Technology Is Science, Too

Via a retweeted link from Thony C. on Twitter, I ran across a blog post declaring science a “bourgeois pastime.” The argument, attributed to a book by Dierdre McCloskey is that rather than being at the root of economic progress, scientific advances are a by-product of economic advances. As society got more wealthy, it was able to direct more resources to science, which made great advances possible.

And, you know, if you’re looking to make a bold and contrarian argument, you can certainly do that. Unfortunately, the bit quoted from McCloskey as an illustration of the power of the argument is:

Such an apparently straightforward matter as the chemistry of the blast furnace was not entirely understood until well into the twentieth century, and yet the costs of iron and steel had fallen and fallen for a century and a half.

Now, I haven’t read McCloskey’s book, or previously encountered this blog, so making too much of this is a dicey proposition. But at least on this particular line of argument, I vehemently disagree.

I mean, you can argue that this is a true statement in support of the argument that science doesn’t drive progress, but in order to do so you need to adopt a perverse and ahistorical definition of “science.” Because while it’s absolutely true that we didn’t have a modern chemical understanding of steel-making until the twentieth century– more or less by definition– using that fact to claim that science was not involved in making iron and steel better and cheaper is utter garbage.

Science is not a particular set of facts or institutions, science is a process. And that process is at the heart of human civilization. It may not have included a microscopic picture of crystal lattices or an understanding of band structure, but there was unquestionably a great deal of science done in the process of making iron and steel better and cheaper through the 19th century, and long before that. People mining ore explored new techniques for getting metal out of the ground, and steadily improved quality and reduced cost. People extracting metal from ore tried new refining techniques, and developed better methods for ensuring purity. People making steel from iron and coke tried new mixes and improved furnaces, and steadily got better at what they were doing.

All of that is fundamentally scientific in nature. That is, people involved in the production of iron and steel looked at what they were doing, thought about ways they might do it better, tried those ideas out, and kept those that worked. And they passed those ideas on to their descendants and colleagues, leading to a general improvement. That process is the essential core of science.

And that process is not an invention of nineteenth century bourgeois gentlemen– it’s as old as the species. But since we’re talking about metallurgy, we’ll just stick with steel, the making of which is not by any means an obvious process. You need to get iron ore hot enough to melt, which is not a trivial step, and when you melt it you need to include something in the mix that will react with the undesirable impurities to leave stronger metal behind. Every detail matters, including the temperature, the ore composition, the cooling/ quenching method, etc., and none of that is immediately obvious. How it’s forged into useful implements is yet another complex subject, with different types of tools needing different techniques.

And yet, somebody had figured out how to do all this by around 4000 years ago, at least as claimed in that Wikipedia article. By the eighth century AD, steelmaking was understood well enough for the Japanese to be making really cool swords like the ones in the “featured image” up top (which, OK are more recent than that, but the oldest characteristically Japanese swords date from the 700’s), optimized for local conditions (that is, the particular shape of the blades and the techniques used to make them fit with the available resources and local martial styles, in what was probably a mutual refinement process).

That process involves science at every step– figuring out which rocks contain iron, how to make a really hot fire, what to add to get strong steel, how to forge it to make a good blade, etc. All of that was developed over centuries of trial and error experimentation, and refined into a high art.

Now, the usual counter-argument to this is some dismissive statement like “Oh, but that’s just engineering, not science.” But that’s exactly the sort of false class distinction that historians and social scientists are forever clucking tongues and wagging fingers about. I suppose there’s really nothing stopping people from choosing to define “science” as doing the sort of thing that wealthy white males started doing in the eighteenth century. Turning around and then declaring it a “bourgeois pastime” is the worst sort of intellectual chicanery, though– it only looks like a bourgeois pastime because you’ve chosen a narrow and impoverished definition that excludes the vast majority of the last hundred thousand years of human scientific activity.

Now, it’s tempting to speculate about the social and psychological factors that make scholars in non-scientific fields want to run with this kind of definition– what’s good for the goose, etc.– but that would be petty and unproductive (I am not, however, above hinting at it as a cheap shot). What we really need is not more cheap Two Cultures point-scoring, but a more inclusive definition of what science is, that encompasses what humans actually do. Which has to include the long history of progress in technology, not merely the recent development of a sophisticated understanding of matter at microscopic scales.

(Now, as I said above, I haven’t read McCloskey’s book, so I may be doing her a disservice based on a poor selection of quotes on the part of another blogger. But the “That’s just engineering/technology” dismissal is one of the most common responses when I describe my book-in-progress, so I’ve been meaning to do something along these lines for a while now. This was just the catalyst that got me annoyed enough to type it out.)

14 Replies to “Technology Is Science, Too”

  1. I hope that my piece did not come off as a denigration of the subset of what you call science that I referred to as science. My main point was that there is a very natural human impulse to pursue knowledge for its own sake, and that should be given more recognition than it currently is. We are too willing to throw out anything that people devote a lot of energy to that doesn’t have any obvious direct practical benefits, or to start talking about indirect practical benefits if we want to defend that activity. Why not just cut the crap and say that a lot of physicists love physics for the same reason that painters love to paint? It is fun! It is exhilarating! Whatever the reason may be.

    As for the semantics issue: I understand where you are coming from. But I do think we can speak of distinct traditions of craftmanship and engineering with their very, very long histories, and modern science dating back to the Republic of Letters or thereabouts. I was primarily considering the latter, which has certainly imbued its values to the others (and vice versa) but I still think it’s a useful distinction.

  2. Adam: Yes, a physicist may go into physics because he or she loves it, but say it’s “cutting the crap” to acknowledge that love of science assumes that you can’t simultaneously love your job and care that it impacts society in a positive economic way.

    Also, to say that the impact of scientific research is overrated because, say, 1 out of every 500 papers is directly related to a practical application is disingenuous. As Chad said: science is a process. Every major breakthrough that can be directly tied to a practical application relies on the results of hundreds of other papers, done over many years by many different people.

  3. I believe it was Henry Petrovski who said: Science answers questions, Engineering solves problems.

    And consider the transparency of glass. Folks have been making glass since at least the Ancient Egyptians. It’s only been in the last century that the optical properties have improved by many orders of magnitude.

    It’s a lot easier to solve a problem when you know what the answer is.

  4. I don’t disagree with the statement that most professional scientists choose careers in science mostly because they find science rewarding. But then, I think the same can be said of basically any profession requiring a long period of training. People in general tend not to spend long stretches of time working at things that they don’t enjoy at least a little bit; some will do it for money, but science doesn’t really pay well enough for that to be the dominant effect.

    I have a few problems with that as an argument regarding the status of science, however, starting with Megan’s observation in comment #2 that enjoying a job does not exclude believing that it’s making a positive contribution. After all, I suspect people who go into generally medicine enjoy being doctors, but I don’t think that would rule out also saying that they want to have a positive impact on the health of their community. Those motivations are perfectly compatible, and the same is true of science.

    I’m also a little bothered by the fact that this would again limit science to a very narrow subset of those who make use of scientific processes and technical expertise, namely academic scientists studying abstract problems. There are, in fact, a very large number of scientists who are very directly pursuing practical applications in industrial positions. To say nothing of the vast number of people working as engineers and the like. Now, it may be true that very few of them actually make seminal contributions that dramatically advance the welfare of humanity in general, but all that really tells you is that scientific progress is difficult. Most painters and poets don’t manage to produce immortal classics of Art, either, but they don’t generally appreciate that as an argument against pursuing a career in the arts.

    I’m also not entirely convinced that the traditions of science and technology are all that cleanly separable, either by time or topic. After all, there have been abstract theorizers in science going back at least as far as Aristotle, and practical advances in technology have gone hand in hand with advances in science for centuries, each enabling the other. Which is not to say that there haven’t been a lot of attempts to separate the two, but a large fraction of those have come from wealthy gentlemen seeking to distinguish their scientific pursuits from those of grubby tradesmen. I’m not inclined to give that a lot of weight when trying to decide what counts as science.

    And, finally, I am generally very skeptical of assertions that science is a recent and limited endeavor because these days those tend to either come from would-be gatekeepers of Science looking to set themselves above the unscientific masses– the spiritual heirs of Victorian gentry placing science out of reach of the lower classes– or from people on the other side of the Two Cultures rift looking to cut down science so as to establish that their own interests are more essentially human than science. Neither of which I have much interest in supporting.

    So, while I will concede that there is a professional and institutional definition of science that is very recent– William Whewell coining the term “scientist” in the 1830’s, etc.– I don’t agree that it is the definition of science, or even the most important and/or useful definition of science. While you can pick out a particular modern thread of the overall fabric, this is usually done in ways that distort the overall picture in service of less than admirable aims. At best, the modern tradition of science in the Whewell-ian sense is only a subset of a broader ongoing tradition of knowledge construction, in the same way that, say, geology is a subset of modern academic science.

  5. You’ve both given me food for thought. I certainly didn’t intend to be any sort of Gatekeeper! Thanks for the very thoughtful feedback; rather than respond or defend at this point I think I will opt to digest.

  6. As an engineer I see it very differently, I myself value engineering more then science. After all it’s engineers who fish useful gems from the oceans of mostly useless knowledge churned out by scientists and who turn them into things of practical benefit to everyone. To me “that’s engineering not science” is not a dismissal it’s the recognition of the fact that for most of our history the progress was achieved almost solely by engineers and not by scientists as those terms are commonly understood. (making up your own “better” definitions and arguing from them is at best counterproductive). Without science progress would still happen while without engineering it wouldn’t.

    In other words the proper way of phrasing it is not that “technology is science”, but rather that “science is a sum of technology and useless crap” 😛

  7. @timo: Bollocks.

    If you are an engineer, you routinely create theories of the form, “This design is suitable for this specific purpose.” Some such theories turn out to be spectacularly wrong, such as the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge or the floating-point division bug in early Pentium chips. When that happens, other engineers learn from that mistake, and future designs are adjusted accordingly. That is precisely the sort of activity Chad defines as science.

    Furthermore, it’s hard to tell in advance what will be useful. For instance, do you view the radiative properties of black bodies to be a useless research topic? If you answered “yes”, then please discard all of your computers and other electronic devices, none of which would exist in a universe where no Max Planck was available to notice that you could explain the spectrum black bodies emit by assuming that radiation came in discrete packets. Or to take another example: there are thousands of plant species in tropical rain forests, not all of which have been characterized, and one of them might produce a future miracle drug like quinine, the first effective antimalarial drug, which came from a South American plant.

  8. Theories of the form “this design is suitable for this specific purpose” are the prime example of technology/engineering and not of a scientific theory. The activity of verifying such theories is precisely what engineers do. It certainly is not “science” as it is commonly understood and hardly anyone cares that Chad wants to redefine the term science to include such theories and activities cause it suits the narrative of his new book.

    As for the study of the emission spectra of black bodies this was a practical problem from the very beginning. The study of black hole information problem and “firewalls” on the other hand are a good example of what i was referring to above as useless crap.

  9. Timo as a card carrying engineer myself I can say without reservation about your comment,- What??? Engineering that is not based on science is not good engineering and creating a model and checking it IS science. Where would it be taught otherwise? In Engineering we are using the tools of science, and the scientific method to build things where we can have more confidence because they are based on a body of common knowledge. Much of what engineers do is science by any common definition. I think your definition is very limited.

    Now the purpose behind making or using these models of the natural world may be different, one to help specific projects and one to investigate the models themselves. But that blurs as soon as you get close.

    Modern engineering and modern science emerged at pretty much exactly the same time and in the same places and that is not a co-incidence in my mind.

  10. Engineers take advantage of science but that doesn’t make them scientists. Scientists take advantage of engineering, that doesn’t make them engineers.

    Engineering is not intrinsically based on science as it predates science by hundreds of thousands if not millions of years, animals do engineering, they don’t do science. Engineering is based on trial and error. Science is an outgrowth of engineering, scientific method is really a more refined trial and error, where you try to extract as much information as possible from your errors and pick next trials accordingly.

    Of course engineering takes advantage of the knowledge produced by science but that doesn’t make it the same thing as science. Chemistry takes advantage of the knowledge produced by physics but chemistry is not physics, biology is not chemistry etc.

    Science is creating abstract and general models, engineering is solving practical and specific problems.

    PS. Modern science and modern engineering emerged at the same time because “modern” qualifier refers to a specific time period. Medieval warfare and medieval art emerged at pretty much the same time too.

  11. I understand science has having two phases or areas. One is the testing of hypotheses and formulating theories to try to understand things about nature that we do not completely understand. One could label this as academic science. The other phase: normal, ordinary, applied, etc. science is the application of theories where they are known (at least one hopes) to work. I’d say this is the major part of scientific activity. This grades into technology and engineering, I suppose. I think engineers often use “best engineering practice”. If science is testing hypoteses in an attempt of falsify them, I don’t think engineers when they built, for example, the afore mentioned Tacoma Narrows Bridge were trying to falsify the hypothesis that it would resist being blown down. In any case, science and engineering are synergistic. We can do science with instruments engineers made possible, and engineers could do that because of knowledge made available by science. It is true, however, that people used and manipulated fire for thousands of years before the physics of combustion were understood. I rather think there is no such thing as useless knowledge about nature. Sooner or later someone will figure out how to make a buck using it.

  12. It was the success of science in driving industrialization that led to the development of our modern US university system starting in the 1860s and 1870s. Sure, we could figure out how to make steel by trial and error, but it was clear there were patterns. Suddenly, it was important to have places to do research and to teach a new generation how to tackle new problems.

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