The End of Science

The chapter titles read like a dirge: End of Progress, End of Philosophy, of Physics, of Social Science, of Neuroscience, of Chaoplexity, of Limitology, of Machine Science. Only the jokey neologisms (chaoplexity, limitology) suggest something less grave, a spoof, even of contemporary “endism”. But John Horgan is wry and irreverent rather than parodic. Convinced that we are in the twilight of the scientific age, he is anxious for us to share his view that science, as we have always thought of it, with its promise of growth and revolutionary discoveries, is all over bar the shouting.

Horgan is a senior writer for Scientific American who has interviewed many of the worthies of contemporary science and produced accessible, engaging and illuminating pieces on everything from mathematics and the philosophy of science to biology, particle physics and the study of complex systems. The End of Science draws together these pieces, nullifies their respectful tone, drops the pretense of being neutral or objective, and sews them together into a story of universal scientific demise.

Horgan’s idea is that science is moving into a post-erapirical stage he calls “ironic science”. Real or ‘erapirical’ science – intelligible, testable knowledge of physical reality – is giving way to theories, fictions or metaphysical musings that are either incomprehensible or unverifiable. For Horgan, ironic science, however interesting and attention-grabbing (and he is alert to the role he and his colleagues play in making it so), is more like literary criticism and philosophy. But, apart from brief, not very illuminating encounters with Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper and a quick doff of his cap to Harold Bloom’s theory of anxiously strong/weak poets applied to scientists, Horgan does not elaborate this insight.

Is science coming to an end? It does seem to be experiencing a minor crisis of cultural prestige, self-confidence and intellectual glamour. And, of course, funding. The reasons for this are many and varied: the end of the Cold War, educational preferences, job prospects, a certain public boredom, postmodern affect, fear of ever-accelerating technology, and so on. But Horgan is not interested in the end of belief in science but the intrinsic end of science. His question of a scientific discipline is: does it have any earth-shaking discoveries ahead of it, or has it shot its bolt? Boom or bust? In each case, his answer is bust.

Thus, evolutionary biology is presented as no more than a footnote to (neo) Darwinism and the discovery of DNA, which will never be overturned or replaced by anything else because they are “true”. Likewise, cosmology has nowhere to go after its explanation of the universe’s Big Bang origin and expansion. Physics has been in an ironic state, since relativity and quantum theory settled the nature of space, time and matter. The social sciences (such as they were) got off to a good start, but are not going anywhere. Neuroscience is full of sound and fury and unintelligible theories and is, in any case, unlikely to “explain” consciousness. And so on for what he calls Chaoplexity (sciences of chaos and complexity), through Limitology (attempts to discuss science’s possible horizons) to Machine Science.

It is not difficult to agree with Horgan’s picture of physics, cosmology and evolutionary biology (he has nothing to say about developmental biology, which is far from bust). His endist thesis in relation to the collection of disciplines clustered around brain research seems nonsense: if ever a science was about to burgeon with (literally) mind-altering discoveries, neuroscience seems to be it. Sensing this, Horgan drops the charge of a descent into ironic science and focuses instead on unintelligibility. With complexity and chaos theory, he has an easy time identifying the hype and the subsequent backing off from it, but offers little – apart from some disgruntled nay-saying – in the way of an end. In fact, after the solid endism of the first half of his book, Horgan’s case seems to run into the ground.

Not that this makes it less good reading. His approach is refreshingly irreverent, both in denying scientist’ grandiose claims for their subject and even more so about the scientists themselves. Some of the book’s attraction lies in Horgan’s wickedly observant eye and deft descriptions that try not to miss a wart, and manage to make almost all his interviewees faintly ridiculous. The game seems to be: scientist as oddball or gargoyle. A mathematician has the “exaggerated features of a marionette”; a physicist is a “jovial nerd” with an absurdly comic accent and “eye-popping leers”; we experience the “craven snickers” of a Nobel laureate’s colleagues; an evolutionist appears as an “icy atheist” and as “Darwin’s greyhound”; the posturing of a self-regarding neurologist is pointed up; and so on for an assortment of giggling robotocists, geekly computer scientists, and the like.

Ultimately, the question of science’s “end”, here, is artificial. First, Horgan insists he is not talking about the decline of belief in science (as if that were separable from science’s actual decline), but he presents so little in the way of argument that this insistence end up feeling somewhat empty. Second, understanding science as pure knowledge, giving it ascendance over its own experimental practices as well as its mere “applications”, is merely to connive in the tired hierarchy of the head (science, truth, spirit) over the hand (technology, use, body) that afflicts Western culture. In fact, technological practice, not scientific knowledge, is more important and closest to people’s interests and lives. Its continuing effects and transformations of our consciousness are what exercise us. Can we imagine technology coming to an end? If not, then perhaps the decline of science – assuming Horgan is correct – means something different from what we thought.

 

TLS February 13, 1998

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