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The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of…

The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The… (1996)

by John Horgan

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It seems there is a simple statement at the heart of this book: "We're not going to find anything as world-altering as General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, or Darwinian Evolution in the future." And maybe this is correct. (modulo e.g. resolving dark matter/energy.)

Attached to this is a critique that much of public science communication is just boosterism or "ironic science," as defined by Horgan (which would be 'speculative' science to the rest of us.)

It's hard to argue with either of these. Maybe we will need to replace the standard model to account for dark matter; but that replacement will contain the standard model. QM and GR need to be married, but that marriage will contain QM and GR. Will either of these things be as revolutionary as their predecessors? Horgan argues no, based on some faith and a bit of argument. I'm not so sure, but there is a strong possibility he is right.

Nonetheless, science may be limited in many ways, few of which are ever discussed in pop-science books. This book tries to do that... but fails to be convincing on several fronts.

The first is that while I share some of Horgan's sense of, "Well, this is just BS," in regards to some popular theories/areas/subjects, he doesn't argue that these areas are non-productive so much as he argues that the people promoting/researching in them are "ironic scientists." He also, it seems, caricatures or even... cherry picks... to make his point. (That is my impression; not a fact.) Additionally, he fails to discuss whether the cruft around the edges is normal. Perhaps there is always a certain amount of BS swirling about the edges of 'real' science; perhaps 'ironic' science isn't new or unusual or significant. I think it's easy to forget all the ideas, good and bad and 'not even wrong', left on history's cutting room floor.

Second, the argument that we've found out enough that there simply isn't room left on the map for world shattering discoveries to be hiding is compelling. But that is all. Maybe figuring out what e.g. dark matter is will involve some truly fundamental shift in physics. Maybe there is some deep revelation waiting in network/complexity/brain studies/sciences. Point is, we won't know until it happens. (Though, yes, we can, so to speak, constrain phase space and say it is more an more unlikely when/if 2050, 2100, 2250, 2500 passes and no new discoveries have come.)

Third, even if his point is valid, I'm not sure it's quite the existential crisis he makes it out to be. E.g. terraforming Mars is 'mere engineering', but I'm sure it would absorb a lot of the mental 'spare cycles' of those so inclined. He mentions and kind of dismisses lifespan extension... as if this wouldn't be earth shattering to scientists and lay persons alike, even if not as fundamental in some pure, Platonic sense as e.g. General Relativity.

Horgan also leaves some points just lying on the table. He discusses science becoming too complex for humans but what if it simply becomes too bulky? He could have explored more the idea that as science builds up there is more training required to become an expert who can contribute; already young scientists will be near 30 when finishing their first post-doc, and many will be older if they don't follow a strictly 'standard' educational path. This isn't, strictly speaking, a matter of science; it is at least as much one of pedagogy and perhaps one of human lifespan (so, science/technology.) ( )
1 vote dcunning11235 | Aug 28, 2017 |
About the author: quoting from the end page of the book, "John Horgan is a senior writer at 'Scientific American,' where he has worked since 1986. He has won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award (twice) and the National Association of Science Writers Science-in-Society Award. His articles have appeared in [multiple respected publications.] He graduated from Columbia University School of Journalism in 1983." James Gleick, author of 'Chaos,' said of this work, "John Horgan buttonholes the most interesting scientists on the planet--and he listens, he argues, he thinks. He has an exceedingly accurate instinct for the side of science that isn't published in journals or taught in schools, and it's a privilege to be able to follow along as he peers behind the curtain."
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  uufnn | Mar 12, 2017 |
In support of a daring postulate, certain to enrage a myriad of scientists, the author harvested a cohort of interesting interviews that provide interesting perspectives. Given what’s at stake, one would have expected little support for such a subjective and aggressive proposition, but pessimists will be delighted to discover that they are in good company. ( )
  bruneau | Nov 27, 2009 |
The most interesting insights for me here are into the scientists and philosophers themselves as human beings - I value this as psychological information which helps shed light on their thinking. He gives us many seemingly inconsequential details about individual scientist's behaviour and traits which I find fascinating in building up an impression of the people they were (many have since died). When it comes to reasoning however, Horgan reveals he's no philosopher, making some basic errors in respect of (for example) Karl Popper's thinking. I highly recommend Horgan as a science writer, he seems to be able to cut through the crap as few others do (see for example how he strips the hype from Edelman's pronouncements). What I'm not clear about though is the true nature of his central argument - he says that science will continue in an 'ironic' mode - to me he could be saying that we'll realize that knowledge is ultimately subjective - in which case I'm with him. If he's saying that the limits of knowledge have been reached then I disagree. ( )
1 vote abraxalito | Aug 27, 2008 |
Showing 4 of 4
_The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age_ (1996) by John Horgan is an interesting analysis and series of interviews of prominent scientists in all major fields arguing that in fact science is reaching its endpoint. Horgan maintains that in most fields of endeavor the great discoveries of pure science have already been accomplished and that this means that pure science may be reaching an endpoint. Horgan considers the history and philosophy of science, showing various alternative interpretations of the scientific method as well as arguments against science. Horgan then interviews prominent scientists in major fields and shows how he believes that they have reached dead ends in which the benefits of further research will be outstripped by the costs. Horgan considers scientists to be practicing a new form of science which he refers to as “ironic science” more akin to literary criticism. Horgan maintains that science seeks the Answer which can only be found through mystical experience.

The book includes the following chapters -

Introduction: Searching for the Answer - Horgan considers his experiences with Roger Penrose who proposed a radical theory to account for human consciousness and relates this to literary criticism. Horgan considers the difference between science and literary criticism but notes that the two merge in what he refers to as ironic science.

The End of Progress - Horgan maintains that science might be ending because it has worked too well. Horgan considers the theories of Gunther Stent who maintained that science might one day come to an end and that individuals would engage in other pursuits after science had brought about a new golden age. Horgan explains the idea of progress and how while science has made possible progress it has also led to an impasse from which it cannot break.

The Rest of the Book is devoted to detailing the influence of science in various areas of specialization and argues that in all fields science is reaching an end and being replaced by ironic science.
The chapter titles are -

The End of Philosophy.
The End of Physics.
The End of Cosmology.
The End of Evolutionary Biology.
The End of Social Science.
The End of Neuroscience.
The End of Chaoplexity.
The End of Limitology.
Scientific Theology, or The End of Machine Science.
Epilogue: The Terror of God.

Horgan concludes by showing a mystical experience he encountered and considers the Church of the Holy Terror as the answer to the ultimate question.
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Nei nostri anni la scienza sembra vittima di un acuto paradosso: da un lato moltiplica – e attraverso illustri studiosi – i tentativi di raggiungere ciò che Roger Penrose chiama «la Risposta: il segreto della vita, la soluzione dell’enigma dell’universo»; dall’altro insinua sempre più spesso – e sempre attraverso autorevoli voci – il sospetto che la scienza stessa stia per esaurirsi, almeno per quanto riguarda le scoperte essenziali. Fine della scienza, in ogni caso: o per compimento di tutte le promesse o per il riconoscimento della insolubilità di alcune questioni capitali. Su questo tema appassionante John Horgan è riuscito a costruire un libro che costituisce una scommessa azzardata: un viaggio fra gli scienziati più discussi e le loro idee, dove il corso dei ragionamenti si mescola costantemente a considerazioni sullo stile, sulle ambizioni, sul contesto biografico dei vari interlocutori – da Gell-Mann a Prigogine, da Hawking a Wilson, da Wheeler a Tipler, da Dennett a Minsky. Con somma abilità, Horgan riesce a darci il senso della vertiginosa complessità dei problemi, mantenendo tuttavia il tono di una discussione chiarificatrice, e insieme facendoci sentire – nei tic, nelle eccentricità, nei rancori, nelle ingenuità, nelle ironie – di quale tessuto si compone la vita intellettuale di alcuni fra i più grandi scienziati di oggi, visitati nel loro habitat. La fine della scienza è apparso negli Stati Uniti nel 1996.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0553061747, Paperback)

In a series of interviews with luminaries of modern science, Scientific American senior editor John Horgan conducted a guided tour of the scientific world and where it might be headed in The End of Science. The book, which generated great controversy and became a bestseller, now appears in paperback with a new afterword by the author. Through a series of essays in which he visits with such figures as Roger Penrose, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, and others, Horgan captures the distinct personalities of his subjects while investigating whether science may indeed be reaching its end. While this book is in no way dumbed down, it is accessible and can take the general reader to the outer edges of scientific exploration.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:29 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

As a staff writer for Scientific American, John Horgan has a window on contemporary science unsurpassed in all the world. Who else routinely interviews the likes of Lynn Margulis, Roger Penrose, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, Murray Gell-Mann, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, Thomas Kuhn, Chris Langton, Karl Popper, Steven Weinberg, and E. O. Wilson, with the freedom to probe their innermost thoughts? This is the secret fear that Horgan pursues throughout this remarkable book: Have the big questions all been answered? Has all the knowledge worth pursuing become known? Will there be a final "theory of everything" that signals the end? Is the age of great discoveries behind us? Is science today reduced to mere puzzle solving and adding details to existing theories? Scientists have always set themselves apart from other scholars in the belief that they do not construct the truth, they discover it. Their work is not interpretation but simple revelation of what exists in the empirical universe. But science itself keeps imposing limits on its own power. Special relativity prohibits the transmission of matter or information at speeds faster than that of light; quantum mechanics dictates uncertainty; and chaos theory confirms the impossibility of complete prediction. Meanwhile, the very idea of scientific rationality is under fire from Neo-Luddites, animal-rights activists, religious fundamentalists, and New Agers alike. As Horgan makes clear, perhaps the greatest threat to science may come from losing its special place in the hierarchy of disciplines, being reduced to something more akin to literary criticism as more and more theoreticians engage in the theory twiddling he calls "ironic science." Still, while Horgan offers his critique, grounded in the thinking of the world's leading researchers, he offers homage, too. If science is ending, he maintains, it is only because it has done its work so well.… (more)

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