Scientific advance did not create most technologies

A letter in the Financial Times makes a good point.

FT reader Tim Hammond writes,

Sir, Andre Geim (“Oh for a eurocrat who actually understands science”, January 6) makes too much of the role of science in innovative technologies. Many of our most basic and fundamental technologies – fire, the wheel, bronze, iron, pottery – were in widespread use before science was even a concept.

Many of our more advanced technologies were in use before we had any inkling of the science behind them. We flew, used electricity, took quinine and vaccinated long before we understood how or why, and even today we do not know how general anaesthetics work.

Thankfully the regular revisions to our scientific knowledge do not invalidate our technology. Quantum mechanics did not stop apples falling or satellites orbiting, and the discovery that Prozac acts in an entirely different way than originally thought does not make it any less effective.

The simple truth is that most of our technologies were not invented by scientists and were not invented because of a breakthrough or advance in science. They came from the efforts of individuals and teams trying to make things work in different and better ways. Science is a wonderful thing, but it is not a prerequisite for innovative technology.

5 thoughts on “Scientific advance did not create most technologies”

  1. Scientific thinking (experimenting and making changes based on the result) is a prerequisite for technological advancement. You need to visit Greenfield Village in Detroit. Both the Wright Brothers’ and Edison’s workshops were research laboratories. Edison’s was one of the earliest industrial scale research labs in this country.

  2. Mr. Hammond’s ignorance is exceeded only by his compulsion to flaunt it.
    The empirical principles of the scientific method (the continuing cycle of hypothesis, experimentation, testing, and evaluation) and the the six rules of evidential reasoning (Falsifiability, Logic, Comprehensiveness, Honesty, Replicability, and Sufficiency) were in use before humans even learned to write. The scientific method was essential to determining that spearheads could be successfully made of flint and obsidian, but not of limestone or sandstone.
    It took Galileo to demonstrate that science trumps the ‘revealed truth’ touted by religionists.

  3. @Dr. Jonathan Gutow and Mr Tom Davidson,
    Are you trying to say that the lever wasn’t a technology before the laws of levers has formulate and proved? What about the fire to cook? The control of fire wasn’t a technology on the early stages of the man?

    “Science is a wonderful thing, but it is not a prerequisite for innovative technology”.

    As the STS (http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/science-technology-and-society) explains, the social, political, and cultural values affects scientific research and technological innovation but this are connected to the social again. Is like the egg and the chicken. But, without “efforts of individuals” for apply the knowledge, the technology can’t be exist.

    “The simple truth is that most of our technologies were not invented by scientists and were not invented because of a breakthrough or advance in science. They came from the efforts of individuals and teams trying to make things work in different and better ways”.
    I prefer to say: They came from the efforts of individuals and teams trying to apply knowledge to create.

    @Mr Tom Davidson
    The “the continuing cycle of hypothesis, experimentation, testing, and evaluation” lack of characterization step (systematic observation and measurement) before the hypothesis formulation.

  4. The point Mr Geim makes and Mr. Hammond misses is that “decision makers” (“chief executives, entrepreneurs, heads of various councils, university presidents and science popularisers”) have no idea where scientific and technological progress comes from. To them, “shit happens” and new engines are designed, built and tested on facebook. The anecdote about Moore’s law is the icing on the cake: “I should not worry – one interjected – Moore’s law, which says that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, would take care of everything.”

  5. Thanks for the insult – as someone who read Medical Sciences at Cambridge, I don’t usually think of myself as ignorant about the scientific method but hey, you know best.

    Since most people will attribute the invention of logic to the ancient Greeks, I am intrigued that you think stone age peoples were using it in the formal way the scientific method suggests. As for flint spearheads, you are just confusing practice and practicality with science. The history of science shows us time and time again that we tend to keep on using what works for centuries and sometimes much longer without any attempt to improve it or to compare it with anything else. Stone age peoples found that flint was sharp and so they carried on using flint. We have zero evidence that they tried sandstone or limestone.

    But then evidence doesn’t seem to be that important to you – ironic really.

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