
However, priorities have changed. The preservation and development of high-level human skills and expertise is no longer regarded as a priority, something to which many other concerns will inevitably need to be subordinated. And the ‘Master–apprentice’ model of education, which stretches back in human history as far as we know, has been all-but discarded from science (and much of mainstream culture) over recent decades. Indeed the assumptions have been reversed.
It is important to recognize that the discarding of traditions of apprenticeship and prolonged human contact in science was not due to any new discovery that apprenticeship was – after all – unnecessary, let alone that the new bureaucratic systems of free-standing explicit aims and objectives, summaries and lists of core knowledge and competencies etc. were superior to apprenticeship. Indeed there is nothing to suggest that they are remotely the equal of apprenticeship. Rather, the Master–apprentice system has been discarded despite the evidence of its superiority; and has been replaced by the growth of bureaucratic regulation.
The main reason is probably that scientific manpower, personnel or ‘human resources’ (as they are now termed) have expanded vastly over the past 60 years – probably about tenfold. So there was no possibility of such rapid and sustained quantitative expansion (accompanied, almost-inevitably, by massive decline in average quality) being achieved using the labour-intensive apprenticeship methods of the past. The tradition was discarded because it stood in the path of the expansion of scientific manpower.
Among the mass of mainstream professional scientists, science – as a distinctive mode of human enquiry – now has no meaning whatsoever. Among these same scientists, who dominate the social system of science both in terms of power and numbers, the resolution of scientific disputes and disagreements is a matter of power, not reason – and relevant ‘evidence’ is narrowly restricted to bureaucratically-enforced operational variables. The tradition seems to have been broken.
I first observed this when I worked in epidemiology, and I realized that most epidemiologists did not understand science and were not scientists – but they did not realize it . They believed that what they did was science, since it had many of the explicit characteristics of science, it involved making measurements and doing statistics, it was accepted as science by many other people, and (most importantly!) epidemiology got funded as science. But most epidemiology was not science, as any real scientist could easily recognize – it was no more science than were those market researchers with clipboards who question pedestrians on the high street. I saw a similar picture in almost all the vast amount of ‘functional brain imagining’ which was the dominant and most prestigious type of Neuroscience. And again in the people who were mapping the average human genome – then (presumably) going on to map the genome of every individual human, then perhaps every creature on the planet?
As Jacob Bronowski once remarked: science is not a loose leaf folder of ‘facts’; not the kind of thing which can be expanded ad infinitum – simply by iterative addition of ever-more observations. Science is instead the creation of structured knowledge, with the emphasis on structure . The modern scientific literature is ballooning exponentially with published stuff and ever-inflated claims about its significance – but, lacking structure, this malignantly-expanding mass adds-up to less-and-less. Meanwhile, understanding, prediction and the ability to intervene on the natural world to attain pre-specified objectives all dwindle; because real science is a living tradition not a dead archive.
The younger generation of scientists are like children who have been raised by wolves. They have learned the techniques but have no feel for the proper aims, attitudes and evaluations of science. What little culture they have comes not from science but from bureaucrats: they utterly lack scientific culture; they do not talk science, instead they spout procedures.
It has now become implicitly accepted among the mass of professional ‘scientists’ that the decisions which matter most in science are those imposed upon science by outside forces: by employers (who gets the jobs, who gets promotion), funders (who gets the big money), publishers (who gets their work in the big journals), bureaucratic regulators (who gets allowed to do work), and the law courts (whose ideas get backed-up, or criminalized, by the courts). It is these bureaucratic mechanisms that constitute ‘real life’ and the ‘bottom line’ for scientific practice. The tradition has been broken.
A minority of young scientists have, by dedication or luck, absorbed the tradition of real science, yet because their wisdom is tacit and is not shared by the majority of the bureaucratically-minded, they will almost-inevitably be held back from status and excluded from influence. It is bureaucracy that now controls ‘science’, and that which bureaucracy cannot or will not acknowledge might as well not exist, so far as the direction of ‘science’ is concerned.
Most of modern science is therefore apparently in pretty much the post-holocaust situation described in A canticle for Liebowitz and After Virtue – the transmission of tacit knowledge has been broken. But the catastrophe was bureaucratic, rather than violent – and few seem to have noticed the scale of destruction.
But, it might be asked, supposing the tradition had indeed been broken; if this was true, then how would we know it was true? – given that the point of MacIntyre’s and Miller’s fables was that when a tradition is broken people do not realize it. The answer is that we know at the moment that the tradition has been broken, but this knowledge is on the verge of extinction.
The sources of evidence are at least fourfold. If we judge the rate of scientific progress by individualistic common sense criteria (rather than bureaucratic indices), it is obvious that the rate of progress has declined in at least two major areas: physics and medical research ,  and . Furthermore there has been a decline in the number of scientific geniuses, which is now near-zero . If geniuses are vital to overall scientific progress, then progress probably stopped a while ago .
In addition, the actual practice of science has transformed profoundly  – the explicit aims of scientists, their truthfulness, what scientists do on a day by day basis, the procedures by which their work is evaluated… all of these have changed so much over the past 50 years that it is reasonable to conclude that science now is performing an almost completely different function than it was 50 years ago. After all, if modern science neither looks nor quacks like a duck, why should we believe it is a duck? Just because science has the same name, does not mean it is them same thing when almost-everything about it has been transformed!
And finally we might believe that the tradition has been broken because this has been a frequently implicit, sometimes explicit, theme of some of the most original and informed scientists for several decades: from the Feynman and Crick through to Brenner – take your pick. It seems to me that they have for many years been warning us that science was on a wrong track, and the warnings have not been heeded.
So: the tradition has been broken. However, for as long as the fact is known that the tradition has been broken, and representatives of the tradition are still alive and active, there still exists a remote possibility that the tradition could be revived.
Some of these ideas emerged in conversations with Jonathan Rees, and quite a few were derived from him.
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 B.G. Charlton, The last genius? – reflections on the death of Francis Crick, Med Hypotheses 63 (2004), pp. 923–924. Article | PDF (209 K) | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (2)
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