Joshua Rothman reviews The Knowledge Machine, a new book on science by philosopher Michael Strevens, which purports to reveal “the monstrosity that lies at the heart of modern science.” That monstrosity is work, the absolutely gigantic amounts of data collection modern scientists have to do before they can publish anything:
Strevens tells the story of Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally, two “rival endocrinologists” who shared a Nobel Prize in 1977 for discovering the molecular structure of TRH—a hormone, produced in the hypothalamus, that helps regulate the release of other hormones and so shapes many aspects of our lives. Mapping the hormone’s structure, Strevens explains, was an “epic slog” that lasted more than a decade, during which “literally tons of brain tissue, obtained from sheep or pigs, had to be mashed up and processed.” Guillemin and Schally, who were racing each other to analyze TRH—they crossed the finish line simultaneously—weren’t weirdos who loved animal brains. They gritted their teeth through the work. “Nobody before had to process millions of hypothalami,” Schally said. “The key factor is not the money, it’s the will . . . the brutal force of putting in sixty hours a week for a year to get one million fragments.”
Looking back on the project, Schally attributed their success to their outsider status. “Guillemin and I, we are immigrants, obscure little doctors, we fought our way to the top,” he said. But Strevens points out that “many important scientific studies have required of their practitioners a degree of single-mindedness that is quite inhuman.” It’s not just brain juice that demands such commitment. Scientists have dedicated entire careers to the painstaking refinement of delicate instruments, to the digging up of bone fragments, to the gathering of statistics about variations in the beaks of finches. Uncertain of success, they toil in an obscurity that will deepen into futility if their work doesn’t pan out.
Behind the intriguing discoveries and bold theories that fans of science love to read about
are long hours, days, months of tedious laboratory labor. The single greatest obstacle to successful science is the difficulty of persuading brilliant minds to give up the intellectual pleasures of continual speculation and debate, theorizing and arguing, and to turn instead to a life consisting almost entirely of the production of experimental data.
Scientists do this, Strevens says, because of the Iron Law of Explanations, which says that
if they are to participate in the scientific enterprise, they must uncover or generate new evidence to argue with . . . and they must conduct all disputes with reference to empirical evidence alone.
I agree with Strevens that there is something barely human about the mountains of work scientists have to do in order to accomplish anything. This makes me wonder a little about the future of our society; how can it be a good thing for our progress to depend on many of our smartest people giving up family life and just about every thing else for their careers? I suppose in the Middle Ages many intellectuals were monks, and they survived, but it still bothers me that we should ask so much of anyone who wants to be a scientist.