There’s a very interesting article at Wired on the presumably increasing problems with reductionism in science. Reductionism is the assumption that increasing detailed knowledge of the parts will necessarily lead to a better understanding of the whole. Not only is there no proof for that; there is good reason to believe it is not true:
The truth is, our stories about causation are shadowed by all sorts of mental shortcuts. Most of the time, these shortcuts work well enough. They allow us to hit fastballs, discover the law of gravity, and design wondrous technologies. However, when it comes to reasoning about complex systems—say, the human body—these shortcuts go from being slickly efficient to outright misleading.
Consider a set of classic experiments designed by Belgian psychologist Albert Michotte, first conducted in the 1940s. The research featured a series of short films about a blue ball and a red ball. In the first film, the red ball races across the screen, touches the blue ball, and then stops. The blue ball, meanwhile, begins moving in the same basic direction as the red ball. When Michotte asked people to describe the film, they automatically lapsed into the language of causation. The red ball hit the blue ball, which caused it to move.
This is known as the launching effect, and it’s a universal property of visual perception. Although there was nothing about causation in the two-second film—it was just a montage of animated images—people couldn’t help but tell a story about what had happened. They translated their perceptions into causal beliefs.
Would a detailed knowledge of the structure of matter have been helpful or inhibiting to a Newton or an Einstein? I think rather the latter.
Objective observation, understanding, and insight are elusive faculties, possibly not subject to cultivation. You can prepare the soil and plant the seed but whether there is a crop or not?
More than a century ago Edison demonstrated the value of a systematic approach in invention. But that’s engineering not science. Would he and the research laboratories he built have been more or less effective if they’d received enormous subsidies?