Bear with them while they think

They don’t blog. They don’t do twitter. But they do have a website, a facebook page and a manifesto. Maybe even a house band(?!) They are Slow Science. They identify themselves as part of the Slow Movement which may or may not be allied to the Global Slow Movement.

Now, my own prejudices lead me to be sympathetic to this “slow” idea. The demacdonaldization of Italy seems like a cause worth fighting and dying for. And when it comes to grasping the unanticipated metaphors necessary for the exposition of a revolutionary new scientific theory, taking the time to think is going to be necessary.

However, while setting out revolutionary new scientific theories may be what scientists dream of, rather few of them ever actually manage it and of those that do, few manage it convincingly more than once. That being so, it would be unwise to accept the “slow” view of science as normative. Indeed, the slow scientists themselves do not. In their manifesto they say: “yes to the acceralted (sic) science of the early 21st century”. I guess they acknowledge that most scientists, most of the time, are engaged in more mundane tasks of technical problem solving. On that view, their value as scientists lies in their command of theories that enable them to see the relevance to the problem under consideration of experiences from other situations. Of course, they need time to think about this. However, the time available is not set by the mysteries of their unhurried thinking processes, but by the time limit within which there is still some positive value in having a solution to the technical problem at hand. By “positive value”, I mean that the benefits of having the solution are still greater than the costs of hiring scientists to think about it. There may not be a single objectively correct answer to that, of course, but in practise the adjudicator is going to be whoever holds the purse strings. For the Slow Scientists, however, this cannot be all:

“Science needs time to think. Science needs time to read, and time to fail. Science does not always know what it might be at right now. Science develops unsteadily, with jerky moves and unpredictable leaps forward—at the same time, however, it creeps about on a very slow time scale, for which there must be room and to which justice must be done.”

It is of course scientists, not “science”, that need time to read, think and so on. But notice those imperatives at the end. Making room and doing justice generally imply effort by someone and a cost to someone. To whom are those imperatives addressed? People with a surplus of time or money, presumably.

Giving scientists time to just “creep about” and discover all of what what their science might actually be about has been tried, of course. You might say that’s what Nobel prizes are for, since the money relieves the recipient of the need to earn a salary. And there are a few places, like the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, whose members are free to work on any problems in which they are interested. Not everyone thinks this is a good thing, however. Richard Feynman referred to members of the Institute as “poor bastards” falling victim to guilt and depression if they couldn’t come up with a continuous stream of new ideas[*]. Perhaps the Slow Scientists should be careful what they wish for.

I am grateful to Deevy Bishop for drawing my attention to the Slow Science movement.

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