The Technium

Evolution of the Scientific Method

Science steers the future of technology. Where science goes technology follows.

Science is the structuring of knowledge. It is the organization of knowledge such that knowledge can be tested, so that it is easier for new varieties of knowledge to appear, so that knowledge can be archived and restored, so that knowledge can be communicated without grave error, so that knowledge can be built upon and extended, and most importantly, science is the method whereby knowledge is structured so that it can be structured further.

It is not necessary that science increase the “truthfulness” or volume of total information. It is only necessary that it increase the order and organization of knowledge.

placeboThe history of science is the evolution of knowledge’s organization. The evolution of knowledge began with relatively simple organizations of information. The most simple organization was the invention of the “fact.” Over time, the ways in which knowledge could be ordered increased, as did the complexity of that organization. Today, the organization of knowledge within science is extremely layered, richly convoluted, and present at many levels. In research we have double-blind clinical trials and tests for the validity of simulations, for example. The scientific method today bears little resemblance to the earliest attempts at science 400 years ago, before the advent of experiment, report, peer review and other inventions.

The development of the technium is fundamentally the evolution of science and knowledge. I do not mean the history of scientific inventions, where one type of discovery is cataloged before the next. Chronologies of inventions, as fascinating as they are, don’t tell the underlying story of how this narrative of change reshapes itself. Technology developed as knowledge could be structured more deeply.

In many ways the evolution of knowledge in science more resembles the evolution of knowledge in a living organism, as it evolves and complexifies over deep time. Of the many ways in which a mammal differs from a sponge say, one of the primary differences is the additional layers in which information flows through the organism.

If we examine the major transitions in biology, we can arrange the story of life in several ways. We could chronicle such spectacular biological transitions as organisms migrating from the seas to land, or acquiring backbones, or developing eyes, or the arrival of flowering plants, or the demise of dinosaurs, and the rise of mammals. These are important benchmarks in our past and legitimate achievements in our ancestors’ tale.

But I believe the most revealing way to view the 4 billion-year history of life is to mark the major transitions in the informational organization of life’s forms. In this view biological organization means knowledge organization. To view its stages we need to call out the major transitions of structure over evolutionary time. This was the method of John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary who found eight thresholds of biological information organization in the 4 billion-year old history of life. Each level in their hierarchy indicates a major re-ordering of biological information. For example, the invention of sex is actually a major innovation in structuring genetic information to maximize evolvability. Animals using sexual recombination of genes will evolve faster. The natural invention of multicellularity and of colonies of multi-cells are further structuring of biological bits.

I’d like to do the same with the evolution of knowledge, that is with the evolution of the science. Rather than catalog inventions such as copper, bronze and iron, or the invention of steam power, or electricity, I find it far more useful to dwell on the structure of information within the technium. We can read the technium’s evolution as the deepening structure of knowledge. This suggests the following parallel, that the evolution of technology also trends along with the evolution of the scientific method, since science steers technology.

In researching the trajectory of the scientific method I was shocked to discover how untold its story is. The pillar of technological strength and the foundation of our modern culture is science’s advance. Beneath the advance of science is the advance of the scientific method. You would think a culture as dependent on science would own at least one good history of the scientific method, but I was unable to find such a story. So I have quickly and somewhat cursorily assembled a brief timeline of the scientific method.

leaning tower

Advances in the Scientific Method:

280BC Libraries with Index
1000 Collaborative Encyclopedia
1410 Cross-referenced Encyclopedia
1550 Invention of the Fact
1590 Controlled Experiments
1609 Scopes and Elaboratories
1687 Hypothesis/Prediction
1650 Societies of Experts
1665 Necessary Repeatability
1752 Peer Review Referee
1780 Journal Network
1920 Falsifiable Testability
1926 Randomized Design
1937 Controlled Placebo
1950 Double Bind Refinement
1946 Computer simulations
1974 Meta-analysis

Each of these landmarks are innovations in knowledge organization. There may be ones that I missed; let me know if you have one in mind.

  • Please forgive the appearance of naiveté on my part as I attempt to ask a question about one of the statements above –
    “It is not necessary that science increase the “truthfulness” or volume of total information. It is only necessary that it increase the order and organization of knowledge.”

    Is this intended to be understood as a “descriptive” statement, or a “prescriptive” statement?
    If it is descriptive – merely stating the “truth” that science at its essence is a tool for the organization of knowledge and the scientist as the presenter of this knowledge – then is there not an imperative to also judge the truthfulness (and perhaps also/therefore the “justness”) of said knowledge once it is organized?

    If it is prescriptive why leave out that imperative?

    Early in our understanding of human evolution some used the theory to justify oppression of “lesser” peoples. Now, I believe in evolution and am not here throwing up a cavil against the theory. But the information was collected and organized but there was no effort to organize it and present it in a “truthful” or “just” way.

    What am I getting at here? Earlier in the article it was mentioned that science has become institutionalized. I would take that a step further and say that science and its practitioners have become (involuntarily) our cultures high priests and prophets. They present their research (truths) to a largely ignorant public who on the whole take the “experts” at their word. The scientist also serves as a type of prophet – the dire warnings about the potential for disaster in New Orleans and the “coming to pass” of such warnings that went unheeded are just one example, global warming may be thought of as another. The scientist is in this role, whether he/she likes it or not, by default – our old gods are gone and science is our new source of revelation. With this role comes a certain responsibility, correct? Perhaps that is a false assumption. Assuming that is the case then is there not a need to not only organize knowledge, or even deem it useful, but to go a step farther and judge its truthfulness (for ideas true or false have consequences) as well as to present those ideas/findings/theories in a way that promotes a just use of the new information or technology.

    I understand the danger of co-mingling scientific study with morality and ethics. Galileo’s experiences in the middle ages (and others since) perhaps justify the need for an amoral approach to science. However, could it be that the pendulum has swung to far the other way? Is there no room for asking questions about the ethics of knowledge gained? Copernicus’ experiences

    I am not entirely certain that I have properly asked my question so I will hope for a response and a chance to clearify the question.
    Thank you for presenting these ideas.

  • Mark

    Massaging the data to fit the hypothesis no matter what 1980s.

  • Kevin Kelly

    Was this really a new innovation? I have the feeling it has happened all along.

  • Kevin Kelly

    I agree with Barry Kort that self-awareness of science is in fact a scientific advance. That is the story journalists tell scientists.

    Nomaps provoked an interesting idea: what would be a good test for determinism. If I wanted to demonstrate that technology and science were the primary determinants of our history, what kind of evidence would I need to bring forward? I mean what kind of real, actual evidence, vs. hypothetical.

  • Edward

    Sorry….I (just) discovered your website from a friend recently. I found it fascinating and offers views that I don’t normally find in Asia.

    About Fact, I see it more of “verifying” Truth instead of”‘invention of”. Also, I would add that Fact (Earth cycles around the Sun) is different from Dogma or Belief. Though I don’t know if 1550 is the year when this ‘happens’ on a noticeably larger scale.

    Would be interesting if there are more mapping co-relations to ebb/flow of technology in (east) Asian civilisation…mapped to similiar western view. :-) Om.

  • Michael H Goldhaber

    The typical heroic version of the history of science would include the beginning of what might be called “materialist” explanations such as atomism among the pre-Socratic Greeks, and would attrribute the experimental method to Roger Bacon about 1260. Then there is the detailed, sytematic Aristotelian attempt at explanation of natural and other phenomena in the 4th C bce, I’m not sure by what criterion these dates are not on your list. Of course, these are “western;” other developments of like sort could be adduced in other cultures; but your list also looks western. (science as we now know it certainly can be traced in descent from the Greeks, and Western Europe by R. Bacon’s age so these additions seem the right ones.)

  • I would nominate journalism and storytelling as important contributions to the scientific method.

    Scientific research is often slow, tedious, and arcane. Scientific models are often complex, highly mathematical, and difficult to explain or comprehend. Researchers often develop highly idiosyncratic terms and language that translate poorly into ordinary language.

    Journalists, storytellers, and playwrights have made important contributions to research by their artful techniques of translating scientific arcana into formats that are accessible to the intelligent audience.

    While I can readily appreciate a well-crafted story, I often found myself at a loss how good stories are crafted. Eventually, I got around to putting together my first feeble attempt to construct a scientific theory of storycraft. Out of this effort came the Seven-Layer Character Model (hinted at by the Onion Model from Shrek), and the associated Vexagon Diagram, with the key theorem suggested by Tom Clancy (the vector sum of all fears is zero).

    Here is a very brief summary of my thoughts to date on Drama Theory and StoryCraft:

  • Nathan Ketsdever

    No hat tip to new forms of peer review?

    Certainly, its not industry wide, but perhaps in 3 to 5 years it (probably) will be.

    Sure, its might be a matter of tools vs. practice, but I’m not sure that distinction is clear cut.

  • Paul

    I’m also curious to hear more about the invention of the “fact”.

  • nomaps

    I would take issue with the opening statement. Again, the determinism of technology or of science is but a part of the overall determinism of humanity which in turn is part of the determinism of life et. etc.. A joke I remember from science class: ‘Q:why is the steam engine descended from a loaf of bread? A:necessity is the mother of invention’

    Science pushes forward the boundaries of knowledge. Technology reflects the needs and desires of humanity.

  • Janus Daniels

    Every factor listed pales before one not listed: movable type with Europe’s block phonetic alphabet. It made information cheap and almost loss proof, giving Europe a decisive advantage over the rest of the world that lasted for centuries.

  • Michael Gruber

    The idea that the world is real and worth studying closely in the first place would seem to be a basic predicate for the development of a scientific culture. You might actually argue that the Incarnation gave to Christian civilization a tendency that the other great civilizations did not have. You would have to argue against J. Diamond here.
    Also, one of the best statments I’ve read about science futures is contained in Berlinski’s _A Tour of the Calculus_:

    “The body of mathematics to which the calculus gives rise embodies a certain swashbuckling style of thinking, at once bold and dramatic, given over to large intellectual gestures and indifferent, in large measure, to any very detailed description of the world. It is s style that has shaped the physical but not the biological sciences, and its succes in Newtonian mechanics, general relativity, and quantum mechanics is among the miracles of mankind. But the era in thought that the calculus made possible is coming to an end. Everyone feels this is so, and everyone is right.”

    Obviously this elegaic view is not shared by the great panjandrums of hard science, but it certainly seems true to me.

  • Hamwise Tarot

    “One example, which may be more than fifty years old (depending on how one demarcates the origin as opposed to full flowering), is statistical inference, without which psychology, social science, epidemiology, and so on would be impossible.”

    Epidemiology maybe, but to say that psychology is impossible without statistical inference is just completely unhinged. There’s a whole literature out there about how reliance on null hypothesis significance testing is a major factor in the slow progress of scientific psychology.

  • Rick Ruscoll

    1- why is the scientific method timeline chronology out of order? 1687 before 1650? 1950 before 1946?

    2 – your maxim, “Everything is connected to everything else” –
    a digital notion, certainly; utopian/dystopian; and simply untrue.

  • Tom Buckner

    1550 Invention of the Fact

    I would like to hear more about this! I would have thought Fact had always existed. It seems such a bedrock concept.

  • Berend Schotanus

    “Science steers the future of technology.”

    One of my big headaches as an engineer is the enormous amount of implicit knowledge that can be found in any organization that uses technology. I have seen so many attempts to replace “old-fashioned” technology by new “scientifically” designed technology result in big failure that I have become restrained in the approach of technology as a deterministic science. In fact this is the reason I started to see technology as evolution. It is much easier and more promising to copy an existing concept and make a few modifications than to make a new design from scratch and that is, as far as I see how engineering works.

    • @Berend: Yes, most of technological knowledge is not written down. The bulk of it is embedded in practice, conveyed by humans showing others, and carried in the heads of employees. You could not manufacture a working DVD from existing literature.

      And thanks for all your other thoughtful comments.

  • 2004: TeleCommunities? (online thematic communities of practice with emerging co-intelligence in which content can be contextualized and re-contextualized to form new meaningful worldviews)