Hanging on to Railroad Science

Embracing complexity is hard for many because it flies in the face of what they believe are the fixed Truths of Science. What true believer in the inviolability of scientific laws could accept for a minute that the living world rests on a fly-by-night, something-for-nothing foundation?  But that’s what an emergent phenomenon, like your brain, does.

So, before asking the reader to enjoy a group Hawking Hug, it would be helpful to look at what we mean when referring to science. It turns out that the popular notion of science may be a belief system frozen in time, during the Age of the Railroad. It may be that our understanding of nature has moved on.

Science is a word that conjures certainty. It invokes the feelings of writer Eric Hoffer’s True Believer.[i] Advocates of popular science wrote the script for Modern culture, even more than the phrase, “as seen on TV”. If science says so, do it. The “scientist” is the hero of this script. But, it wasn’t always that way. The word, “scientist” was coined the 1826 to describe men of science. These were amateurs – aristocrats, clients of aristocrats or clerics. Professional scientists were scorned. The word, scientist, itself, was a term of derision until the early twentieth century. With the rise of railroads, steamship lines and municipal gas companies, came the need for certified knowledge workers. Universities switched from schools to train clerics to schools to train and certify professionals.

As this happened, the nature of science and the scientist thereafter changed. One of the signs of that change was the rise of the myth of the war of science and religion. Another was the idea of science as unbiased finder of Fact, the heroic science spearheading progress, and the professional scientist as progressive hero.

This railroad version of science is its public face. As a result, science in the popular mind reflects science as it stood at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Later developments that cast doubt on science as the fount of certainty and scientists as objective, fall victim to faith in railroad science. The result was a gap between the popular version and actual scientific developments. Uncertainty didn’t fit. Limits on the scope of science didn’t fit. Physics that was based on activity in higher dimensions, that is in the supernatural realm, didn’t fit. Beginning in the early twentieth century, the gap kept widening. Most people now leave school believing the Facts of Science as they were in 1890 and having a very hard time thinking about anything that came later.

A society that prides itself as scientific is anything but that. It accepts the shiny face of certainty and scientific Fact, where they often don’t exist. It has a hard time with uncertainty at the foundation of physics. The idea of physics professors getting paid to speculate about the supernatural doesn’t fit. So, it’s not surprising that seemingly miraculous examples of emergent phenomena would not play well in popular culture.

Jarring Dislocations

Emergent phenomena, such as your personality and the self-organization of your local economy, violate popular science’s expectation of certainty. There’s just no getting around it. Because of this, jarring emotional dislocations are inevitable.

For Nobel Prize winning Stanford physicist, Robert Laughlin, “The transition to Age of Emergence brings to an end the myth of the absolute power of mathematics.” [ii] According to Laughlin, “Law . . . follows from collective behavior, as do the things that flow from it, such as logic and mathematics.” For example, the laws of physics emerged from the collective behavior of particles in the first few moments of the Big Bang. The laws of economics simply note a set of regularities that sometimes emerge from the complex behavior of people in the marketplace. Getting comfortable with emergence doesn’t mean giving up on scientific rules. It just means taking them outside of the lab into the chaotic real world.

Restoration of natural and human landscapes and communities is the payoff for taking a point of view anchored in the complex world. Experience with man-made catastrophes testifies to perils of laws hatched in the lab.

It may be hard to admit that reality is not confined to what happens in the laboratory. It has been noted that science is lawful and regular, like a city landscape, while emergence reflects what happens out in the unruly, but somehow orderly, countryside. Admitting that reality is actually what happens outside the lab is the first step toward getting used to the idea of emergent phenomena. Getting closer to the texture of life sometimes helps.

So, when Scientific American suggests it’s time for a big Hawking Hug, consider it.


[i] “In the eyes of the true believer, people who have no holy cause are without backbone and character – a pushover for men of faith. On the other hand, true believers of various hues, though they view each other with mortal hatred and are ready to fly at each other’s throat, recognize and respect each other’s strength.” (Hofer, Eric, The True Believer, Harper & Row, 1951 p. 147.

[ii] Laughlin, Robert, A Different Universe, Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down, Basic Books, New York, 2005, at p. 209


    • It doesn’t pay to ignore the current orthodoxy. Most people view understand facts of science you get in grade and high school.

      That’s a problem if you want to offer any updates. Almost any 20th century development seems strange. Development in our understanding of emergent phenomena is just another one of those developments. It’s easier to talk about than some. Other developments deal with unseen bits and pieces of the atom or exotic math.

      Emergent phenomena include trees, children, your language and city. They grow in ways that aren’t centrally planned, but are orderly. Everybody knows this. The new thing is our ability to use simulations to game out the semi-orderly ways in which they grow. That seems to be less of a stretch than trying to explain String Theory or quantum fluctuation.

      But, in order to get to first base with describing any new development, it helps to warm up with acknowledgement of the standard facts of science as a starting point.

Comments are closed.