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Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 2: Reproducibility

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December 13, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 2: Reproducibility

Today's entry was written by Ian Hutchinson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In his new book Monopolizing Knowledge (available for purchase now), physicist Ian Hutchinson engages with the world-view he calls “scientism”: “the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge” (page vii). In Hutchinson’s eyes, this erroneous world-view is at least indirectly responsible for the apparent friction between science and religion that many see today. In this series (taken from the larger book, which engages the topic in a much fuller and deeper fashion), Hutchinson will attempt to both explain and dismantle “scientism” by examining both what we mean when we say “science”, and how the scientistic worldview oversteps this definition and becomes a philosophical and metaphysical framework. In part 1, we took a brief look at the origins of scientism. Today, we explore the first of two key characteristics of true science: reproducibility.

Reproducibility. What is nature?

There are two key characteristics of science that underlie its immense power but limit its scope: reproducibility and Clarity (which we will discuss in the next post). It was said that whenever the great 19th century scientist Michael Faraday heard of some new phenomenon the first thing he would do was attempt to reproduce the effect in his own laboratory. He explained that his imagination had to be anchored in what he called the "facts", and he understood that science is concerned with reproducible experimental phenomena. For a phenomenon to be a question of science, it has to give reproducible results, independent of who, where, and when of the experiment.

Induction is often touted as the defining philosophical method of natural science, but as a procedure it is hardly more than a formalization of the everyday processes of discovery practiced by humans from their earliest conscious moments. What Francis Bacon did in laying the foundations for the Scientific Revolution was not so much to explain induction as to insist that science had to be practical ("for the relief of man's estate" as he put it). Practical technique demands reproducibility. The knowledge that gives rise to useful technology has to be knowledge that is reproducible and gives rise to tangible effects. These are precisely the characteristics of modern science.

Establishing confidence in reproducible knowledge, certain enough for practical application and meeting our expectations for natural science, requires a deliberate approach to experimentation which is a formalization of the notion of reproducibility. Isaac Newton's famous demonstration that white light is in fact composed of a spectrum of light of different colors is often cited as a "crucial experiment". In his letter to the Royal Society of February 1672 he relates his experiments with the refraction of light through a prism. He talks about various ideas he ruled out as possible explanations of the observations and then says:

Figure 1: Newton's experiment with prisms.

This done, I took the first Prisme in my hand, and turned it to and fro slowly about its Axis, so much as to make the several parts of the Image, cast on the second board, successively pass through the hole in it, that I might observe to what places on the wall the second Prisme would refract them. And I saw by the variation of those places, that the light, tending to that end of the Image, towards which the refraction of the first Prisme was made, did in the second Prisme suffer a Refraction considerably greater then the light tending to the other end.1

In a remarkably short time, the acceptance of this demonstration became practically universal because the key qualitative features, and even the quantitative aspects, could be reproduced at will by experimenters with only a moderate degree of competence.

Nevertheless, an important objection arises in response to the view that science is utterly dependent on this kind of reproducibility: what about observational sciences, like astronomy? The heavenly bodies are far outside our reach. We cannot do experiments on them. Yet who in their right mind would deny astronomy is science? Or consider the early stages of botany or zoology. For centuries, those disciplines consisted largely of systematic gathering, cataloging and classifying of samples of species. Surely it would be pure physicist's arrogance to say that botany or zoology were not, even in their classification stages, science. Are the observational sciences exceptions to the principle that science requires reproducibility?

No. Astronomy was from the pre-industrial age the archetype of reproducibility. It wasn’t just because the heavens showed remarkable systematically repeated cycles that it commanded the attention of so many philosophers. It was because the repeatability gave astronomers the ability to predict with amazing precision the phenomena of the heavens that astronomy appeared almost mystical in its status. The independence of place and observer was satisfied by astronomy with superb accuracy.

There are, of course, unique phenomena in astronomy. On 4th July 1054, astronomers in China first observed a new star in the constellation of Taurus. Its brightness grew visibly day by day. During its three brightest weeks it was reported as visible in daylight, four times brighter than the evening star (the planet we now know as Venus). It remained visible to the naked eye for about two years. We now know these astronomers were observing a supernova. If this were the only supernova ever observed, then we would probably be much more reticent to regard the event with credence. But of course it is not. With modern telescopes, supernovae in other galaxies can be regularly observed.

The SN1054 supernova gave rise to the beautiful Crab Nebula, seen below:

Figure 2: Photograph by the Hubble Telescope of the Crab Nebula. 2

Thus, one can thereby get readily accessible reproducible evidence of its date. The expansion rate of the Crab Nebula can be established by comparing photographs separated in time. One can then trace that expansion backward and discover when the now-expanding rim must have been all together in the local explosion. This process, applied by an undergraduate at Dartmouth College to photographs taken 17 years apart, gives us a date in the middle of the 11th century, which lines up perfectly with the recorded observations of the Chinese astronomers. The Crab Nebula's supernova, though having its own unique features, was an event of a type represented by numerous other examples. It was observable to, and recorded by, multiple observers. It left long-lived evidence that for years could be seen by anyone who looked. These are the characteristics of reproducibility in the observational sciences.

One can go through the same exercise for botany, zoology, and geology, all of which have had major phases where they were largely observational. Even so they require multiple repeatable examples of the phenomenon or specimen under consideration. Science does not require that these can be produced at will in the way that a laboratory experiment can. Observations of interest may occur only at certain times (for example eclipses) or in certain places (for example in a specific habitat), over which we might have little or no control. But it does require that multiple examples exist reproducibly.

A second important objection to the assertion that science requires reproducibility concerns the occurrence of random phenomena. If science is the study of the world in so far as it is reproducible, why does probability -- the mathematical embodiment of randomness, the ultimate in non-reproducibility -- play such a prominent role in modern physics? Quantum mechanics can calculate accurately the probability of events but not predict them individually in a reproducible way. Where does that leave the view that science demands reproducibility? Did 20th century physics in fact abandon that principle? No. Instead, science presses up against the limits of reproducibility. The world is not completely predictable even in principle, but science wants to describe it as completely as possible, to the extent that it is. So when up against unpredictability, science invokes deterministic mathematics, but uses the mathematics to govern just the probability of the occurrence of events. Probability is, in a sense, the extent to which random events display reproducibility. Science describes the world in terms of reproducible events to the extent that it can be described that way.

A third challenge to the principle of reproducibility lies in the types of events that are inherently unique. How can reproducibility be a principle applied to the Big Bang origin of the universe? Or how can we apply principles of repeatability to the origin of life on earth, or to the details of how the earth's many species got here? The answer is, for specific unique events of history, evidence based on scientific analysis is rarely decisive, but much of natural history is instead about the broad sweep of development of the universe, the solar system, the planet, or the earth's creatures. In other words, questions of natural history are usually about generalities, not particularities. They are about issues giving rise to repeated observational examples, not single instances. The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe is a generality confirmed by a multitude of observations that show the same result.

Figure 3: Temperature, atmospheric carbon-dioxide, and dust record from the ice cores from Vostok, Antarctica. [3]

The same goes for the history of the earth's climate, for example. It is discovered in all sorts of ways, from tree rings to paleontology. Perhaps the most convincing and detailed information comes from various types of "cores" sampled from successively deposited strata (layers of rock and soil) in the Earth. Their results are reproducible. If an ice core is drilled in the same place, the results one gets are the same. Deep-sea-bed sediment cores from all over the globe agree with the ice cores.

Science requires reproducibility. But in many fields of human knowledge the degree of reproducibility we require in science is absent. This absence does not in my view undermine their ability to provide real knowledge. On the contrary, the whole point of my analysis is to assert that non-scientific knowledge is real and essential, just not scientific.

Sociologists today acknowledge that sociology does not offer the kind of reproducibility that is characteristic of the natural sciences. Even so, they feel they must insist on the title of science, because of the scientism of the age.

History is a field in which there is thankfully less science envy. Obviously history, more often than not, is concerned with events in the past that cannot be repeated. History is crucial knowledge but cannot be made into a science.

The study of the law (jurisprudence) is a field whose research and practice that cannot be scientific because it is not concerned with the reproducible. The circumstances of particular events cannot be subjected to repeated tests or to multiple observations.

Economics is a field of high intellectual rigor, but the absence of an opportunity for truly reproducible tests or observations and the impossibility of isolating the different components of economic systems means that economics as a discipline is qualitatively different from science.

Politics is a field, if there ever was one, that is the complete contradiction of what scientists seek in nature. It seems a great pity, and perhaps a sign of the scientism we are discussing in this series, that the academic field of study is referred to these days almost universally as Political Science.

These disciplines do not lend themselves to the epistemological techniques that underlie natural science's reliable models and convincing proofs. They are about more indefinite, intractable, unique, and often more human problems. In short, they are not about nature.


1. Isaac Newton. A letter of Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge; containing his New Theory about Light and Colors. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 80: 3075-3087, 1672a.
2. Figure 2 credit NASA/ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University), 2005.
3. J R Petit, J Jouzel, D Raynaud, N I Barkov, J M Barnola, I Basile, M Bender, J Chappellaz, J Davis, G Delaygue, M Delmotte, V M Kotlyakov, M Legrand, V Lipenkov, C Lorius, L Nipin, C Ritz, E Saltzman, and M Stievenard. Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the vostok ice core, antarctica. Nature, 399: 429-436, 1999. Figure 3 obtained from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Vostok-ice-core-petit.png

Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary research interest is plasma physics and its practical applications. He and his MIT team designed, built and operate the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, an international experimental facility whose magnetically confined plasmas are prototypical of a future fusion reactor. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and his doctorate in engineering physics from the Australian National University. He directed the Alcator project from 1987 to 2003 and served as head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department from 2003 to 2009. In addition to over 200 journal articles on a variety of plasma phenomena, Hutchinson is widely known for his standard monograph on measuring plasmas: Principles of Plasma Diagnostics. For more, see Hutchinson's book Monopolizing Knowledge.

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Jon Garvey - #66522

December 13th 2011

Prof Hutchinson seems a very reasonable case. If true, the article is an assertion that metaphysical naturalism is wrong, for there are some things that are not nature, ie what is studied in sociology, history, law, economics or politics.

By implication, science (narrowly understood as per the article) is not competent to deal with these areas, so there is a need for clearly defined criteria of what is nature, and what is not. Mere complexity cannot be sufficient, for biological life is far more complex than sociology etc, and would seem to be included under “natural science”.

Psychology is the root of the human “sciences”, so is that outwith “natural science”? Evolutionary psychology?

What are the distinguishing criteria of “natural” and “non-natural” events that delineate the magisterium of science?

Merv - #66543

December 13th 2011

Jon, I’m having trouble following your first statement that his article, if true, jettisons MN.  Can you elaborate on how you got there from what Prof. Hutchinson writes?

And objections on the order of:   “what do you mean suggesting that my field isn’t a science?!”  ...aren’t these exactly what the prof. describes here?   We take such things pejoratively because of the science envy so unnecessarily felt.  Or perhaps necessarily felt because of funding dollars.   But the main thrust I see in this article is that such science-envy is misplaced from the get-go.  To want something to be what it isn’t is an implicit admission that the so-evaluated field is thought to be of lesser value unless it can grab some corner of science’s reproducibility mantle to cover itself with.  And *these* implicit concessions of “inferiority” need to be given the heave-ho back to the nineteenth century where they came from.


Jon Garvey - #66555

December 14th 2011

Hi Merv

First, a heads-up that my training was in medical sciences and social psychology - both on the borderline of what Hutchinson is discussing.

In the previous article the suggestion was that one uses science to define nature. This time he suggests that science is properly the study of nature, and that the list of “sciences” he names lie outside that field.

Like you, I have trouble with that demarcation, but if it is applied (and presumably accepted by the body scientific) then it’s a tacit admission that human sciences study more than nature. I’m sure Hutchinson has no metaphysical problem with that, but are the Atkins of this world going to relinquish the global ambitions of their scientism?

On the “science envy” front, that seems to be a view from a natural sciences bias. My experience of the social sciences is that they rejoiced in their more fluid methodology and provisionality. Their use of “science” wasn’t derived from trying to ape successful natural sciences, but from the whole academic tradition of the west, in which “science” since 1300 had meant “something acquired by study”, the highest discipline being theology, then down via philosophy to the lowly natural philosophy.

Tha fact that natural science has been in the ascendancy, and studies the humbler aspects of the universe that are reproducible, doesn’t seem to me to give it sole rights to the term “science”, nor to suggest that other disciplines are involved in some kind of Freudian jealousy.

At the same time, as Gregory of happy memory would say, human sciences need to be careful not to adopt the assumptions of natural sciences uncritically, because of the latter’s inability to deal with the non-natural aspects of reality.

Merv - #66562

December 14th 2011

Jon wrote:  “The fact that natural science has been in the ascendancy, and studies
the humbler aspects of the universe that are reproducible, doesn’t seem
to me to give it sole rights to the term “science”, nor to suggest that
other disciplines are involved in some kind of Freudian jealousy.”

Indeed my slip (physical sciences bias) seems to be showing, and you rightly call me on it—thank you for the correction.  It surely must be a sign of robust health of a field if it can rejoice in its own “more fluid methodology and provisionality”. 

On the matter of how nature and science are defined (or are circularly used to define each other) I tend towards a kind of agnostic dispassion.  So if Atkins & co. want to think that all fields ultimately are subsets of materialist domain, I don’t foresee any way to prove them wrong, but also can’t see any need to—so long as various professions feel free to go about their ways with their own useful methodologies.  Your description of science as a broader academic tradition from antiquity sounds eminently reasonable to me.  I’m just thinking that to the extent we may buy into “reproducibility” as being a defining characteristic of “science”, that Professor Hutchinson is on track when he warns us how we may be using that word too restrictively, and then beyond that, over-valuing the whole concept in the first place.


Jon Garvey - #66576

December 15th 2011

Hi Merv

I guess in the very broadest sense reproducibility is essential to science: even historical sciences try to show that one-off cointingencies were governed by reproducible laws. Origin of life is (it is assumed without direct evidence) a one-off, but it’s studied with a view to the  chemistry being the same. Even theology as a science is showing at the lower levels that you can understand a complex test more consistently, and at the higher levels that what you believe about God remains true.

Human sciences study patterns, but acknowledging that free agents often (like divine beings) distort  patterns by choices.

Yet I agree that the restricted sense often used of reproducibility is really a cheap trick by natural sciences to put a wall round their discipline. “Cheap” because it maintains the myth of objectivity: only data is reproducible, and you can check it as oftenj as you like and still draw false conclusions.

ZeroG - #66680

December 19th 2011

As a matter of fact Julian Jaynes looked at “evolutionary psychology” in his awesome book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. He shows how our minds evolved from bicameral to subjectively conscious. He actually shows how the Bible is the best record of this change we have.

HornSpiel - #66528

December 13th 2011

I have to disagree with a blanket ruling-out of human sciences as nonscientific. The study of humans can be scientific—to the extent that we are the product of and controled by physical laws and reproducible biological processes. The laws and theories generated will, of course, be more along the lines of probabilistic generalizations.

 For example, a sociologist can take reports of instances of “group think” and generalize to a theory of when humans will conform to the opinions of others around them. If people were more aware of this tendency, we might be more likely to elect better candidates and support better laws.

Linguists can look at the evolution of languages and theorize not only about language change (the indo-european family tree of languages) but also about the cognitive structures in the brain that support language. This can help in the treatment of speech disorders.

The error is to say either people are just biological machines, thus in principle completely scientifically describable, or that they are completely autonomous from nature, thus completely outside the realm of scientific study. No, we are both and perhaps more than both.

Argon - #66535

December 13th 2011

Human sciences are ‘non-scientific’? Paging Professor Hari Seldon…

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66681

December 19th 2011

HornSpiel wrote:

No, we are both and perhaps more than both.

Has it ever occured to you that humans might have a spiritual aspect, and what would happen if all scientists had to admit that this were true?

O, the horror of it all!  Think of the crying and gnashing of teeth!  

KevinR - #66554

December 13th 2011

The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe is a generality
confirmed by a multitude of observations that show the same result.
In the case of historical events the results or rather the interpretation of those results are largely dependent on the assumptions that are made up front. Hence one can make the same measurements, obtain the same physical results and yet have totally differing conclusions based on what one assumes the initial conditions to have been. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that just about every new astronomy observation contradicts the big bang model, forcing the observers to rethink their starting conditions. One reads almost daily about how stars must have formed must earlier than originally thought because the observations show that there are old, old, old galaxies out at distances where they were expecting young immature ones. Or that old, burnt-out galaxies now have a new-found ability to generate new blue stars. Or that hot Jupiters should not form so close to their stars - but they do. The list goes on and on.

This is the part which evolutionists are so dogmatic about - insisting that their set of assumptions [read worldview] are bed-rock truth and hence that their conclusions are the truth and anything else is false. This is done to the extend that anything that remotely goes against the paradigm gets shot down in a flash.

I hope Prof. Hutchinson makes a clear distinction on this particular point. Whilst one can use the most advanced scientific instruments and apply the most complex scientific analysis, the end result remains in the meta-physical domain simply because we cannot go back to observe everything from the beginning.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66565

December 14th 2011


This goes back to the Monism vs Dualism.  Scientism holds that the world is composed of the physical only, Matter/Energy only.  Western Dualism holds that the world is composed of both the physical and non-material ideas, as in Body and Mind.

The physical sciences are about the physical world.  They are what most people think about when they talk about science with Physics being the King of these sciences.  These sciences before we encountered the strange world of quantum physics were most quantifiable.

However living creatures, even plants are not that easy to quantify.  They do not passively interact with their environment, they actively interact with each other and their environment.  Life is more than physical, so the life sciences, including evolution, do not fit into the materialist monist physical scientism paradigm, even though Darwinists try very hard to make it fit into their procustean bed.

Humans are even further from the scientism paradigm because we have the ability to think and make decisions, thus the social or human sciences defy mechanistic scientific approaches.  Again some scientists like Dennett are denying the ability of humans to make rational decisions. 

History is knowledge, but is it science?  The same for the arts, philosophy, and theology.  The world is clearly more than matter/energy, which is the most serious problem for materialist scientism/atheism.  How to define and describe what this is? marks the challenge for those who disagree with Materialism.

That is why I have tried to formulate a relational complex/one model of the world that goes beyond monism and dualism.          


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