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What will society consider scientific knowledge in 30 years?

The role of science in the history of mankind has changed more than once – and will continue to change. Andrey Konyaev, a scientist and popularizer of science, discusses how scientific knowledge will change

A couple of words to start

In the fall of 1993, I studied in the 3rd “B” class of secondary school No. 18 in the city of Tambov. Among the skills that we definitely needed, according to the school, at that time was the ability to add, multiply and even divide in a column. This knowledge seemed absolutely necessary, and those who doubted, mathematics teachers sealed with a rhetorical question “Are you going to always carry a calculator with you?”

Little did the teachers know that just 30 years later, the answer to their seemingly rhetorical question would be “Yes, of course. And a TV, and a telephone, and a tape recorder. And everything will fit in your pocket. And by the way, there will be no buttons there.

The meaning of this story is quite transparent: it is almost impossible to guess exactly what will happen in 30 years. This is in terms of details. However, it is possible to identify trends that will lead to radical changes in 30 years. In this case, it is the development of semiconductor electronics and the commercialization of lithium-ion batteries that began around this time.

That is why we will focus on the trends that are visible now and that will determine the future in 30 years. Guessing and fantasizing in detail what exactly these trends will result in, I will not even try.

In addition, science is a huge concept that includes poetry, archeology, and quantum mechanics. Since, among other things, I am a practicing mathematician, that is, I am engaged in this science as a scientist, we will talk about the natural sciences. This is in case the reader has an irresistible desire to write that the author is a fool and does not understand anything in the humanities. Of course, this will not stop the reader, but at least my conscience will be clear.

And finally, we will talk exclusively about Western science, and in general, the presentation will be Eurocentric. In the East, the relations between science, religion and the state were and remain completely different from what we know from Europe. Unfortunately, I do not know enough material to formulate trends outside the “golden billion”. And this, for a moment, is the majority of humanity. This is perhaps the weakest point of my reasoning – some of the collisions and trends may be completely inapplicable to Asia or Latin America.

Another social practice

Science in Europe has been banned for a long time. In the Middle Ages, scientists were burned out of harm’s way, banned, oppressed – in general, they did everything to make them idols of youth. Desperate rebels who oppose the status quo of the Church – this is how the American writer and journalist Dan Brown describes them in his books.

The Age of Enlightenment brought science into the mainstream. The main idea here was that the laws of the universe exist regardless of man. If all people disappear tomorrow, then the states will disappear, all the songs of Nadezhda Babkina, but the acceleration of free fall will still be 9.8 m / s in 1 second.

The development of technology in the 19th century and the technological revolutions of the 20th century have shown that this idea is extremely productive. Knowledge about the world was converted into steam engines, and then into nuclear icebreakers. The triumph of progress, the triumph of knowledge – science has finally proved its worth.

But science exists inseparably from people, and people were not ready to live in the scientific paradigm. Postmodernism, which replaced modernity, reduced the world to a text, canceled the author and expressed itself in a total rejection of large projects and metanarratives.

One of these dead narratives was the idea of ​​rational knowledge of the world as a natural human aspiration. In the postmodern world, science is just a text that offers an interpretation of phenomena, no better or worse than others.

At the beginning of the 21st century, postmodernity and its ideas penetrated into the practice of ordinary people. A typical user of social networks has not read Baudrillard, but, sending out memes or reposting something from his favorite Telegram channel, he is engaged in purely postmodern practices.

Postmodernity is not taught at school, but practice determines consciousness. Nothing and no one is immune to this global change – neither culture, nor art, nor politics. Not even science.

Now science does not have a monopoly on the description of the world. Science is just a variant of reading phenomena, a kind of opinion of some people. By inertia, scientists continue to command respect, but the covid has clearly demonstrated that the position of science has degraded and continues to degrade.

They don’t believe in science. Science is just another social practice, like tarot cards. And not because people are stupid, just scientific knowledge is just one of the options for telling about the world around us.

This is perhaps the main trend, which will only intensify in the near future.

Explain with fingers

The rational approach implied that people are able to understand the laws of this world, write them down in the form of formulas. Knowing the speed of the body and the initial position, we can find the position of the body at any time.

Quantum theory in this sense was an extremely unpleasant discovery – it took probability as a basis for describing the microcosm.

Even the great Einstein had a hard time accepting this reality. He believed that probability is a mathematical artifact of describing the world. That there must be a more perfect and completely deterministic theory out there somewhere, because God does not play dice. But the years have shown – no, he still plays.

The complexity of the answers that science gives was, until recently, a purely internal methodological problem. But the degradation of the authority of science has led to the fact that this problem has become not only internal, but also external.

Science requires simple answers and understandable results. Moreover, the answers should not only be understandable, they should be convincing. And with this, science is bad: it is convincing only within the framework of its own paradigm. That is, the end user is not convinced – too complicated and incomprehensible.

And if so, then the scientific result is not in itself a valuable achievement.

As a result, the only clear measure of scientific knowledge is practice. How can the new protein be used in the national economy? What profit will the new theorems bring? How will your collider help in creating a new – exclusively domestic – smartphone?

Therefore, the next trend is very simple: fundamental science in the form in which it was understood before is dying.

Scientific knowledge is not interesting for scientific knowledge, is not in demand and will not be funded. It is possible that some foundations, reserves of fundamental science will be created, but it will be a completely different science and a different scale.

synthetic natural science

Poetry is a rather specific field of knowledge. The object of its study is the body of texts created by man. This body is constantly changing and expanding. In particular, each new poem has the potential to influence existing theories in the field.

In this sense, physics differs from poetry because it deals with an objectively existing reality over which a person has no power. Atoms and molecules exist regardless of our attitude towards them.

Synthetic natural science is a natural science approach to the study of man-made objects. Perhaps the most well-known object of this kind now is neural networks, the same ChatGTP.

This natural science has clear applications. There is a big and serious applied task – standardization and certification of neural network tools. It sounds a little funny, but it’s a serious task.

If an engineer designs a bridge, he can guarantee its understandable characteristics: operating temperature, maximum load, and so on. Nothing like that can be said about neural networks. Is it possible, for example, to entrust a neural network with checking a student’s homework? Or is it possible for an ambulance driver to use a navigator, is there any hidden errors or restrictions in building a route?

In order to be able to seriously answer such questions, neural networks should be studied precisely as phenomena given to us objectively. Yes, in fact, a neural network is a multilevel recurrent approximating function, but this is not enough. We have yet to find out what it is.

The same ChatGPT will be studied, doctoral dissertations will be written on it. They, in turn, will immediately become obsolete with the release of a new version.

mimicry for science

The complex answers that science provides, as well as the degradation of its authority, create space for new types of practices that claim the laurels of the “new” science. The idea here is clear: now we will make everything clear without this absurdity.

Some time ago, there was a column in Wired announcing the death of the theory. It was about the fact that big data allows us to analyze the most complex processes without understanding how they actually work. We just find trends and immediately put them into practice.

Roughly speaking, the author proposed removing the formulation of a hypothesis and the construction of a theory from the scientific method. It is as if, instead of studying how climate or weather works, we rely on omens. Why do you need to know something about atmospheric pressure if the kettle always boils noisily on the eve of a cold snap or sparrows always bathe in dust before the rain?

It quickly became clear that life is much more diverse, and blind faith in big data disappeared somewhere. But the idea that science will work if something unnecessary is thrown out of it has not gone away. By the way, the recent story with the Titan submersible is exactly from this series: why complicate everything if you can dive in a barrel with a joystick as the main control tool?

It is important to understand that this is not pseudoscience in the usual sense. New practitioners are not trying to pretend to be science, they are trying to replace it. This is their essential difference from, for example, homeopathy or the theory of torsion fields.

It’s hard to say what will happen next. Perhaps a sect of believers in the omnipotence of neural networks or quantum cryptoastrology. But I have no doubt that people will manage and come up with game, next to which the history of Titan will seem childish.

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