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The New Middle Ages

The scientific director of a genomic research company wrote to say my last post, Witchcraft, touched on the key themes of his book The Evolution of Scientific Knowledge: From Certainty to Uncertainty published in November 2016.  The email ended with the exhortation: "Thanks, and I wish you the best in the new year with your battle against the new Dark Ages"

Edward Dougherty's book dealt with the problem I raised in my post: whether it is possible to meaningfully model problems too big to reproduce in the lab.  Readers will recall the Witchcraft post began with an observation about the validity of global warming models from a friend:

There was an article at WAPO about saving the existing climate data before Trump burns it like Staked out witches. A he won't do it, other's will use the rumor of it disappearing it as an excuse for their own future failures, Because eventually people will find they’ve been made a fool of because B it's not science until the algorithms are posted along with the data and the steps to reproduce the results. And the results reproduced several times, and since the costs are so great, larger than any drug failure the reproduction and analysis must at least meet that bar. Reproduction, data and algorithm published, and double blind analysis of the results. Else it's not science.

I added that: "the earth's climate is too large and chaotic to reproduce in the lab ... For really big problems -- and human history is one -- hard science is hampered by the difficulty of reproducing the experiment. In these cases we go back to some form of magic. Society uses science and technology to deal with defined, reproducible events. When we need to make a call we buy a phone. When we need to create peace in the Middle East we leave it to John Kerry and the United Nations."

The idea modeling complexity would be difficult was not new. Jose Luis Borges wrote a story in 1946 about the difficulty of creating a "map as big as the world" titled The Exactitude of Science." In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless."

That is very similar to the problems we face now.  A map as big as the world is useless because any economical map of a chaotic, open system must be smaller than the world itself. But what if at maximum compression, it's full size? It's a problem Edward R. Dougherty of the Center for Bioinformatics and Genomic Systems Engineering, who wrote to me, takes up: