“Even those who are not prone to fraud are involved in the race for indicators, citations, h-index”

Viktor Gorbatov on the present and future of scientific knowledge. Part 2

“Pseudoscience must be fought, that goes without saying. At the same time, this does not mean that science should completely clog up and refuse a dialogue with other intelligent systems that humankind has spawned. I do not want to equate “non-scientific” and “pseudoscientific” — philosopher Viktor Gorbatov highlights. In the second part of the interview with Realnoe Vremya, he spoke about the two opposing forces tearing apart science, its dialogue with religion, art and mythology, and the shortcomings of the “managerial approach”. Read the first part here.

“Modern science is not lucky with the socio-cultural situation”

What are the fundamental problems in modern science?

The first problem, which seems to me very important, is that modern science does not have complete clarity in relation to its own methodological, epistemological, ontological foundations. That is, scientists are armed with some methods, but do they always understand the prerequisites that underlie these methods? Are they always ready to accept these assumptions and their impact on the outcome? Alas, not always.

A good scientist inevitably becomes engaged in this kind of self-reflection and begins to engage in something like philosophy in his science. For example, Werner Heisenberg in his book Physics and Philosophy shows how close to modern physicists are the ideas and concepts invented by philosophers many centuries ago, how relevant the issues of “ultimate grounds” are. But not all scientists are such.

A prime example, the opposite of Heisenberg, is Stephen Hawking. Revealing the essence of the complex concepts of modern science, he compares them with the metaphysical systems of previous centuries and says that the philosophers of the past did not understand anything at all. He tries to distance himself from philosophy and argues that it is harmful to science rather than useful. His position is not merely antiphilosophical, it is hawkishly antiphilosophical. But at the same time, when we read his own works, literally at every step we find examples of philosophizing. William Craig shows this well by analyzing Hawking's latest book, co-authored with Mlodinov. “Here Hawking criticizes philosophers and does not notice that he himself is engaged in philosophy, here he uses a philosophical concept without knowing it,” etc.

This story is an example of how engaged in the struggle with philosophy, the scientist for himself builds his own philosophy of science and does not notice it. In principle, I do not see a problem here — let him build as he can. The problem is that not all scientists are capable of even that. Not all are able to dig so deeply into the essence of their scientific problems to come to the understanding of their own ultimate grounds. As a rule, in the minutiae of scientific research, questions about the fundamentals sink.

So, the first problem I see is a lack of self-reflection on the part of scientists about their own fundamental assumptions. Without that, how can we be sure what the data obtained by scientists tell about? That is, when they get a result and somehow interpret it, do they fully understand themselves what they’ve received?

Photo: nauka.vesti.ru
Stephen Hawking, revealing the essence of the complex concepts of modern science, compares them with the metaphysical systems of previous centuries and says that the philosophers of the past did not understand anything at all. He tries to distance himself from philosophy and argues that it is harmful to science rather than useful

What is the second problem then?

The second challenge of a fundamental nature is, perhaps, the fact that science is torn by two opposing forces. On the one hand, over the past few centuries it has been purposefully concerned with the problem of demarcation, that is, trying to draw a line as clear as possible between scientific and non-scientific knowledge. This is necessary in order to consistently criticize and expose numerous variants of pseudoscience. No doubt, it is a noble mission stemming from the ideals of the Enlightenment. The better we understand the boundary between science and non-science, the greater the progress in science is. That is, progress is not only in expanding our knowledge but in clarifying the language, logic, and methodology of science, clarifying its boundaries.

On the other hand, modern science is not lucky with modern society, with the socio-cultural situation. Because it lives in the era of non-classical and post-classical rationality when it has become clear that the complexity of the phenomena under study and the ways of organizing the scientific search itself require taking into account a huge number of socio-cultural determinants of scientific knowledge.

The scientist can no longer proudly say that he is engaged in the search for scientific truth and everything that happens does not matter. He cannot leave out the social context, the historical and cultural context, environmental conditionality. The fact that he has grown up in this generation, not in another, in this society and not in another, often breaks through in the studies of the abstract theorist himself. That his education and upbringing was carried out by such institutions, and not by others. That he was taught to solve scientific problems on these samples, not on those. Thomas Kuhn called this set of determinants “the disciplinary matrix” or “the scientific paradigm”. Today we have a much better understanding of sociology, economics, and the politics of science. We saw the millions of threads by which science is connected with its non-scientific environment. Therefore, the struggle for the purity of science encounters the opposite trend: the movement of science towards a broader dialogue with non-scientific forms of knowledge.

I'm a big opponent of pseudoscience. It must be fought, that goes without saying. At the same time, this does not mean that science should completely clog up and refuse a dialogue with other intelligent systems that humankind has spawned. I am for not equating “extra-scientific” and “pseudoscientific”. Among the extra-scientific forms of intellectual development of the world (myth, religion, art), pseudoscience is only a small part, although the most dangerous one.

“Science can quite reasonably and very quietly try to talk to religion”

Could you elaborate on the dialogue between religion and science? Is it possible in our days in principle?

I'll have to say a terrible thing. Yes, I believe that science can reasonably and very quietly try to have a dialogue with religion. What does reasonably and quietly mean? Reasonably means clearly understanding their points common ground. Realizing that a lot of statements of science and religion are actually incommensurable with each other because they pursue different ideological goals. About what they are incommensurable — it is not necessary to argue, it is senseless.

Tito Lassie. Galileo and Viviani. Museum of the History of Science, Florence. Reproduction wikipedia.org
I would welcome a dialogue between science and religion, with art, with mythology, maybe. Therefore, educational headlines such as “scientists against myths” personally to me seem not very successful. The myth in them is reduced to fairy tales, tall tales, absurdities. And this is the whole system of worldview and life that prevailed for many centuries, until religion and science appeared

For example, there is no need to argue about the idea of creation. The way it is understood in religion has a very different meaning than in scientific cosmology. There is no need for a scientist to criticize this meaning, it should be uninteresting in general. Or the idea of salvation in religion. If I don't believe in soul and salvation, should I criticize the concept of soul salvation? Personally, I would say: I do not understand the reasons for your beliefs and the purposes for which you formed them, but I respect your right to form your own beliefs. According to Thomas theorem, many of the opinions shared by society are real not because they reflect reality — they are real in their consequences. In other words, I stand in this issue on the positions of pragmatism — the value of persuasion is determined by its practical consequences.

So, I would welcome a dialogue between science and religion, with art, with mythology, maybe. Therefore, educational headlines such as “scientists against myths” personally to me seem not very successful. The myth in them is reduced to fairy tales, tall tales, absurdities. And this is the whole system of worldview and life that prevailed for many centuries, until religion and science appeared. As Claude Levi-Strauss said, myth is a social-psychological machine, “a time-destroying machine”. This machine shouldn’t be underestimated. Everyday consciousness still lives on myths — including techno-myths and socio-myths that have grown out of the fruits of science and education.

Besides, the history of science itself shows that it takes a number of valuable ideas from the extra-scientific sphere. The driving force behind the emergence of nontrivial and even revolutionary concepts for many scientists was precisely the connection with religion, mythology or art. They drew productive momentum from these intelligent environments. This second problem I will designate referring to the famous essay by Charles Percy Snow, as the problem of “two cultures”. In this work, he compares the culture of intellectual scientists and the culture of humanist intellectuals, saying that they are further and further separating, unfortunately, although they could greatly enrich each other.

“The managerial approach to science greatly harms it”

There is a problem: under the influence of commercialization, scientists begin to focus only on what benefits right now. Besides, fake dissertations, an endless race for new articles in magazines and to improve their rating. Is science degrading? Can it solve these problems?

You see, scientists, their laboratories and institutes receive grants, state support. Of course, they must somehow be accountable. It is a question of administration, management. And managers have a simple rule: you can't manage what you can't measure. This leads to the idea that each scientist individually and the scientific organization as a whole should have some key performance indicators by which to measure their work in order to determine who is worthy of grants and who is not.

Photo: radiovera.ru
Even those people who are not prone to fraud, plagiarism, even they are gradually involved in this race for indicators, for citations, for the Hirsch index and suffer from distorted goal-setting. That's the most dangerous thing, in my opinion

On the one hand, the very support of science through grants and funding, state or non-state, is a very important and necessary thing. Science has reached a point where it cannot be done quick and dirty. It needs a lot of money if we really want to move forward. On the other hand, the managerial approach to science greatly harms it. Because when some indicators are introduced to assess the effectiveness of the system, and the system itself is informed about the presence of these indicators, then this system begins to work on the indicators, not on its main goal. That is, goal-setting is substituted. Someone would say that it does not matter that, they say, the words about scientific search, about the desire to discover new things, to expand our horizons — this is a beautiful idealization. But I still believe that it is important for a scientist to keep the right goals in mind. Should he get paid for what he does? Undoubtedly. Should he do his work for money? In no case, otherwise the very meaning of science is substituted and distorted.

I believe that the crisis of science is manifested not even in the fact that many scammers and plagiarists have appeared. Hundreds of unscrupulous dissertations are revealed by Dissernet, and when you look around, you think, “How many people occupy their posts with fake dissertations...” But this is only the tip of the iceberg — much worse is the corrosion of values that occurs within science. Even those people who are not prone to fraud, plagiarism, even they are gradually involved in this race for indicators, for citations, for the Hirsch index and suffer from distorted goal-setting. That's the most dangerous thing, in my opinion.

Will science be able to deal with this problem? If you drop it on each scientist’s laps individually — no. The problem is systemic, not individual. The scientific community as a whole will have to develop some expert view on these kinds of problems, and there is already a grassroots movement in this direction. Scientists are beginning to resist the fact that they are driven into a rigid framework and dictate some frantic pace, some increased obligations to write articles, citations. Publish or perish. They are beginning to resist — not just singly, but in whole communities. They fight for a change in publication policy, for open free access to scientific texts, for academic autonomy and academic freedoms.

Guaranteed position in the institute, confidence in the future, access to relevant and reliable information — this is something without which it is impossible to imagine how a scientist can really do something important. What is more, all this is necessary not only for scientists themselves, it is necessary for society. Society, the state hires scientists to solve complex problems. It would be rather strange to set them truly mammoth tasks with one hand, and to take away from them the minimum necessary conditions for their solution with the other.

It seems to me that when the scientific community realizes its unity, its objective interests, it will be able to develop some solidarity position and present it to the managers of science, ministers of science. I hope that these ministers will hear the voice of the scientists themselves. I may be an idealist in this regard, but I believe in it.

What three books would you advise worth reading to anyone who wants to understand the topic of the future of science and find a solution to the fundamental problems of science?

The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age by John Horgan, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness by Roger Penrose, and Representing and Intervening by Ian Hacking.

By Matvey Antropov