And as for the overmuch credit that hath been given unto authors in sciences, in making them dictators, that their words should stand, and not consuls, to give advice; the damage is infinite that sciences have received thereby, as the principal cause that hath kept them low at a stay without growth or advancement. For hence it hath come, that in arts mechanical the first deviser comes shortest, and time addeth and perfecteth; but in sciences the first author goeth furthest, and time leeseth and corrupteth.
So we see artillery, sailing, printing, and the like, were grossly managed at the first, and by time accommodated and refined; but contrariwise, the philosophies and sciences of Aristotle, Plato, Democritus, Hippocrates, Euclides, Archimedes, of most vigour at the first, and by time degenerate and imbased: whereof the reason is no other, but that in the former many wits and industries have contributed in one; and in the latter many wits and industries have been spent about the wit of some one, whom many times they have rather depraved than illustrated; for, as water will not ascend higher than the level of the first spring-head from whence it descendeth, so knowledge derived from Aristotle, and exempted from liberty of examination, will not rise again higher than the knowledge of Aristotle.
– Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning
The goal of science is to learn about the world, not to study the work of scientists.
Science is a confusing word today because it describes both a process and a body of knowledge. When people say “I love science”, what they mean is the body of knowledge, not the difficult, ambiguous process of squeezing knowledge from the world and questioning everything they know.
This confusion emerges, at least in part, because “studying science” in school means “memorizing the facts someone else has learned”. Teaching the “scientific method” is a nod in the right direction but in practice is just another set of steps to recite and instructions to follow, as though we were monks learning the prayer times. As David Chapman writes, this is not even a real description of how science is done:
Science—and any intellectual work involving innovation—addresses the unknown, and therefore must not be routinized, ritualized, or merely rationalized. Conforming to the ritual norms of a practice community does not produce discovery.
The work of past scientists can be a useful place to start. But we must go beyond what they’ve built, continue along new paths, not simply add ornaments to the palaces of those who came before.
Eliezer Yudkowsky echoes this:
[In traditional Judaism] modern rabbis are not allowed to overrule ancient rabbis…Knowledge derives from authority, and therefore is only ever lost, not gained, as time passes…[but] science gains knowledge with every generation.”
It is helpful to imagine a spectrum between two extremes. On the one side, pure self-directed questing. On the other, a scholarship that must always be grounded in past work. As in many cases, the proper approach is not a “golden mean” but a bouncing back and forth: a continual calibration of what you wish to know and how you understand the world with the work and interpretation of the past.
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