Mailvox: science vs tech

CS asks for a distinction:

I was wondering if you could elaborate on the basis of an assertion that I recently saw you make on your blog (“You may now make your historically ignorant statement attempting to give science credit for that which either predates science, was created by non-scientists, or should more rightly be credited to entrepreneurial activity”) and that you also made in TIA – that it has often been wrongfully assumed that certain technological/beneficial advancements to humanity can be attributed to “science”. You reference a Current History journal article about soviet vs. US science spending in the TIA to show how massive government science spending doesn’t equal an abundance of technological/scientific advance, but I was wondering if you could point to any other material that supports your assertion; perhaps, quite simply, an example of a private industry development that people may think developed via academic science. Also, I was wondering if you could perhaps clarify your definition of the difference between developments attributable to “science” or “non-science” (e.g., would the hypothetical development of a new, effective miracle drug by academically trained/accredited scientists working for a private pharmaceutical company be a result of “science” or “entrepreneurial activity”). I realize you acknowledge the fuzzy distinction between science and non-science in the TIA and I may be generating a false dichotomy based on your treatment of this issue, but I am intrigued by your argument (since I typically would be one to credit ‘science’ by default for new advancements) and was hoping you could provide more info.

First, I note that it is deeply and profoundly disingenuous for science fetishists to attempt to claim for science technological accomplishments that predated the scientific method or were accomplished by non-scientists making use of the simple trial-and-error approach. If science is nothing more than trial-and-error, there is no such thing as a scientist; we are all scientists. The fuzzy distinction of which CS speaks is the result of two things, the incorrect expansion of the concept of basic experimentation to cover the entire methodology and the dishonest desire of science fetishists to claim every positive human technological accomplishment for science.

The scientific method is a reasonably rigorous and methodical process that involves copious record-keeping and intellectual intent. It is not merely noticing that chocolate and peanut butter happen to taste good together; baking is not science. In the same way, two young men experimenting with electronics in an effort to have fun or make money is not science; while mainframe computers most certainly the result of science, personal computers were not. To argue that a non-scientific technological development is science because it could not have taken place because of previous scientific developments is spurious reasoning, as the same logic could be used to demonstrate that the personal computer is the result of agriculture.

In answer to the question about the private pharmaceutical company, it’s not the profit motive that determines whether a given development was the result of science or non-science, but rather the approach to the problem. If a technological development is the result of the direct and purposeful application of the scientific method, it should be properly credited to science. If it is the result of the same shotgun approach to trial-and-error that was used successfully for millenia prior to the development of the scientific method, it cannot be.

I find the subject somewhat ironic, considering that despite my being occasionally labled an opponent of science or a scientific ignoramus, I probably have more patent applications and developed more technologies than 95 percent of my critics. If one of my designs were to prove useful in some scientific sense down the road, is there any doubt that it would be subsequently credited to science despite the fact that no one presently considers me a scientist or what I am doing to be science? Science is a useful, if dangerous, tool, but it is the height of ignorance and illogic to insist that Mankind could neither survive nor progress technologically without it.