The Transformations of Science

Jonathan Francisca/Strahov library, Prague

In November of 1660, at Gresham College in London, an invisible college of learned men held their first meeting after 20 years of informal collaboration. They chose their coat of arms: the Crown’s three lions of England set against a white backdrop. Their motto: “Nullius in verba,” or “take no one’s word for it.” Three years later, they received a charter from King Charles II and became what was and remains the world’s preeminent scientific institution: the Royal Society.

Three and a half centuries later, in July of 2021, even respected publications began to grow weary of a different, now constant refrain: “Trust the science.” It was a mantra everyone was supposed to accept, repeated again and again, ad nauseum

This new motto was the latest culmination of a series of transformations science has undergone since the founding of the Royal Society, reflecting the changing nature of science on one hand, and its expanding social role on the other. 

The present world’s preeminent system of thought now takes science as a central pillar and wields its authority to great consequence. But the story of how that came to be is, as one might expect, only barely understood.

Science Before Scientists

The investigation of the natural world stretches back to antiquity and earlier. Some philosophers inquired into number and shape, some into the heavens, some into the nature and disposition of things here on Earth. The latter practice came to be known as natural philosophy.

The history of natural philosophy is complex and richer than many would imagine. It includes records of observations by historians like Plutarch and Pliny the Elder, theories of natural phenomena by philosophers like Thales, Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus, and descriptions of instruments and experiments by artificers like Peter Peregrinus. It also includes little-known feats like the latter’s discovery of the basic properties of magnetism in the 13th century AD and surprises such as the possible invention of the telescope in the writings of Roger Bacon hundreds of years before Galileo.

Importantly, the investigation of nature in the early history of natural philosophy was largely an individual endeavor. Lone investigators created theories, built instruments, conducted experiments, and wrote accounts of different aspects of nature. There could then be decades or even centuries before the next major recorded advance.

While the idea of the Scientific Revolution has been critiqued in a number of quarters, it is clear something very important happened in the 16th and 17th centuries. Natural philosophers made important discoveries in astronomy, mechanics, electricity, magnetism, optics, chemistry, anatomy, and mathematics. Following the invention of the printing press, scholars exchanged written works and their ideas at an unparalleled pace, laying the foundations for new epistemologies and their promulgation.

One of these new prospective epistemologies was advanced by Robert Boyle, a polymathic researcher and inventor known best for his gas law relating pressure and volume. By 1645, Boyle had become a member of an “Invisible” or “Philosophical College,” a group devoted to acquiring useful knowledge through natural philosophy, and in 1663 he was a founding member of the “The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge”—the same Royal Society of today.

Boyle maintained that it was possible to base all knowledge of nature on personal observation, thereby eliminating a reliance on the authority of others. He further proposed that if there were differences of opinion, they could be resolved by experiments which would yield observations confirming or denying those opinions. The idea that one would rely on one’s own observations rather than those of others was enshrined in the motto of the Royal Society—nullius in verba.

From Boyle’s perspective, a case in point was the question of whether a pure vacuum was possible. This question was disputed by metaphysicians and natural philosophers alike. Boyle proposed that one could prove which theory was right by using the newly invented air pump—a “philosophical instrument,” as it was called—to conduct an experiment, and then use the observations to decide between the theories. The Royal Society was a place, Boyle maintained, where people could actually make those authoritative observations together.

Not everyone was convinced by Boyle’s program. One noted dissenter was Thomas Hobbes, who pointed out that in practice it was not possible for everyone to actually make the relevant observations. This was especially true for Hobbes himself, as he was not a member of the Royal Society. Hobbes instead proposed that claims should be derived with mathematical certainty from axioms themselves known with certainty. This would also eliminate the need to rely on someone else’s say-so, and had the advantage of not requiring membership in the Royal Society.

Attempts to derive physical truths with certainty through non-empirical methods continued through Kant, though in general history favored Boyle rather than Hobbes. Nevertheless, the dispute between Hobbes and Boyle presaged problems that would later arise surrounding the question of the epistemic foundations of science: who precisely was supposed to make the relevant observations, and who was supposed to rely on whom?

Boyle had some awareness of the problems with his proposal. In response, he proposed that people who could not make the observations themselves could do thought experiments and observe the results in their minds—a suggestion whose weakness reveals the difficulty he encountered in fully eliminating the reliance on authority.

Weaknesses in the epistemic foundation notwithstanding, with the founding of the Royal Society a change had taken place. Rather than lone individuals communicating across decades or longer, there were now a sufficient number of participants, in close enough contact and armed with readily available instruments, that a new form of interaction was possible: an epistemic practice that involved grounding out claims in statements about observables, all within a group that would check those claims by checking the observations.

This collaborative epistemic practice is recognizably science in its modern form. Today, science still involves the justification of claims by means of observation, the checking of results by others, and the resolution of disputes by means of crucial experiments.

Looking back, we think of Boyle and his contemporaries and predecessors as scientists, and their investigations as feeding into and informing the scientific enterprise. But the term “scientist” had not yet been coined, and would not be for more than another hundred years.

Science as a Public Phenomenon

While what had been primarily an individual pursuit had come to be a group activity, science was still taking place in a private setting. Its next change would be in the transformation of a private endeavor into a public one.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, natural philosophers had been exploring and tinkering with a variety of phenomena. They had compiled lists of luminous bodies, collected botanical and zoological specimens, used microscopes to explore the fine structure of materials and the world of microorganisms, and made increasing progress identifying objects in the night sky.

Work with electricity in particular had advanced substantially. Gilbert had isolated electrostatic attraction; Hauksbee had isolated electric light. Gray and du Fay had discovered conductors and insulators. It was the discovery of the Leyden jar, however, that put electricity—and scientific experimentation—squarely into the public consciousness.

Several investigators had been trying to store electricity; this was a natural next step after mastering generation and conduction. This led to independent discoveries in 1745 and 1746 of the first capacitor, which could generate extremely powerful shocks for anyone who touched the jar in the right—or wrong—way.

L’experience de Leyde” became a necessity. People gathered in crowds to watch people be shocked or be shocked themselves. Participants would stand linked hand-to-hand, sometimes in chains eighty people long, and all feel a jolt when the first person in the chain touched the Leyden jar.

Public interest continued. Electrical researchers supplemented their incomes by doing demonstrations. Benjamin Franklin put his inventive acumen to use and created electrical amusements such as a portrait of a king that would shock anyone who touched the crown, but also did more astonishing demonstrations, explaining how to safely channel lightning with what we now call lightning rods.

With scientific displays now prominent in the public eye, these public demonstrators began to acquire a name and a reputation. They were called—not scientists, not yet—“men of science.”

Scientific Authority is Born

Public demonstrations seemed to buttress the epistemic foundations of science. Rather than what could be seen or discerned by men of science behind closed doors, there were now many natural phenomena on display for members of the public to observe.

Not all public demonstrations produced clarity, however. Whereas public displays of electrical effects helped create scientific consensus, the case of Mesmerism and animal magnetism proved different.

Beginning in 1774, physician Franz Mesmer began investigating a hypothesis according to which people possessed a form of magnetism that could be used to cure a variety of physical ailments—“animal magnetism,” he called it.

Mesmer’s methods were striking. He gripped patients’ wrists and looked deep into their eyes. He would press his hands on the patients’ bodies for hours and visualize what he believed to be the animal magnetic substance. After the procedure, he would sometimes play a glass harmonica.

His results were also striking. Patients were reported to experience convulsions, sometimes simply by being in Mesmer’s presence. Subjects of the Mesmeric procedure reported being cured of asthma, paralysis, blindness, suicidal thoughts, persistent pain, and many other maladies.

To an observer in the twenty-first century, many of Mesmer’s methods are immediately recognizable as a form of hypnosis, and the results of those methods at least distantly familiar. At the time, however, they caused a sensation, both in France and abroad.

Mesmer himself, as noted, attributed his effects to a phenomenon he called “animal magnetism.” Natural philosophers had just a few years earlier encountered galvanism, in which an amputated frog’s leg could be made to twitch by contact with certain combinations of metals, which some interpreted as a form of electricity called “animal electricity.” This left a potential space for a corresponding “animal magnetism.”

In 1784, King Louis XVI appointed two commissions to investigate the practices of one of Mesmer’s disciples. One of these commissions was led by Benjamin Franklin, himself already an international sensation as a result of his successes with electricity.

The purpose of the commission was not to investigate the reality or efficacy of the disciple’s practices, but rather to ascertain whether the effects of the practices could be attributed to a novel physical substance, i.e., animal magnetism. Using blinding and other modern methods, the Franklin Commission concluded that there was no evidence for the existence of “animal magnetism” and that the mechanism of the effects produced by Mesmer and his followers “cannot be regarded as physical…it is entirely mental, it is the action of imagination on imagination.”

It is interesting that the surprising effects admitted by all to have been produced by Mesmer and his students did not then become further objects of study, whether they be the result of physics or psychology. But more notable for present purposes is the appearance of a new aspect of science: the use of scientific authority.

It was perhaps inevitable that as science progressed from the more to the less obvious, the visible to the invisible, the clear to the obscure, that it would eventually pass out of the realm of what could be easily confirmed by public observation alone. As the subject of scientific investigation escaped the realm of the easily observable, there came to be a need for those who could authoritatively determine the veracity of claims. In a word, scientific experts.

The original ideal of nullius in verba sometimes leads people to say that science is a never-ending exploration, never certain, and hence antithetical to claims on the basis of authority. This emphasizes one aspect of science, and indeed in theory any part of the scientific corpus could be overturned by further observations.

There is, however, another part of science—settled science. Settled science is safe to rely on, at least for now. Calling it into question should not be at the top of our priorities, and grant committees, for example, should typically not give money to researchers who want to question it again. 

Settled science is the basis for scientific authority. Even in the early case of the Franklin Commission, there is a tacit reference to settled science. Refuting the hypothesis of animal magnetism depended on the supposition that animal magnetism was itself a mind-independent phenomenon—something that could not have been assumed had magnetism itself not already been established to be mind-independent. This basic fact about the nature of magnetism was settled science.

In 1834, William Whewell coined a new term, “scientist.” Over time, as science as a source of authority grew, this new word took on all of its present connotations of authority.

Science and the State

Once science became a source of authority, that authority became a powerful resource. As science expanded and established its public reputation, it became capable of furnishing both the material for state decisions and the public justification for those decisions.

At the same time, an expanded science needed more funding, and the state was the best candidate to provide it. The result was a relationship of mutual dependence and mutual benefit, with science supplying material and authority for decisions and receiving funding to continue its work.

Of course, state interest in science did not rise precipitously immediately after the Franklin Commission or the coining of the word “scientist.” Rather, mutual interest increased over time, especially as science proved useful in military contexts and military funding became available to researchers. Some of this pattern is visible during World War I, but the trend becomes especially pronounced during World War II, when scientists produced war-winning weapons and technologies of unprecedented power, like the atom bomb, radar, proximity fuzes, and the jet engine.

The entrenchment and authority of science continued to increase after World War II, as did the degree of funding. When we look at science now, we see its support and application in a variety of state functions, including the domains of medicine, mental health, and public health.

There is no essential conflict between the state’s use of the authority of science and the health of the scientific enterprise itself. It is easy to imagine a well-funded and healthy scientific enterprise whose authority is deployed appropriately for state purposes without undermining the operation of science itself.

In practice, however, there can be a tension between state aims and scientific aims, where the state wants actionable knowledge and the imprimatur of science, often far in advance of the science getting settled. This is especially likely in response to a disruptive phenomenon that is too new for the science to have settled yet—for example, a novel pathogen with unknown transmission mechanisms and health effects.

Our recent experience of the pandemic put this tension on display, with state recommendations moving against masks, and then for masks, as the state had to make tactical decisions about a novel threat with limited information. In each case, politicians sought to adorn the recommendations with the authority of settled science; an unfortunate, if understandable, choice.

This joint partnership of science and the state is relatively new. One question worth asking is whether the development was inevitable. Science had an important flaw in its epistemic foundation, dating back to Boyle and the Royal Society—its failure to determine the proper conditions and use of scientific authority. “Nullius in verba” made some sense in 1660, before much science was settled and when the enterprise was small enough that most natural philosophers could personally observe or replicate the experiments of the others. It came to make less sense as science itself succeeded, scaled up, and acquired intellectual authority. Perhaps a better answer to the question of scientific authority would have led science to take a different course.

Turning from the past to the future, we now face the worrying prospect that the union of science and the state may have weakened science itself. Some time ago, commentators raised the specter of scientific slowdown, and more recent analysis has provided further justification for these fears. Why is science slowing? To put it simply, it may be difficult to have science be both authoritative and exploratory at the same time.

When scientists are meant to be authoritative, they’re supposed to know the answer. When they’re exploring, it’s okay if they don’t. Hence, encouraging scientists to reach authoritative conclusions prematurely may undermine their ability to explore—thereby yielding scientific slowdown. Such a dynamic may be difficult to detect, since the people who are supposed to detect it might themselves be wrapped up in a premature authoritative consensus.

Thus, from an unfixed flaw in the foundation, the surprise accumulation of authority and premature acceptance of that authority, science completed the inversion of its original ethos—and nullius in verba became “trust the science.”

Don’t Trust the Science

State overreach using scientific authority as its basis is not the end of the story. Science has further steps to take in its journey from its beginnings in natural philosophy to its future as a sound and reliable element in public epistemology and public authority.

The next phase of the evolution of science will necessarily involve the reconciliation of its exploratory and authoritative elements. This will require changes both at the level of scientific practice and public understanding.

At the level of scientific practice, we should expect vast changes in institutions. Some scientific fields and subfields should continue to claim authority. Others, however, should disclaim it partly or completely. Some journals should continue to expect authoritatively written papers. Others should discourage authoritative writing, or even ban it. Many have fretted over the replication crisis and its solution—for fields below a certain level of replication, we might consider decertification.

Sweeping proposals are like a bludgeon; a masterful restructuring of science would operate like a scalpel. In some cases, the best solution might be to break a field into multiple separate and rarely interacting components, thereby preventing premature consensus. In other cases, it may be necessary to introduce many different gradations of acceptance and authority.

The funding landscape may also need to be restructured, with funding for the exploratory parts of science becoming much more decentralized. Career tracks might be distinguished into types depending on the solidity of the scientific field—quite naturally, different people will succeed in later-stage sciences than in earlier-stage ones.

The use of scientific authority in public will have to more thoroughly integrate certain truths that every practicing scientist knows and takes for granted. These include that some parts of science are settled and others far from it, that different fields have different degrees of solidity, and that different results carry different degrees of authority.

Together, these changes would amount to an important change in the nature of science, both epistemically and as a public institution. Nullius in verba would be set to one side, “trust the science” would be set to the other. Between them, taking each in correct measure, we may find a new and better middle way. Previous transformations of science have taken centuries; with effort and care, this one may go faster.

Geoff Anders is the founder and Executive Director of Leverage Research, an independent research institute dedicated to the study and support of early stage science. He has a PhD in Philosophy from Rutgers University.