“Modern science has no dogma,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. “Yet it has a common core of research methods, which are all based on collecting empirical observations – those we can observe with at least one of our senses – and putting them together with the help of mathematical tools.” Harari continues to explain that science may not be dogmatic, but that there are two key defining aspects of modern science that set it apart from the ways that humans have traditionally understood the world. Those two aspects are the reliance on mathematics in understanding observations and the desire to seek out new knowledge and observations.
Mathematics gives us a common language to discuss observations and allows us to compare observations for veracity. Newness pushes our observations and knowledge in a continuously expanding manner. Relying on tradition, historical knowledge, and existing information has not been enough for science to advance. Newness has been a central idea in the basic structure of modern science. Harari writes, “as modern people came to admit that they did not know the answers to some very important questions, they found it necessary to look for completely new knowledge.”
New information is rewarded in academic institutions and drives the way that modern universities work. You can work at a college as a lecturer without doing research, but the prized positions are primarily research positions. As a researcher at a university you are rewarded for the number of papers you publish, and journals want to publish novel scientific studies. The goal of science today is to take what we already know and push beyond. Science doesn’t just help us better understand what has come before us, but helps us push into new worlds. We use math and the scientific method to make and communicate our discoveries.
This is a new approach from most of human history. We don’t simply assume we already have the answers or that our current knowledge will be sufficient into the future. We look backward less than we look forward. Science is centered around what we can do with our knowledge, expanding that knowledge, and doing new things with it.