Why technology is not science

Technological invention applies the knowledge gained through science to create things specifically designed for human use.  This principle applies to all technology, past, present, and future. The only difference is that the inventions of thousands of years ago (simple machines) are so simple that nonscientists like Proctor can understand them, and, therefore, can separate them from the science of that time (arithmetic). However, modern technology, which is based on such highly mathematical disciplines as electromagnetic theory and quantum mechanics, is much harder to separate from the complicated science that went into it.

It is not the simplicity of science that makes it neutral. General theory of relativity, quantum field theory, electromagnetism, and Newtonian mechanics are as neutral as arithmetic. Just as arithmetic, they are laws stated in the language of mathematics, generally in the form of differential equations, that describe the behavior of (the constituents of) the universe. This fact is extremely hard to understand for somebody who has not studied these equations and their meaning, and only sees their technological applications.

The often quoted sentence, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” is so obvious a tautology that it is pointless.  It is as pointless as saying: “Cars don’t drive, people do,” or “Knives don’t cut, people do,” or “Pencils don’t write, people do.”  It merely states the simple fact that any machine needs an operator to operate it. There is no “abstract truth” in this. It is as concrete as one can get! Abstract are the laws of science, and there are no concrete lies in them. There is no concrete lie in the universal law of gravitation, or in the four Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, or the Schrödinger equation, or Einstein’s equation of the general theory of relativity. Or the laws of thermodynamics and chemistry. Concrete are the guns and the people who use them.

In the construction of a gun – the barrel, the ignition mechanism, the path of the bullet, and the fabrication of its parts – the laws of motion, thermodynamics, and chemistry may have been used, but these same laws are also used to operate a respirator or a pacemaker. Guns, being the product of a technology motivated, financed, and encouraged by war, were made with no other purpose in mind than to kill. We did not invent the gun with which to brush our teeth! A lot of values, ethics, morality (or lack thereof) has gone into the building of a gun. An abstract truth which conceals no concrete lie is the following statement:

The laws of physics and chemistry don’t kill people, guns do.

This statement captures the essence of the difference between technology (guns) and science (the laws of physics and chemistry), a difference that is overlooked by most critics of science like Proctor.

7 thoughts on “Why technology is not science”

  1. Would “Computer Science” qualify as “Science”? I was wondering what would be the material in computer science. Especially when the inquiry is about algorithms, ways of computation and so on. Is it just Mathematics?

    1. Computer science is an extension of mathematics. And mathematics is not science, it is the language of science. It is the language in which theoretical physics, for example, is spoken. So, I would say that computer science is more of a language than science.

      1. I would say that mathematics (and thus computer science) is more of a science than it is not. It does differ in that it uses “proof” instead of “evidence”, but informally, it often starts with evidence. The domains are certainly different, one being real, and the other imaginary (abstract), but both demand the same reasoning. Maybe it is best to say that CS is Math and leave it at that, rather than saying that math is a language.

  2. Sadri, when you say “One could say that the efforts of the physicists of the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries paved the way…” you are making people who were motivated to understand technological developments into physicists.
    But many of them were in fact engineers. Many of the founders of thermodynamics were engineers, such as Sadi Carnot who studied military engineering. Josiah Willard Gibbs was awarded the first American PhD in engineering “On the Form of the Teeth of Wheels in Spur Gearing”. There are a number of other great names that I could cite. So the growth of science and technology and their interactions are more intertwined than you write in the paragraph above. When after quantum mechanics was developed, you know that physicists dropped the study of continuum mechanics and aerodynamics and after that these fields developed mostly at the hands of people whose academic departments were in various branches of engineering (and applied mathematics mainly in the Great Britain). Think of people such as Ludwig Prandtl, Theodore von Karman, Stephen Timoshenko, Keith Stewartson, James Lighhill and others.

    1. Stan, I am talking about science and technology, not scientists and engineers. There is a huge difference. As you rightly point out, sometimes science comes from engineers (I can add to your list , the most theoretical of all physicists, Paul Dirac, who was an electrical engineer as an undergraduate). This distinction becomes less and less prominent as we move to the beginning of any discipline in physics. Gilbert was a physician! But he started the science of electromagnetism. Sadi Carnot was an army engineer, as you mention, but he started the science of thermodynamics. While the messenger may have varied background, the message gets detached from him, once it becomes science.

      1. Sadri, Your statement, “One could say that the efforts of the physicists of the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries paved the way for the technicians and inventors of the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries to create many novel and ingenious devices. ”

        Your statement clearly identifies as physicist as the originators of the ideas, and I pointed out that many of them were engineers. I

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