Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Is Physics a Science?

In sociology, students at all levels are presented with some discussion about whether and how sociology is a science. Physics – especially Newtonian physics – is taken as a kind of standard against which sociology is measured. Actually, a scientific investigation of college textbooks revealed that physics education is deficient in presenting students with the methods and limits of experiment and theory. 

Since the Renaissance, the term experiment has been used in diverse ways to describe a variety of procedures such as a trial, a diagnosis, or a dissection … To examine changes in the textbook construction of experimental method, introductory texts in psychology, sociology, biology, and physics were surveyed during three time periods: 1930-1939, 1950-59, and 1970-79. […] … the percentage of texts with discussions of research methods increased from 50%-90% in psychology, from 25%-70% in sociology, from 20%-45% in biology, and from 16%-30% in physics. Even in the 1970s, such discussions were absent from the majority of biology and physics texts.
"What Counts as an Experiment?: A Transdisciplinary Analysis of Textbooks, 1930-1970," Andrew S. Winston and Daniel J. Blais. The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 109, No. 4 (Winter, 1996), pp. 599-616.

Visiting the University of Texas Kuehne Library for Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, I found that this is still true.

Another concept is missing, paradigm. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published in 1962. (See Necessary Facts here.) I was assigned it in a philosophy class at Lansing Community College in 1975. My last undergraduate class in physics was in 1982. Paradigm and experiment were never explicitly discussed.
  
At the UT Kuehne Library (honoring John Matthias Kuehne, 1872-1960), I checked nine recent physics textbooks, both for freshmen and for classes in modern physics, typically the second year for majors, seeking index entries for experiment and paradigm. The results were disappointing. Neither term appeared in these:
  • Bernstein, Fishbone, Gasiorowicz, Modern Physics (2000).
  • Benson University Physics, (1996)
  • Giancoli, Physics for Scientists and Engineers (2000)
  • Halliday, Resnick, Walker, Fundamentals of Physics (2005)
  • Hech, Physics: Calculus (2000)
  • Learner, Physics for Scientists and Engineers (1996)
  • Tipler, Physics for Scientists and Engineers (1991)
  • Young and Freedman, Sears and Zemansky’s University Physics (2004). 
Of those, the last was most disappointing being the 11th edition of the standard textbook that served the first post-war generation in the 1950s and 1960s. Tipler was one of the books we had at Lansing Community College because it was newly written in 1976 and because Paul Tipler taught at the University of Michigan. He, too, ignored Kuhn.
M31: Andromeda Galaxy, at first a "cloud"
then a spiral within our galaxy,
then an "island universe" like our
own Milky Way.

Better treatment appeared in Lea and Burke, Physics: the Nature of Things (1997). And this speaks to the validity of critical sociology: It is Susan M. Lea who made the effort to present students with discussions of experiment, including the nature of experiment, thought experiment (first Galileo, then Einstein: pp 11, 132, 445), and experiment and theory. As a woman in a man’s world, Dr. Lea easily adopted the sociological perspective of considering the accepted from a different point of view.

However, even Lea and Burke fall into positivist fallacies that plague science with “the problem of induction.”  (See Necessary Facts on David Harriman’s Logical Leap here and here.)  
They say (page 12): “Physics is an experimental science that prides itself in getting close to reality through laboratory testing of theory. … How can we be certain that the experimental process of dissecting nature into component part is ultimately correct? We can’t! Belief in experimental science depends on one’s worldview.” Again (page 14): “Consistency with experiment and usefulness in understanding nature are the properties of a good physical theory. The word truth is conspicuously absent. Aristotle… Kepler and Galileo… Newtonian physics, thought absolutely true for 250 years. In the twentieth century, we have learned that Newtonian physics is not exact but stands as an excellent approximation. Absolute truth is elusive. We continue to seek greater depth in our understanding, greater elegance in our theories, and greater precision in our experiments. Whether truth can be achieved in some approximate sense by this process is unanswerable. We believe in physics because we know we can organize our knowledge and employ it to describe the behavior of nature with greater accuracy using only a small number of fundamental ideas.”
 The objectivist answer is that rational-empiricism works. The physicists who are not sure about reality never think twice about getting into an elevator and expecting it to operate. And if it fails – despite the failsafe which was designed by the same laws – then some cause must be and can be found. In a lecture on “The Primacy of Existence,” Objectivist philosopher David Kelley notes that these doubters do not drive their cars according to the theory that we can never know anything for certain.

(Note the two words, lower case o-objectivist, and upper case. The first is the general rational-empirical method, the scientific method. Capital-O Objectivism derives explicitly from the published works of Ayn Rand and is a modern school of thought based on the objectivism of pre-Kantian Enlightenment )

Also, Lea and Burke gloss over the key problem with doubt: “Physics is an experimental science that prides itself in getting close to reality through laboratory testing of theory.”  What is this reality to which we can get close, but never discover?

To know that we are closer, not farther, requires some test. That test is reality.

In the history of science, few inventions came from engineering applications of scientific principles. Rather, engineering achievements provided data for theoretical explanation. The telegraphs of the world transmitted our ideas across continents, each click creating a magnetic field that collapsed, inductively broadcasting evidence of our existence into the Galaxy, all a generation before Maxwell.

The best sociology discovers facts, creates theories, identifies causes, and tests hypotheses. As passive description, ethnography is not highly regarded, though it is passionately defended. Passive description is good science – and good description is not passive. We bring our expectations to our observations. A scientist knows to be ware of preconceived notions and to be open to new perceptions. At the same time, the scientific observer often has good reason to seek exactly the phenomenon under investigation. It is not really passive. If only implicitly, certain factors are held constant, while others change. Aristotle’s description of the chick embryo is a paradigmatic example cited as one of the greatest scientific experiments in history. (See Necessary Facts here.)  

But sociology knows these facts. Sir Anthony Giddens’s international standard undergraduate textbook, Sociology, has an entire chapter (number 20) on Research Methods with three explicit discussions of experiment. It begins with two discussions of sociology as a science (pp 7-8; and 12-14).

Moreover, in sociology, we enjoy some self-criticism in examining the historical development of our field, from Comte (I prefer Spencer), Weber, Durkheim, and Marx, through to Parsons, Merton, and your choice of pop stars of the current generation. Physics students do not understand their science as a historical development. As Kuhn pointed out fifty years ago, physics is presented whole and complete, without development. No wonder they are surprised by a new explanation of a previously unperceived fact.

ALSO ON NECESSARY FACTS
The Sokol Affair
Reflections on the Sokol Affair
David Harriman's Logical Leap
David Harriman's Logical Leap Almost Makes It
"Big Bang Theory" and Modern Philosophy

Friday, August 24, 2012

Around Austin - Dressed for Encounters

My branch library (Little Walnut Creek) was closed for renovations, so my request for The Education of Henry Adams was sent the next-nearest at North Side, off Burnet and Steck. Leaving there, I saw Costume World. So, I stopped in, browsed the rentals and retail merchandise, and chatted a bit with the staff. This works out well for us, because we are regulars at Dragon's Lair, down the road at Burnet and Koenig.
Most often, we play D&D Encounters, but we also have enjoyed artist and author signings, and costume nights.

Previously on Necessary Facts

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sociology: A Defense and a Call for Reform


I often recommend the OrgTheory blog by Brayden King and Fabio Rojas, sociologists who study firms, groups, and other organizations as apart from and yet of course within the broader, deeper, and longer matrix of global society.   Of late, Prof. Rojas has taken the humanities to task for being unproductive as job placement apprenticeships.  Not only are humanities majors unemployed, they are unemployable because they learn nothing of economic value.  Unlike STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), humanities have no practical purpose.  I disagree and have insisted on the economic value in a liberal education on this blog.  More to the point, though, I also remind the good professors that by their own standards sociology is also useless.

I pointed out before in comments on their blog and on my own that someone who is good with machinery can work as a technician, engineer, or, ultimately, professor of engineering.  Whether you hold a certificate, associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate, you can work in HVAC, industrial controls, computer programming, or for tht matter, a wide range of healthcare or business careers.  You can be a phlebotomist, nurse, or doctor; you can be a bookkeeper, accountant, or manager at many levels.  With sociology, those options do not exist.   In sociology, the only degree that counts is a doctorate; and the only use of a Ph.D. is to teach classes in sociology.  – Or so it would seem.  I disagree.
About the Sociology of Music
by Jennifer Lena

I do agree - because it is obvious – that there are no job openings reading  “Sociologist: AA degree minimum BS preferred to liaison with software developers and marketing department of leading social media company.”  The fault lies not with our stars.  Mainstream sociology is anti-market, anti-capitalist, and Marxist.  This is choice, not destiny.

Both McCloskey and Weber
cite Benjamin Franklin as
our capitalist Paradigm
Worldwide the leading English language textbook for this study is Anthony Giddens’s. (Sociology, Cambridge: Polity Press 1989; subsequent editions.)  Giddens of course is the architect of New Labor in the United Kingdom (or as George Orwell called it Ingsoc).  Says Sir Anthony: “Sociology is the study of human social life, groups, and societies. … The scope of sociology is extremely wide, ranging from the analysis of passing encounters between individuals in the street to the investigation of global social processes. … It teaches us that what we regard as natural, inevitable, good or true, may not be such, and that the ‘givens’ of our life are strongly influenced by historical and social influences.  These are in the influences sociologists study.” (3rd ed., pg 2) 

Citing C. Wright Mills, Giddens continues: “The sociological imagination requires us, above all, to ‘think ourselves away’ from the familiar routines of our daily lives in order to look at them anew.”  (page 3)  “It is the business of sociology to investigate the connections between what society makes of us and what we make of ourselves. (Page 6)

First, I point to the semantic distinction that sociology has a "business" rather than a goal, mandate, purpose, calling, mission, imperative or objective.  Moreover, if any segment of civilized society has this "sociological imagination" is merchants, traders, buyers and sellers, shopkeepers, and capitalists.  We know from the historical record that a community of Sumerians lived among the Hittites.  Deeper still, if anything ameliorated contact between bands of hunter-gatherers most likely to come to blows over territory, it was the exchange of gifts.  In Africa, 12,000 years ago, sea shells daubed with red ochre and strung together traveled far.  The "dumb barter" method perhaps invented by Phoenicians depends on trust -- and insight into the wants of others. Herodotus says that the Lydians were the first retailers. He may have been factually incorrect while still hinting to the remnants of the Hittite-Sumerian engagement; but the fact is that he cared enough about retailing to wonder how it started - and he knew that the Greeks did not invent it.

“It is sociology’s task to study the resulting balance between social reproduction and social transformation.” (page 6)  Giddens cites the founders of the study: Comte, Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Foucault, and Habermas.
“Habermas is perhaps the leading sociological thinker in the world today.  … According to Habermas, capitalist societies, in which change is ever present, tend to destroy the moral order on which they in fact depend.  We live in a social order where economic growth tends to take precedence over all else – but this situation creates a lack of meaning in everyday life.  Here Habermas comes back to Durkheim’s concept of anomie, although he applies it in a new and original way.” (Page 12.)
Spencer may have created
"The Modern Life" 
Where is the "sociological imagination" to accept the morality of capitalism on its own terms, rather than ethnocentrically condemning it for not being one's own?  Empirical evidence is also lacking.  How many "capitalist societies" did he examine?  In 3000 years, China never had one.  Greece and Rome were not. Did this happen to the Islamic Golden Age that the drive for profits destroyed the moral foundation of Islam?  Was this the case in Renaissance Italy, or in Holland later, or then in England and America?  Are these different capitalist societies or continued expressions of the same one?  How have Singapore and Hong Kong fared?  Is Singapore in moral decline?  How would you measure that?  Any moral standard would by definition be objective, which is denied by the insistence on the "sociological imagination."

Nothing in Giddens's introductory chapter approaches a marketable use for the study.  No citation exists for a sociologist who actually made the world a better place.  We have many critics, of course, but nothing like a lightbulb or a suspension bridge or a computer or a medicine is offered.  I submit that any such examples that could be found are submerged under an anti-capitalist mentality that decries earning money by invention, making fortunes by removing inefficiencies, earning a living by creating markets.  Sociologists might mention Thomas Edison, but they are not happy that he was a millionaire.  (In fact, Giddens does not cite "invention" at all, though he does discuss "innovation centers" as a kind of city where bright people come together as at Cambridge. )

I agree 100% that stepping outside your given cultural context is important.  This is required  for  understanding that others near to you or far away are different.  Indeed, in our global capitalist society you may have more in common with people geographically distant from you, but culturally close.  That said, the fundamental error is that sociology attempts to study societies, organizations, firms, polities, and groups without acknowledging the individual as the primary element of any conglomerate, agglomerate, or confluence. 

Sociology could have been built on Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, and Georg Simmel.  In our time, the works of Dierdre McCloskey – Bourgeois Virtues; Bourgeois Dignity – define a new narrative to explain us to ourselves.  But McCloskey is considered an economist, though, of course, so were Marx, Weber and Simmel.  In America, Robert King Merton and his socialist comrade Paul Lazarsfeld made money from their public relations firm.  Sociology could be defined as the study of the individual in society.  We belong to many societies – local, national, and global, professional, recreational, religious, and more.  Recently, Jennifer Lena of Bernard College has been writing about how musicians socialize among themselves.  In the internet age, you can find musical collaborations on YouTube.   National Public Radio reported on Musicians Collaborate from Afar on the Web .  TED Talks gave us "Eric Whitacre: A virtual choir 2,000 voices strong."

Simmel studied Money
on its own terms
According to the most politically powerful sociologist of our generation, the leading sociologist of our time railed against capitalism.  Neither of them perceived the sociology of music.  In Giddens’ textbook “music industry” is an Index entry pointing to a discussion of media imperialism.  Bollywood appears not at all.   Afro-Celtic music is missing of course. 

Science has a sociology, as do art, sports, video games, board games, comic books, micro breweries, cooperative groceries, garden clubs, veterans associations… and within sports, NASCAR, the Olympics, sandlot softball, community center chess, ... the list is as deep as human action.  I assert that sociology will be economically viable when we break the Marxist monopoly and admit that markets are an important means for people to cooperate in the attainment of common goals serving individual needs.  When we do that - and educate a generation on that basis - then sociology will have a market function, whether you completed a certificate in social media or a doctorate in (well, ahem, after all...) "social media." 

Sociology has the same value as a liberal education.  Indeed, sociology could be the gateway to the liberal arts. I suggest that the most profitable path to that goal is for sociology to begin with the individual and demonstrate the reward in pursuing it as an academic study with market utility.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Profits and Benefits in Foreign Languages

 Should we trust university professors who deny the value of a university education? In the past year, several prominent libertarian professors have been speaking out against college education.  On OrgTheory Fabio Rojas argues that humanities and fine arts produce no job skills.  (His guest blogger, Jennifer Lena, counters.) On EconLog, Bryan Caplan finds no economic value in foreign languages.  Ayn Rand warned that you should not hire a plumber who denies the validity of plumbing.

On EconLog, in reply, I wrote:

“David Henderson's comment about mathematics (Aug. 10 below) comes closest to explaining the true value in learning a foreign language in a general way for most people. Physical education knows the value in cross-training. Certainly, mental education cannot deny a similar claim. In my comment to the original post, I mentioned learning Fortran, Basic, and Java. In discussing the artistry in money with my numismatist friends, I speak in a vocabulary of line and space, with special words such as frost, luster, field, device, and toning. What makes English powerful is its nearly 1 million words, perhaps 90% of them borrowed. The more words, grammars, and syntaxes you know, the better your thinking... or so I claim. The opposite of that is Orwell's Newspeak, a restricted language designed to prevent thought, especially critical analysis and synthesis.”
On OrgTheory as here on Necessary Facts, I pointed out that economics and sociology are seemingly “useless” studies.  Consider an analogy to engineering.  You can complete a Ph.D. and before that be licensed by your state as a professional engineer.  That allows you to practice at the highest conceptual levels, teaching others, solving the hardest problems.

But you can have a master’s, a bachelor’s, or an associate’s, as well, and work at other problems, more limited, concrete, and known, all of which still offer challenge and reward reflected in the relative pay available.  You do not need a Ph.D. to work in HVAC, factory automation, electronic controls, computer networking, automotive repair, website design, or a thousand other occupations.  But an economist with an associate’s degree will not find ready employment.  Outside of college, no one hires sociologists to work as sociologists, certainly not with an associate’s degree.  Thus, the economists and sociologists on Org Theory must admit that their fields are useless.
When I was on KGO (a San Francisco radio station) a few years ago (circa 2006) to discuss that day's 400-point fall in the Dow-Jones Index, I pointed out that at the time it was about a 3% fall. Various financial pundits were saying that it was due to an even bigger fall in China's stock market. I didn't know enough to comment on that. At the end, one of two hosts asked me, "If you were giving a 12-year-old American kid advice on what languages to learn, what advice would you give?" I think he was expecting me to say "English and Chinese." I answered, "Two languages: English and math."
"Thoughts on Second Language" by David Henderson Aug. 11, 2012, on EconLog.
And, as above in my comments about numismatics, economics has its own special vocabulary, even its own special mathematics.  The classic supply-demand curves are examples of mathematical ignorance.  The independent variable, Price, is always on the ordinate (Y-axis).  This is just plain wrong. 


Yet, it works… demonstrating that the special vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of economics may serve a special important purpose (perhaps). 

We think in symbols and analogies.
The true value in learning foreign languages may not be the ones alleged by public education: utility on the job; exposure to culture; meeting people.  Like algebra, drawing, and music, learning to understand and express yourself in different modes expands your inner world.  Your inner experience is primary.  We say that language is a social artifact: you learn it from others and do not invent your own.  But alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe needed language.  Language is how we think.  We also can think in colors, shapes, spaces, sounds, and so on.  Language then – your own or a foreign one – is another cognitive tool.

When you stop and think about it, the fact is that every language is a foreign language.  You learn your first one in the womb.  But if people around you have other modes – music, for instance – that, too, will become a “native” language… which is probably why music is passed so easily.  Few people can play an instrument, but fewer still never hum, whistle, sing, or tap.  Is music education a waste of time because so few high school or college students go on to become professional musicians? 

The 2012 Olympic Games are closing today.  As a nerd, I often hated gym class but I always felt that it was the fault of the school because I liked running around, chasing balls, and jumping over stuff.  (Perhaps in a prior life I was a Labrador retriever.)  Being able to climb a ladder maybe more useful than learning to climb a rope.  But in my work, I stayed off the high iron because I knew how I did on the balance beam.  Would the professors argue that physical education is a waste of time and money because so few graduate to worldwide acclaim or professional status?

In 100 years we have gone from the steamship to the spaceship, but education still consists of one person speaking to a passive array of listeners.  Like Soviet agriculture, public education is doomed to minimal innovation and production – and for the same metaphysical reasons.  So, yes, education as we produce it is open to criticism – even from first principles. 

But we do have some competition: Ohio State versus Harvard; Stanford versus Mt. Holyoke; Antioch versus Phoenix.  And no one has come up with anything better than the liberal education: trivium and quadrivium – Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic; Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy.  Today, that would be English composition, philosophy, foreign language, algebra (calculus, etc.), law, economics, music, and science.  Before you sign on as an apprentice and pursue a career, you need the fullest possible range of intellectual abilities.  And learning never stops. 

Previously on Necessary Facts:
The Economic Value in a Liberal Education
The Pretense of Sociology
Two Cheers for American Education
Another Cheer for American Education

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Remarkable Story of Risk

Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L. Bernstein explains that the modern world was created by the mathematics of chance.  Earlier times had traders, bankers and merchants.  Our capitalist culture is special because of the mathematics of risk invented by Fermat and Pascal.  Those tools within the Renaissance cultural context allowed the idea that we could - and should - discover and control the future. 

 “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.” (pg 1 ppb)
I first reviewed this book for the Objectivist Living discussion board here.   Over the years I alluded to it occasionally there and on the Rebirth of Reason website.  My copy has dozens of Post-its.  Looking through the book again, I made still more notes.  Perhaps it is my own ignorance, but hardly a page lacks something important worth marking for future reference. 

These facts, insights, observations, and assertions reflect more than shopping at a supermarket.  After all, von Mises called his work Human Action, not People at the Grocer’s.  “Fear of harm ought to be proportional not merely to the gravity of the harm, but also to the probability of the event.“ (Attributed to the Port Royale Logic.) In criminology, we say that punishment must be “swift, certain, and severe.”  Statistical evidence shows that only certainty seems to prevent crime.


The development of risk theory has deep roots.  Astragalus “knuckle bone” dice are known from Egyptian tombs of 3500 BCE – and pharaoh’s dice were loaded.  But the ancient world had many of the artifacts we assume are modern from accurate astronomy to coal, iron and steam powered mechanisms.  True enough, the arithmetic was cumbersome, but something else far more consequential was lacking.

“Up until the Renaissance, people perceived the future as little more than a matter of luck or the result of random variations and most of their decisions were driven by instinct.  When the conditions of life are so closely linked to nature, not much is left to human control. As long as the demands of survival limit people to the basic functions of bearing children, growing crops, hunting, fishing, and providing shelter, they are simply unable to conceive of circumstances in which they might be able to influence the outcomes of their decisions.  A penny saved is not a penny earned unless the future is something more than a black hole.” (pg. 18)

From there, Bernstein covers the expected territory of probability theory and statistics: Pascal, Fermat, Graunt, Galton...  Allusions and examples from the American stock markets abound.  While an impassioned capitalist, he is not perfectly consistent in an Objectivist sense, admitting to the need for some government regulation of the financial markets.  However, lowercase-o objectivism runs throughout this work, as it must in any exploration that supports facts with theories and hypotheses with evidence.  Bernstein quotes Chicago economist (and Nobel laureate) Harry Markowitz on diversification: “Diversification is both observed and sensible; a rule of behavior which does not imply the superiority of diversification must be rejected both as a hypothesis and as a maxim.” (pg. 252).

Also my Randian comrades will find it curious that John Maynard Keynes could be quoted as an objectivist: “When once the facts are given which determine our knowledge, what is probable or improbable in these circumstances has been fixed objectively and is independent of our opinion.” (A Treatise on Probability, 1921; cited pg 226.)

Peter Lewyn Bernstein (January 22, 1919 – June 5, 2009) shared his passion for markets with Robert Heilbroner (The Worldly Philosophers) with whom he attended both primary and secondary school, as well as Harvard College.  (Biography on Wikipedia here.)   Bernstein is also associated with the efficient market hypothesis which “asserts that one cannot consistently achieve returns in excess of average market returns on a risk-adjusted basis, given the information available at the time the investment is made. (Wikipedia here.) Bernstein was the first editor of The Journal of Portfolio Management. He authored several books including Capital Ideas: The Improbable Origin of Modern Wall Street.  Bernstein published five of his ten books after he was 75 years of age.

Business Week’s reviewer, Peter Coy, call the theme of risk management “The Closest Thing to a Crystal Ball” (here)  “Bernstein brings Against the Gods up to the present with an account of how some skeptical researchers--beginning with the Israeli-born psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1950s--trashed the classical model of rationality by exploring how people actually behave in risky situations. The bottom line: People behave irrationally, even when they know they are doing so. Bernstein relates an anecdote about a distinguished Soviet professor of statistics who showed up at an air-raid shelter during a German bombardment. Until then, he had scoffed at the prospect of being hit. What changed his mind?  “Look,'” he explained. “There are 7 million people in Moscow and one elephant. Last night, they got the elephant.”

Friday, August 3, 2012

Science in the Middle Ages

Objectivists value the scientific method as the cornerstone of the engineering achievements of our civilization from structural trusses and direct current to alternating current and cybernetics.  We too easily see the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and barbarism in which learning was chained to (and by) theology.  The reality is more complicated.

“The Middle Ages was a period ruled by the Witch Doctor, in a firm, if mutually jealous alliance with Attila. The Witch Doctor controlled every aspect of human life and thought, while the feudal Attilas looted one another’s domains, collected material tributes from serfs – who worked, lived, and served in subhuman conditions – and maintained the power to burn heretics at the stake.
“Philosophy, in that era, existed as a “handmaiden of theology,” and the dominant influence was, appropriately, Plato, in the form of Plotinus and Augustine. Aristotle’s works were lost to the scholars of Europe for centuries. The prelude to the Renaissance was the return of Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas.” – Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual.”

Astronomy, in particular was not dormant, nor could it be.  The problem of Easter required bringing lunar and solar calendars into alignment.  Whether biology, botany, and medicine had any hint of modernism is a difficult question, but can only be answered with direct citations to contemporary works.  Like the revolution of the Earth on its axis and the orbit of the Earth about the Sun, proof contrary to spontaneous generation did not come until the 1840s. Like astronomy, it is too easy to dismiss alchemy as not being "real" chemistry. While its paradigms are not ours, the practices were utilitarian: dying wool and leather were important crafts. Paints, pigments, and finishes also were consequential.

“Historians have long recognized that the rebirth of science in twelfth-century Europe flowed from a search for ancient scientific texts. But this search presupposes knowledge and interest; we only seek what we know to be valuable. The emergence of scholarly interest after centuries of apparent stagnation seems paradoxical. This book resolves that seeming contradiction by describing four active traditions of early medieval astronomy: one divided the year by observing the Sun; another computed the date of Easter Full Moon; the third determined the time for monastic prayers by watching the course of the stars; and the classical tradition of geometrical astronomy provided a framework for the cosmos. Most of these astronomies were practical; they sustained the communities in which they flourished and reflected and reinforced the values of those communities. These astronomical traditions motivated the search for ancient learning that led to the Scientific Renaissance of the twelfth century.” (Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe by Stephen C. McCluskey. Cambridge University Press,  1997.) 

“Measurements by clepsydras prove … that although the earth is at the center of the universe, it is eccentric to the sun's orbit. At times the sun is borne at a greater distance from the earth than at other times. When the sun is climbing upwards in Cancer and Gemini, in the steeper tracts of its course, it takes longer, lingering 32 days in Gemini; but it requires less time in the lower tracts, 28 days in Sagittarius, the elapsed time for the other signs varying between those extremes (848-849) . “Dominant Traditions in Early Medieval Latin Science” by William H. Stahl, Isis, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Jun., 1959), pp. 95-124. 

Mean Speed from the Oxford
Calculators used by Galileo
"The sorry state of scientific studies at the close of the Roman Empire in the fifth century reflected Roman, not medieval, failures and short-comings." "How Science Survived: Medieval Manuscripts as Fossils” by Sharon Larimer Gilman and Florence Eliza Glaze. Science, New Series, Vol. 307, No. 5713 (Feb. 25, 2005), pp. 1208-1209.

“The dominant explanation of human behavior at this time was astrology.  Charles, like most of his contemporaries, ruled with the advice of the recognized social scientists of the day, the court astrologers. In this vein Oresme was ordered by Charles to translate Ptolemy's Quadripartitum from Latin into French. This order discharged, Oresme then attempted to debunk the popular conceptions in an attack on judicial astrology, Contra judiciaros astronomos (1360), which he later translated into French. There is no hint in the historical record that Oresme's efforts altered the predominance of astrology in the determinance of social policy; indeed, he returned to the attack ten years later with a treatise entitled Contra divinatores horoscopios, and in a series of Quaestiones (a stylized form of question and answer popular with academicians of the period).”
“Nicole Oresme and Medieval Social Science: The 14th Century Debunker of Astrology Wrote anEarly Monetary Treatise” by Kevin B. Bales, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 1983), pp. 101-111.

“WHEN historians and historians of science flatly state that Ptolemy's Almagest and Geography dominated the fields of astronomy and geography for fourteen centuries, they are apt to mislead unwary readers into supposing that Ptolemy was the supreme authority in Latin science during that period. Quite the contrary, his works might almost as well never have been written for all the influence they had in the Latin West until translations were produced from Greek or Arabic texts in Toledo and Sicily in the twelfth century.' If there was any dominant tradition of Latin science in the first thirteen centuries of the Christian Era, it was a stream of encyclopedic literature, the main course of which may be traced backwards through the Latin encyclopedist Varro and the Platonizing Stoic Posidonius; to trace sources beyond them is difficult indeed. In any case it is well to bear in mind that this stream of encyclopedic works skirts around Ptolemy without being appreciably influenced by him. We can trace its course through the extant writings of Pliny, Theon of Smyrna, Cleomedes, Geminus, and numerous others.

“Of the three, Martianus Capella offers the best account of encyclopedic science and will be discussed first. He seems to have flourished in the first half of the fifth century.  Martianus Capella wanted to produce an encyclopedia in the Varronian tradition and, by excluding two of Varro's disciplines, medicine and architecture, laid the foundation of the medieval trivia and quadrivia.

The first work of Archimedes translated into Latin was the Measurement of the Circle. It was translated from the Arabic twice in the twelfth century.' The first translation, which I have argued (but not surely) was done by Plato of Tivoli, was most inferior; just three manuscripts are known, only one of which is medieval. Apparently not long after this first translation the great translator Gerard of Cremona again used the Arabic text and rendered the Measurement of the Circle into Latin. This time the translation was quite accurate, and so before 1187 a faithful version of this short but important treatise became available. We are fortunate that this version was included in MS Bibliotheque Nationale, Fonds latin 9335, a handsome codex of Gerard translations. Incidentally, this manuscript is one of the best examples of intelligent copying of scientific works. It has marginal variant readings which cite alternate copies. The drawings are carefully made. Even more important the transcription of numbers - even of six places - is almost perfect. “The Impact of Archimedes on Medieval Science,” by Marshall Clagett, Isis, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Dec., 1959), pp. 419-429. 

"Among late thirteenth and fourteenth century philosophers, the Averroists have been particularly noticed by historians as advocates of the autonomy of the sciences. In arguing, for example, that physics might give an answer to the question of the eternity of the world different from the answer given in accordance with Christian belief, Boethius of Dacia based himself largely on a conception of physics as an independent discipline with its own principles, rational methods, and conclusions. This approach to the autonomy of the sciences was not, however, the only influential one in this period. Another basis for the autonomy of physics is found in the work of certain Oxford commentators on Aristotle's Physics, most prominently in William of Ockham's Expositio super octo libros Physicorum. This second approach makes physics autonomous by placing greatest confidence not in deductively and causally prior principles of physics, which some thought could be proved or made known by metaphysics, but rather in propositions accepted on the basis of experience, if not known in themselves. The primary evidence cited in the following paper." “The a Posteriori Foundations of Natural Science: Some Medieval Commentaries on Aristotle's Physics, Book I, Chapters 1 and 2” by Edith Dudley Sylla, Synthese, Vol. 40, No. 1, Jan., 1979, pp. 147-187.
 In The Logical Leap, Objectivist physicist and philosopher David Harriman denigrates medieval science. In Chapter 3 "The Mathematical Universe" under the subhead "The Birth of Celestial Physics" on page 85 (ppb), Harriman says that with the Ptolemaic Model, the relative sizes of the orbits of the planets could not be calculated.  That leads to an interesting contradiction.  If it is true that the Geocentric model prevents such calcuations, then they must have used some other model, because the relative sizes of the orbits were known.  On the other hand, perhaps the geometry and observations of the time did, indeed, allow them to make those calculations, even assuming the Geocentric model.  My reference for that is Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe by Stephen McCluskey (Cambridge, 1998).  In fact, because of the religious viewpoint, the very scale of the measurable universe and the comparatively small size of the (spherical; not flat) Earth, were substantiating evidence to the relative unimportance of Earthly affairs. Saturn's orbit was estimated to be 72 million miles from Earth. (McCluskey, page 203).