Science is not Technology

Consider this to have the word, “Draft” as a watermark. Ask many questions; it will help me flesh it out. This will eventually be expanded to be a mini-chapter in the book I’m working on, and if I don’t take this leap, it will spend the rest of my life in limbo. Which would be sad.


On my last day (0) as an engineering student, I asked the professor, “Well, what’s happening at the atomic level there? What causes that?” And he said, “You don’t need to know that. You just use the table and look it up.” It was empirical, an observed situation of cause and effect: Heat this alloy for this long at this temperature and the following phase transition takes place. Empirically, and consistently, and…

I’m sure there was more, but I thought, “Well, yes. I do actually need to know that.” And in a moment of spontaneous intellectual rebellion, I left. I walked over to the physics department, filled out the necessary paperwork, and moved my questions over to where that was a suitable thing to ask. (In fairness to the professor, I should admit that I spent most of my 20’s obsessed with phase transitions, so any answer he could have given me probably wouldn’t have satisfied my curiosity. The quote at the top of my master’s thesis is, “One of the continuing scandals in the physical sciences is that it remains in general impossible to predict the structure of even the simplest crystalline solids from a knowledge of their chemical composition.”) (1)

At some point, I had to give up. The correct answer to the question I had asked, lo these many years ago was, “we don’t actually know”. I wasn’t deft enough at math to solve the problem that had consumed me since my late teens, and there were bigger, more pressing things haunting me, like climate change, environmental degradation, mass extinctions, social justice, and how to live ethically. (2)

So I turned my mind to the problem of how we think about technology, specifically how we teach engineers (the master technologists of our age) about the relationship between ourselves and the world. Very specifically, to the conversation about environmental ethics in the engineering profession. It was a bleak direction for a young idealist, but informative. And deep… deeper than I intended. “How do engineers talk about ethics?” turned into, “How do university students talk about ethics?” and then, “How do we think about ethics?” and then, “How do we think about responsibility?” and “What are the limits of agency?” and “How do we examine the truth of the dominant narrative?” and “What does it mean for something to be true?” and “What is the difference between the secular and the profane?” Can we have space for sacredness without demanding a dominant narrative? How did all this meaning-making evolve? And what about that god question, anyway? Little things like that. Things that are not conducive to finishing a thesis in a reasonable length of time, but that draw one down many paths of thought and experience, and make for fascinating conversations. Especially in the wee-small hours of the morning. (3)

Astonishingly, after all of that, I still can stand somewhere, although I describe my main skill as “standing in more than one place at a time.” It is the skill of, “yes, and…” And I am here to tell you (after that long introduction, which serves mainly to justify my right to say this): Science is not technology. (4) They are, in fact, barely related intellectual endeavours. We have come to equate them because they are both, for the most part, something mysterious to do with math (we suspect), best done behind closed doors, and frequently with large pieces of equipment. But they draw the practitioner into very different relationships with the world. The driving question in science is, “What is?” and the driving question in technology is, “What might be?” and the two can proceed along in parallel with very little cross-pollination.

My intellectual peregrinations took me rather far afield from that day of phase transitions in crystalline solids. It turns out that the Buddhist teachings about ego and the nooks and crannies of cognitive psychology have rather a lot to contribute to my consideration of the place of technology in our society. The ways in which people construct and then become attached to their models of reality are vitally important to our inability to have a reasoned conversation about global warming. But (and this is the really astonishing part) all that Malcolm-Gladwell tipping-point sociology stuff seems to be related to the phase-transition crystal-structure stuff. In a “math rules the universe, it’s all physical patterns in the energy field at some level, how is a religion like a mountain, ow, ow my brain hurts” kind of way.

Technologists display (in my observation) a bewildering lack of curiosity about what is, particularly about any factor which doesn’t directly impact the outcome of their changes in the world. “Unintended consequences” are impacts on the parts of the world that weren’t considered. Collateral damage, if you will. There’s some strange sleight-of-mind that takes place here: we all know from early childhood that we aren’t strictly responsible for the things we didn’t mean to have happen. This quirk of our ethical reasoning has a bizarre side-effect: technologists seem to want us not to investigate the impacts of their technologies. We are not to monitor waste sites, environmental impacts, the use of GMO’s in feed, antibiotic resistance… these are the targets of many of the scientific funding cuts. “You may not ask, you may not ask, you may not ask.” The scientific question, “What is?” becomes a threat when technologists have the reins. Because many of the answers are inconvenient. They constrain the question, “what might be?” …which, now that I think of it, makes it not bewildering at all. (5)

The boundaries between disciplines, although not arbitrary, are artificial. For the voraciously curious, they are perplexing. It is quite clear to me that any lines we draw around a line of questioning, although they make it tractable, also make it limited in scope. Somehow, we lose that perspective. We think that because we know something about the world, we know about the world. The most important thing we never learn (in standard science or technology curriculum) is humility.


0. You can skip this part if you’re already up to speed. It’s the same old story. I’m getting tired of telling it, but it’s in context.
1. J. Maddox, Nature, 335, 201 (1988). Quoted in “Investigations into Crystal Structures of Selected Halogenated Methanes”, Seonaid Ellen Lee-Dadswell, 1997. That is a scintillating piece of work, let me tell you. Mine, not his. I’ll give away the ending, shall I? I didn’t solve the problem. In fact, as recently as yesterday, I found myself thinking, “But how does the order spontaneously change over time?”
2. I’ve often claimed that if I had started out in science, I would have wound up an engineer, because I’m just as likely to say, “And what is that good for?” as “Why?” I was just in the science chair when the music stopped. The first couple of times.
3. Bring wine.
4. In fact, science is not science, but that is another and thornier problem.
5. For the record, it took me 15 years of study to write this paragraph, and now it seems so obvious that it barely warrants writing… which makes it the punchline of a joke I know about mathematicians. I’ll tell it to you sometime. See footnote 3.

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10 thoughts on “Science is not Technology

  1. There’s a world of difference between “We don’t know” and “You don’t need to know.” And “*I* don’t know”. See also every interaction I had with a math teacher in high school.

    I like your distinction between science and technology, but I think they’re more entwined than the way you’ve described them. Technology depends on science: we can only imagine what can be when we know what we have to work with. And science depends on technology: we only know what to look into when we have a sense of what we’ll do with it.

    • Hmmm… In that particular case, what I was asking for was actually unknown, but I think that “you don’t need to know” was really what he wanted me to accept. (I railed against it… I was at that stage that I was sure that somebody knew, and they just wouldn’t tell me. Or they were trying to trick me.) It’s also possible that he did know quite a bit about it, (being a materials guy, as he was) but it was going to derail the conversation. There’s genuinely a need to exclude questions from a particular problem… when the question is “what kind of steel should we use here?” or “how long should we heat treat this part before installing it?” the vagaries of what’s happening on the atomic level are somebody else’s problem. I just wanted to be that somebody else. I *happen* to be the sort of person who also says, “And what’s that good for?” but that isn’t necessary for the pursuit of science. I had plenty of friends and colleagues who felt that it kind of sullied the work to apply it.

      [assume this part has yet to be written] [science and technology] … proceed in parallel and they inform one another. The empirical understanding of the world that is necessary for engineering is part of the scientific enterprise, but it isn’t science per se.

      This is sort of what I was getting at with the footnote that “science isn’t science”. There are different approaches in the scientific fields that range from taxonomy and categorization to theoretical models that are right on the boundary with mathematics and may make nearly no reference back to the physical world they are describing. And there is a spectrum of practice all the way from one end to the other. I was doing experimental physics with neutron spectroscopy, so it turned out that a) I was very concerned with the physical and mechanical limitations of the system, and b) most of my day-to-day work involved the fiddly details of the making of samples, and getting good data sets, not the building of models. My own contribution to the scientific endeavour (scanty though it was) turned out to be closer to the engineering end of the spectrum… especially when I was working on the question of “how do we make the pressure tubes in nuclear reactors last longer?”

      There’s this idealized sense of what the work of physics involves, but it is the work of the entire field, not (any longer) any one individual, and it looks like this: we build models of the universe, and then we look at the universe to examine which models best describe what we observe. Or we make observations, say, “Hmm… that’s strange. What might be going on there?” (Which means that we were working with some particular model that has come up with an incorrect suggestion.) And the models we make are provisional, subject to change. I’ve been reading the writing of Nicholas Maxwell for some time, who is a philosopher of science, and he said something like, “scientists don’t even know what their underlying assumptions are…” and also something about the fact that we assume that there is one model that applies to all of reality, and we don’t have evidence of that. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading one of his books for several months, and I still don’t understand it. But I think it’s important.

      hmm… that’s one of my unstated assumptions, there. That there *is* some observable reality that will behave consistently.

      You see why I’m having trouble getting this written?

      • Boy, the deeper you dig, the deeper you dig, huh?

        So what your teacher meant (perhaps) was not to kill your curiosity, not to force you to stick to the curriculum for form’s sake, but to keep you from straying down a rathole that, while worthwhile in its own right, wasn’t the most efficient way to solve the problem at hand.

        Sounds a lot like your academic career. 🙂

    • I’ll have to look that up.

      On a counter-tangent, it is one of the places where I use the very precise technical definition, and have done since my teens, so the conceptual challenges that students have with it have always perplexed me. “They” (represented by Mr. Somerville, if you want to know) taught me about force and motion when I was 14, and I *got* it. I *got* circular motion. I just understood the way that the math related to the world I experienced in a deep and intuitive way, and very quickly. I can’t quite imagine what else they might mean because these definitions are so “obvious” to me. (I keep using that word. I do not think it means what I think it means.)

  2. My view of science and technology is that science is concerned with what is and technology is concerned with how we can manipulate what is. Slightly more than semantically different from yours, but with largely the same fallout

    • I think that I would not disagree with that… it’s not exactly the practices of science and technology that I’m concerned with, here. It’s more the “motive force” (if you will allow me a medieval concept for which I lack an adequate substitute) behind the practice. Because my *own* motive force is to see where the breakdowns of communication take place, how people talk past one another, and how the unintended aspects of the systems that we are immersed in emerge out of those inabilities to accurately describe what it is that we are doing and why. At least, that’s how I describe it today. (… very well. I contradict myself.)

  3. Science and technology are like conjoined twins– and not the Chang and Eng sort, joined only by cartilege, but with the full sharing of vital organs, and independent brains fuelled by a good deal of common experience.

    If you take a sufficiently broad definition of technology, even the purest science can not get anywhere without it (writing being a technology). Technology feeds upon itself as much as it feeds upon science, though ultimately you need to know something about the world to change it. (Counterexamples are welcome.)

    Is it possible for us to look at reality without the lens of technology changing our observations? My intuition says no. Or at least, I can’t. Should we even try?

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