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Like all effective knowledge systems, science is based on induction: careful empirical observation followed by attempts to generalize. Like all knowledge systems, it is subject to falsification, to the sudden appearance of new realities, or to new forms of information that may overturn established certainties. What distinguishes modern science from earlier knowledge systems is the size of the intellectual arena within which its ideas are generated and tested.
The English word science derives from the Latin scire, “to know.” In many languages, the word science or its equivalents can be used broadly to mean “a systematic body of knowledge that guides our relations with the world.” This is the sense that is present in phrases such as “the social sciences.” There have existed many different knowledge systems of this type. All animals with brains have, and make use of, structured knowledge of the external world, so in principle we could claim that even animals depend on some form of science.
Used in a narrower sense, the word science refers to the distinctive body of systematic knowledge about the material world that emerged in Europe within the last five hundred years and that underpinned the technological achievements of modern societies. Many societies have had complex technologies, and many have had rich and rigorous systems of religious and philosophical thought, but what is distinctive about modern science is that its theories have been used to generate extraordinarily powerful and effective technologies. As a recent study puts it, “Modern science is not just a thought-construction among others—it entails both an intellectual and an operative mastery of nature. Whereas empirical technology is a feature of every major civilization, the systematic application of scientific insights to change our natural environment (‘to conquer Nature by obeying her’, as Francis Bacon phrased it) is a creation of Europe alone” (Cohen 1994, 4). Conceived in this sense, science is a distinctively modern way of understanding the world. So, to understand the modern world, we have to understand science.
The idea of a “scientific revolution”—a fundamental transformation in ways of thinking about the world—is central to this view of the role of science in world history. Though it is generally accepted that the roots of modern science can be traced to classical Greece and Mesopotamia (although anticipations of modern scientific thought can be found in many different societies, from China to Mesoamerica, and even in some aspects of Paleolithic thought), it is widely assumed that modern science appeared during the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and its appearance marked a fundamental intellectual shift. As one survey puts it, “The Scientific Revolution represents a turning point in world history. By 1700 European scientists had overthrown the science and worldviews of Aristotle and Ptolemy. Europeans in 1700—and everyone else not long afterwards—lived in a vastly different intellectual world than that experienced by their predecessors in, say, 1500” (McClellan and Dorn 1999, 203). Over the next few centuries that revolution transformed human attitudes and human relations with the material world.
But the notion of science as a revolutionary new form of knowledge raises some complex problems. Was modern science really that different from earlier systems of knowledge? Why has it given modern societies such astonishing leverage over the material world? And is it really true, as some have claimed, that modern science offers a fundamentally superior way of describing reality?
What Is Different about Modern Science?
Answering these questions is not easy. It has proved particularly difficult to show that science offers a more accurate description of the world than earlier systems of knowledge.
Some of the earliest attempts to explain the efficacy of modern science claimed that its defining feature was careful, objective observation of the material world. Whereas most earlier systems of thought relied heavily on religious revelation or on the traditional authority of earlier writers and thinkers, so these claims go, scientists tried to put aside all preconceived notions and observe the world directly and without bias. To ensure the objectivity and precision of their observations, they devised rigorous and sometimes complex experimental methods. Then, using the results of their observations, they came up with general hypotheses about the nature of reality, using the logical method of induction.
In this view, scientific theories work because they are based on meticulous observation and rigorous logic, which explains why they offer exceptionally accurate and useful descriptions of the world. Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) is often thought to have exemplified the new experimental methods in his observations of the sun and planets through the recently invented telescope and in his experiments rolling balls down sloping planes to study the effects of gravity, while the achievement of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) in formulating general laws of motion is often taken as a paradigm example of the possibilities for radical generalization on the basis of information derived from careful observation. The seventeenth-century English natural philosopher (the contemporary term; now we would say scientist) Francis Bacon (1561–1626) was probably the first to describe the method of induction systematically, but similar arguments about the nature of modern science are still widely held today. Here, for example, is a modern definition of how science works: “Scientists propose theories and assess those theories in the light of observational and experimental evidence; what distinguishes science is the careful and systematic way in which its claims are based on evidence” (Worrall 1998, 573).
There is much truth in the inductivist view of modern science. Though examples of careful, empirical observation can be found in all human societies, never before had so many scientific observations been conducted so systematically and with such care and precision, and never before had natural philosophers tried so rigorously to build from them universal theories about the nature of reality. Unfortunately, though, the method of induction cannot guarantee the truth of scientific theories. In the first place, it is now clear that our minds shape and reorganize information as they receive it; so we can never separate observation from theorization in the neat way presupposed in the simplest models of inductive logic.
But the most fundamental problem is logical. Induction leads us from particular observations about the world to general theories about the world. Yet no observations can embrace all of reality, so induction involves a leap of faith that the small sample of reality that we can observe directly is characteristic of the whole of reality. Though it makes sense to rely on theories based on a large body of empirical evidence, induction can never yield conclusions whose truth is certain. (Bertrand Russell’s famous example was the inductivist turkey, who observed carefully how, each day, her bipedal servants provided food at a particular time; unfortunately, in mid-December, just as the turkey was about to formulate the general hypothesis that food would always appear at the same time, her servants killed her and cooked her for Christmas.) As a result, conclusions based on induction are always subject to modifications, sometimes of the most fundamental kind, as new observations become available. Thus, by carefully observing the position and motion of distant galaxies, using work on variable stars by Henrietta Leavitt (1868–1921), Edwin Hubble (1889–1953) showed that the universe, far from being stable and eternal, is in fact expanding.
Early in the twentieth century, the British-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper (1902–1994) proposed what he hoped was a more reliable apology for science. He argued that science advances through a process of “falsification.” As he pointed out, even if it is impossible to prove the truth of any theory reached by induction, it is possible to prove that some theories are wrong. So Popper argued that science should be trusted not because its conclusions are true in any absolute sense, but because it consisted of theories that had been tested rigorously and had not yet been proved wrong. The best known example of a falsifi- able idea is perhaps the claim put forward by Albert Einstein (1879–1955) that gravity affected light, a claim he suggested could be tested by seeing if the light from distant stars was bent as it passed behind the sun. The claim was successfully tested in 1919 during a solar eclipse, but what interested Popper was that Einstein’s claim was risky: it could have been proved false. Popper argued that ideologies such as Marxism and disciplines such as history did not count as sciences because they did not generate hypotheses that were precise enough to be falsified. Marxism was simply too rubbery: when it was pointed out that the socialist revolution predicted by Marx had failed to materialize, Marxists simply shifted their ground and changed the anticipated date of the revolution.
Unfortunately, even Popper’s attempts to distinguish science from other forms of knowledge were shown to be inadequate as historians of science became aware of the extent to which scientists, too, could cling to outdated theories or tweak their theories to avoid falsification. Despairing of finding any decisive proof of the truth of scientific theories, some philosophers of science gave up. The historian Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), impressed by the subjectivity and partisanship of real science, argued that the main defining feature of modern science was simply that scientists within each scientific discipline seemed to agree about the discipline’s core ideas. Sciences, he argued, were organized around paradigms, or core ideas, such as Newton’s laws of motion, or the theory of natural selection. Once firmly established these were rarely subjected to the rigorous testing procedures Popper had taken for granted; on the contrary, there was a powerful element of faith in the work of most scientists most of the time. Paradoxically, Kuhn argued that it was this faith in a core idea that explained the effectiveness of scientific research. Unlike historians, who cannot agree about the fundamental laws by which their discipline works, scientists commit to a certain body of theory and this, he argued, explains why they conduct research in a more coordinated and more effective way than historians. For example, biologists, working within the paradigm of natural selection, know that any observation appearing to threaten the fundamental principle of natural selection is important, so such problems attract many researchers, and eventually their work can lead to new insights that usually support the core paradigm.
But not always. In extreme cases, he conceded, the accumulation of new data and new ideas may lead to the overthrow of an existing paradigm. In the late nineteenth century, most physicists assumed the existence of “ether,” a universal medium within which all physical processes took place. Unfortunately, experiments on the speed of light by the U.S. researchers Albert Michelson (1852–1931) and Edward Morley (1838–1923), seemed to show that the ether did not exist—the speed of light was uniform in all directions, whereas the existence of an ether ought to have slowed light beams traveling against the ether’s flow. It was these anomalies that led Einstein to suggest that the Newtonian paradigm had to be revised. So Kuhn distinguished between normal science, the slow, sometimes plodding process by which scientists flesh out the implications of a well-established paradigm, and scientific revolutions, or periods when an established paradigm breaks down and is replaced with a new one.
Though Kuhn’s ideas may have offered a more realistic portrayal of how science actually works, they provided weak support for its truth claims and failed to account for its explanatory power, for it was easy to point to other knowledge systems, including most forms of religion, in which there existed a core body of ideas that were taken on trust but were sometimes violently overthrown. To some, it began to seem that all we could say about science was that it was better at solving the sorts of problems that need to be solved in modern societies. Instrumentalist theories of science argue that it does not really matter whether or not scientific theories are true—all that matters is whether they work. Science is best thought of not as a more or less accurate description of reality, but rather as a tool—the mental equivalent of a stone axe or a computer. Or, to adopt a more precise analogy, it is like a map of reality. As Michael Polanyi has written: “all theory may be regarded as a kind of map extended over space and time.” Similarly, Thomas Kuhn has argued that scientific theory “provides a map whose details are elucidated by mature scientific research. And since nature is too complex and varied to be explored at random, that map is as essential as observation and experiment to science’s continuing development” (Kuhn 1970, 109). Like all knowledge systems, science offers simplified and partial maps of some aspects of the real world. But it is not the same as reality.
A last-ditch attempt to preserve the idea that science can provide an accurate account of reality is the delightful no-miracles argument advanced by the philosopher Hilary Putnam (b. 1926). Putnam argued that if a theory works, then the simplest explanation of that fact is to assume that the theory provides a good description of the real world. On this argument, it is the success of modern science that justifies its claims to provide accurate descriptions of reality. As Putnam puts it, “The positive argument for realism [the doctrine that science provides an accurate description of the real world] is that it is the only philosophy that does not make the success of science a miracle” (Psillos 1999, 71).
The apparent impossibility of finding any rigorous way of defining what is distinctive about modern science suggests that science may not be as different from other systematic forms of knowledge as is often supposed. All knowledge systems, even those of animals, offer maps of reality that provide more or less accurate guides to material reality. Perhaps, as the historian Steven Shapin has argued, the scientific revolution does not mark as clear an epistemological break as was once assumed. Most seventeenth-century scientists were well aware of the continuities between their ideas and those of the medieval and ancient worlds. Indeed, Newton, like many other scientists of his epoch, continued to study alchemy even as he was laying the foundations of what many think of today as true science. Even the notion of a scientific revolution is a modern idea; the phrase was first coined in 1939, by the philosophical historian Alexandre Koyre (1892–1964).
Developments in the twentieth century have done even more to blur the distinction between modern science and other systematic forms of knowledge. Quantum physics and chaos theory have shown that reality itself is fuzzier than was once supposed, a conclusion that has forced scientists to abandon the nineteenth-century hope of attaining a mechanically perfect description of reality. As a result, the differences between the sciences and the social sciences appear much less clear-cut than they once did. This is particularly true of historical scientific disciplines, such as cosmology or biology. Insofar as they try to describe changes in the past, specialists in these fields face the same dilemmas as historians; far from basing conclusions on repeatable laboratory experiments, they try, like historians, to reconstruct a vanished past from fragments left randomly to the present.
As the borders between the sciences and other modern disciplines have blurred, the idea of science as a quite distinct form of knowledge has become harder to defend. Careful observation leading to technological innovation is a feature of most human societies, while general theories about the nature of reality are offered in most forms of religion. Inductivist and falsificationist arguments cannot prove the truth of science; at best they highlight the pragmatic fact that scientific theories work because they are based on a larger body of observational evidence than any earlier knowledge systems and are also subject to exceptionally rigorous truth tests.
That line of argument suggests that we examine modern science’s place in human life historically, seeing modern science as one of many different human knowledge systems that have evolved in the course of world history. From this perspective, it is striking how, over time, human knowledge systems have had to incorporate more and more information, and how the task of distilling that information into coherent theories has required ever more stringent testing of ideas and yielded theories that were increasingly universal and abstract in their form though increasingly elaborate in their details. Perhaps, then, the main distinguishing feature of modern science is its scale.
As Andrew Sherratt (1995) puts it: “‘Intellectual Evolution’ . . . consists principally in the emergence of modes of thinking appropriate for larger and larger human groupings . . . This transferability has been manifested in the last five hundred years in the growth of science, with its striving for culture-free criteria of acceptance . . .” Because it is the first truly global knowledge system, modern science tries to explain a far greater volume and variety of information, and it subjects that information to far more stringent truth tests than any earlier knowledge system.
This approach may help explain the two other distinctive features of modern science: its astonishing capacity to help us manipulate our surroundings and rigorous avoidance of anthropomorphic explanations. For most of human history, knowledge systems were closely linked to particular communities, and as long as they provided adequate explanations of the problems faced by those communities, their credibility was unlikely to be challenged. But their limitations could be exposed all too easily by the sudden appearance of new problems, new ideas, or new threats. This was what happened throughout the Americas, for example, after the arrival of European conquerors, whose ideas undermined existing knowledge systems as effectively as their diseases and military technologies undermined existing power structures. As the scale of human information networks widened, attempts to integrate knowledge into coherent systems required the elimination of culture-specific explanations and encouraged reliance on abstract universals that could embrace larger and more diverse bodies of information and that could appeal to more diverse audiences. As the sociologist Norbert Elias (1897–1990) wrote in an elegant account of changing concepts of time, “The double movement towards larger and larger units of social integration and longer and longer chains of social interdependencies . . . had close connections with specific cognitive changes, among them the ascent to higher levels of conceptual synthesis” (Elias 1998, 179). The change can be seen clearly in the history of religions. As religious systems embraced larger and larger areas, local gods were increasingly supplanted by universal gods claiming broader and more general powers and behaving in more law-like and predictable ways than the local gods they displaced. Eventually, the gods themselves began to be displaced by abstract, impersonal forces such as gravity that seemed to work in all societies, irrespective of local religious or cultural beliefs.
The Emergence and Evolution of Science
The knowledge systems of the animal world are individualistic; each individual has to construct its own maps of reality, with minimal guidance from other members of its species. Humans construct their knowledge systems collectively because they can swap information so much more effectively than other animals. As a result, all human knowledge systems distill the knowledge of many individuals over many generations, and this is one reason why they are so much more effective and more general in their application than those of animals.
This means that even the most ancient of human knowledge systems possessed in some degree the qualities of generality and abstraction that are often seen as distinguishing marks of modern science. Frequently, it seems, the knowledge systems of foragers relied on the hypothesis that reality was full of conscious and purposeful beings of many different kinds, whose sometimes eccentric behavior explained the unpredictability of the real world. Animism seems to have been widespread, and perhaps universal, in small-scale foraging communities, and it is not unreasonable to treat the core ideas of animism as an attempt to generalize about the nature of reality. But foraging (Paleolithic) era knowledge systems shared more than this quality with modern science. There are good a priori reasons to suppose that foraging communities had plenty of well-founded empirical knowledge about their environment, based on careful and sustained observations over long periods of time. And modern anthropological studies of foraging communities have demonstrated the remarkable range of precise knowledge that foragers may have of those aspects of their environment that are most significant to them, such as the habits and potential uses of particular species of animals and plants. Archaeological evidence has also yielded hints of more systematic attempts to generalize about reality. In Ukraine and eastern Europe engraved bones dating to as early as thirty thousand years ago have been found that appear to record astronomical observations. All in all, the knowledge systems of foraging societies possessed many of the theoretical and practical qualities we commonly associate with modern science. Nevertheless, it remains true that the science of foragers lacked the explanatory power and the universality of modern science—hardly surprising given the limited amount of information that could accumulate within small communities and the small scale of the truth markets within which such ideas were tested.
With the appearance of agricultural technologies that could support larger, denser, and more varied communities, information and ideas began to be exchanged within networks incorporating millions rather than hundreds of individuals, and a much greater diversity of experiences and ideas. By the time the first urban civilizations appeared, in Mesopotamia and Egypt late in the fourth millennium BCE, networks of commercial and intellectual exchange already extended over large and diverse regions. Mesopotamia and Egypt probably had contacts of some kind with networks that extended from the Western Mediterranean shores (and perhaps Neolithic Europe) to Sudan, northern India, and Central Asia, in what some authors have described as the first world system.
Calendrical knowledge was particularly important to coordinate the agricultural activities, markets, and public rituals of large and diverse populations. The earliest calendars distilled a single system of time reckoning from many diverse local systems, and they did so by basing time reckoning on universals such as the movements of the heavenly bodies. This may be why evidence of careful astronomical observations appears in developed Neolithic societies in Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica (whose calendars may have been the most accurate of all in the agrarian era), and even in more remote environments such as England (as evidenced by Stonehenge) or Easter Island. The development of mathematics represents a similar search for universally valid principles of calculation. It was stimulated in part by the building of complex irrigation systems and large monumental structures such as pyramids, as well as by the need to keep accurate records of stored goods. In Mesopotamia, a sexagesimal system of calculation was developed that allowed complex mathematical manipulations including the generation of squares and reciprocals.
In the third and second millennia BCE, Eurasian networks of commercial and information exchanges reached further than ever before. By 2000 BCE, there existed trading cities in Central Asia that had contacts with Mesopotamia, northern India, and China, linking vast areas of Eurasia into loose networks of exchange. Late in the first millennium BCE, goods and ideas began traveling regularly from the Mediterranean to China and vice versa along what came to be known as the Silk Roads. The scale of these exchange networks may help explain the universalistic claims of religions of this era, such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity.
The impact of these developments on knowledge systems is easiest to see in the intellectual history of classical Greece. Here, perhaps for the first time in human history, knowledge systems acquired a new degree of theoretical generality, as philosophers tried to construct general laws to describe the real world. As the writings of the historian Herodotus suggest, the Greeks were exposed to and interested in a colossal variety of different ideas and influences, from North Africa, Egypt, Persia, India, and the pastoralist societies of the steppes. The volume and variety of ideas to which Greek societies were exposed reflected their geographical position and the role of Greek traders, explorers, and emigrants forced, partly by overpopulation, to explore and settle around the many different shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Faced with a mass of new information, Greek philosophers set about the task of eliminating the particular and local and isolating those ideas that remained true in general. Thales of Miletus (c. 625–547 BCE), often regarded as the first of the Greek natural philosophers, offered explanations of phenomena such as earthquakes and floods that are universal in their claims and entirely free of the notion that reality is controlled by conscious entities.
At its best, Greek natural philosophy tried to capture not just this or that aspect of reality, but reality’s distilled essence. This project is most apparent in Greek mathematics and in Plato’s conviction that it is possible to attain knowledge of a perfect real world beneath the imperfections of the existing world. Greek philosophers were particularly interested in the testing of new ideas, a trait that is perhaps inevitable in societies faced with a sudden influx of new forms of knowledge. The rigor with which ideas were tested is apparent in the dialogues of Socrates, in which ideas are repeatedly subjected to Socrates’ corrosive logic (in an ancient anticipation of the notion of falsification), with only the most powerful surviving. Many other societies developed sophisticated methods of mathematical calculation and astronomical observation, and some, such as Song China (960–1279), developed metallurgical, hydraulic, and financial technologies that were unsurpassed until the twentieth century. But few showed as much openness to new ideas or as much interest in the testing of new ideas and theories as the Greeks.
Other societies have responded in similar ways to the exposure to new and more varied ideas. Perhaps Mesopotamia and Egypt, both with relatively easy access to Africa, India and the Mediterranean, count as early pioneers of scientific ideas for similar reasons. And perhaps it is the extensive contacts of medieval Islam that explain the fundamental role of Islam both in exchanging ideas (such as the mathematical concept of zero) between India and the Mediterranean worlds and in preserving and developing the insights of Greek and Hellenic science. Even in the Americas, it may have been the size of Mesoamerican populations and their exposure to many different regional cultures that led to the development of sophisticated calendrical systems from perhaps as early as the second millennium BCE.
Europe in the era of the scientific revolution certainly fits this model. Medieval European societies showed a remarkable openness to new ideas and an exploratory spirit that was similar to that of classical Greece. By the late medieval ages, European contacts reached from Greenland in the west to China in the east. Then, as European seafarers established close links with Southeast Asia in the east and the Americas in the west, Europe suddenly found itself at the center of the first global network of informational exchanges. The unification of the world in the sixteenth century constituted the most revolutionary extension of commercial and intellectual exchange networks in the entire history of humanity. Ideas about navigation and astronomy, about new types of human societies and new gods, about exotic crops and animal species, began to be exchanged on an unprecedented scale. Because Europe suddenly found itself at the center of these huge and varied information networks, it was the first region of the world to face the task of integrating information on a global scale into coherent knowledge systems. In the sixteenth century, European philosophers struggled to make sense of the torrent of new information that descended upon them, much of which undermined existing certainties. Like the Greeks, European thinkers faced the challenge of sorting the ephemeral from the durable, and to do that they had to devise new methods of observing and testing information and theories. It was this project that yielded the observational and experimental techniques later regarded as the essence of scientific method.
Thinkers in the era of the scientific revolution not only developed new ways of studying the world, they also created a new vision of the universe. The new vision was based on the work of three astronomers: Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543), Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). Copernicus was the first modern astronomer to suggest that the earth might be orbiting the sun; Brahe’s careful astronomical observations provided the empirical base for Copernicus’s theories, and Kepler’s calculations showed that the new model of the universe worked much better if it was assumed that heavenly bodies traveled in ellipses rather than circles. Galileo used the newly invented telescope to show that heavenly bodies were as scarred and blemished as the earth, an observation that raised the intriguing possibility that the heavens might be subject to the same laws as the earth. Newton clinched this powerful unifying idea by showing that both the earth and the heavens—the very small and the very large— were subject to the same basic laws of motion. And this suggested the possibility that the universe as a whole might run according to general, abstract laws rather than according to the dictates of divine beings. Galileo’s discovery of millions of new stars also suggested that the universe might be much larger than had been supposed, while Anthony van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), the pioneer of modern microscopy, showed that at small scales there was also more to reality than had been imagined. Taken together, the theories of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries transformed traditional views of the universe in ways that threatened to decenter human beings and throw into question God’s role in managing the universe. It was no wonder, then, that many feared that the new science might undermine religious faith.
Since the seventeenth century, the global information exchanges that stimulated the scientific breakthroughs of the scientific revolution have accelerated and affected more and more of the world. The prestige of the new sciences was particularly high in the era of the Enlightenment (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), and encouraged more and more investigators to study the world using the techniques and assumptions of the scientific revolution. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scientific investigations yielded powerful new theories in fields as diverse as medicine (the germ theory), chemistry (the atomic theory and the periodic table), the study of electromagnetism (the unified theory of electromagnetism), energetics (theories of thermodynamics), geology, and biology (natural selection).
Scientific research was supported by the creation of scientific societies and journals, the introduction of science courses in universities, and the creation of research laboratories by businesses. The last two developments were both pioneered in Germany. The word scientist was first used in the 1840s. Meanwhile, the spread of scientific approaches to the study of reality and the increasing scope of scientific theory began to yield significant technological innovations in health care, manufacturing, and warfare. Particularly important were innovations in transportation and communications, such as the invention of trains and planes and the introduction of postal services, the telegraph, the telephone, and eventually the Internet, because these innovations expanded the scale and quickened the pace of information exchanges.
In the twentieth century, a series of new scientific theories appeared that refined the orthodoxies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century science. Einstein’s theory of relativity demonstrated that space and time were not absolute frames of reference, while the quantum theory showed that, at the very smallest scales, reality itself does not behave in the predictable, mechanical ways assumed by earlier theories. Big bang cosmology, which has dominated cosmological thought since the 1960s, demonstrated that the universe, far from being eternal and infinite, had a history, beginning many billions of years ago, while the theory of plate tectonics, which appeared at about the same time, provided the foundations for a unified theory of geology and a detailed history of the formation and evolution of the earth. In biology, Francis Crick (1916–2004) and James Watson (b. 1928) described the structure of DNA in 1953; their work laid the foundations for modern evolutionary theory and modern genetic technologies. Meanwhile, the scale of scientific research itself expanded as governments and corporations began to fund special research facilities, sometimes to fulfill national objectives, as was the case with the Manhattan Project, which designed the first atomic weapons.
Recent scholarship suggests that it is a mistake to see modern science as fundamentally different from all other knowledge systems. Like all effective knowledge systems, it is based on induction: on careful empirical observation followed by attempts to generalize. Like all knowledge systems, it is subject to falsification, to the sudden appearance of new realities or new forms of information that may overturn established certainties. What really distinguishes modern science from earlier knowledge systems is the size of the intellectual arena within which its ideas are generated and tested. Its explanatory power and its qualities of abstraction and universality reflect the volume and diversity of the information it tries to distil, and the rigor of the truth tests to which its claims are subjected in a global truth market.
During the past two centuries, science has spread beyond the European heartland to Russia, China, Japan, India, and the Americas. Today it is a global enterprise, and its accounts of reality shape the outlook of educated people throughout the world. Far from diminishing, the flow of new information that stimulated the original scientific revolution has kept expanding as the pace of change has accelerated and the world as a whole has become more integrated. Early in the twenty-first century, the power of science to generate new ways of manipulating the material world, for better or worse, shows no sign of diminishing. Science has given our species unprecedented control over the world; how wisely we use that control remains to be seen.
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