Many writers are showing signs of unease with the current condition of science. Three examples: Matt Ridley recently gave a lecture in which he declared himself "In love with science as a philosophy" but "increasingly disaffected from science as an institution"; the American writer John Tierney has just published an article detecting disabling politicisation in much of the natural and social sciences; the economist Paul Romer has made explosive statements suggesting that macro-economics, particularly its mathetical branches has become self-serving belief-system corrupted by respect for authority and detached from reality.
Is there some general problem that has made the sciences so prone to the institutional, and political corruption which Ridley and Tierney identify, and indeed to other corrupting influences such as those described in Romer’s article?
The answer is yes, and the general problem is to be found in the hypostasisation of science itself. The roots of this mistake lie in fragile human self-regard, and in career structures. Confronted with the distressingly provisional nature of their propositions, researchers have, understandably, taken comfort (and incomes) from the view that while pebbles are as nothing, the cairn is forever.
In other words that there is something called Science, a body of sure knowledge that persists beyond the deletion and replacement of any individual part. This view borders on the mystical, and is a long way from the much humbler suggestion that ‘science' is not knowledge in itself, but is little more than a loosely defined and extremely successful though interminable method for creating and testing propositions. Nor are these provisional propositions knowledge in themselves; rather they are just the means by which a mind can represent and analyse the causal process that is observed. Mathematics is no exception: it is, as Bridgman noted, in The Nature of Thermodynamics (1969), and for all its astounding merits, just another language, and its propositions in essence no different from any other propositions. There are no foundations for anything, anything at all.
Furthermore, at any one time the population of those propositions, in whatever language, has no organic, or integrated character. Indeed, all our propositions are in some degree inconsistent or incompletely consistent with each other, however useful in particular domains. Because of that inconsistency, no mind, even if omnipotent, could represent them all simultaneously and be the realisation of Science in the hypostasised sense.– The existence of lacunae and inconsistencies demonstrates that there is presently no such thing as Science, and never could be since that would require an infinite number of propositions, and the universe isn't big enough to instantiate such a self-description. There is not such thing as Science, there are just scientists and the things scientists say, and that loosely defined, sceptical method, which is in many respects rather more important than either.
Put more simply, we have steadily been losing sight of the fundamental paradox of the history and philosophy of science; namely, that humans only started to make rapid progress in the mental representation of the world when some individuals recognised, in their work if not explicitly, that there was no absolute truth to be had anywhere, at any time, by any means. Liberated from the distracting pursuit and disheartening oversight of a non-existent ideal, attention could be focused on refinements to the propositions that we can in fact generate. The results are excellent, and the careless reintroduction of an epistemological absolute would be a terrible mistake. God was a nuisance; reborn as Science he will be a positive curse.