22 June 2010

Worshipping Apollo

Bruce Charlton | Human capability peaked before 1975 and has since declined

I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since.

This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.
That is not even wrong.

First of all, that is entirely subjective.  Why is going to the moon judged to be the supreme achievement?  On what grounds is it more of a pinnacle than splitting the atom or mapping the human genome or cloning a mammal or building a car which can drive autonomously?  Other than the moon being far away and trips there making Bruce Charlton's heart skip a beat, why is that the single most impressive accomplishment?

What's the scale being used here?   Charlton is big on science, so how can this statement be falsified?  How are we measuring the complexity of accomplishments?  Without knowing that then there is no way humans could ever ive up to Apollo.  Charlton can just continue to claim he is not as impressed as he was by Apollo 11.

Secondly, going to the moon is f***ing simple.  Strap enough rocket fuel under some zoomie's ass and you're there.  It's a difficult but straight-forward engineering challenge based on 19th century Newtonian science.  That is old and tired compared to what we can do now.  Here are a few examples of things I find to be higher achievements than putting men on the moon, and these are just a smattering of things in the news in the last few weeks alone. Xian-Min Jin et al just acheived instant transmission of data using quantum entanglement over a distance of ten miles. (See: Discovery News and Nature Photonics.) Ventner et al. created a viable bacterium from an entirely artificial genome. (NB Schulz et al. have been doing even more impressive things though with much less fanfare.) IBM Research has been making waves with Watson, a computer capable of competing with humans in Jeopardy!.
Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer *wanted* to go to the moon, or could not afford to, or something…– but I am suggesting that all this is BS, merely excuses for not doing something which we *cannot* do.
What's the evidence for that claim?

There's no reason to go to the moon any more. (If, indeed, there ever was one.) What are you going to do when you get there except feel proud about it? What can you do that a robot couldn't do better and cheaper?
It is as if an eighty year old ex-professional-cyclist was to claim that the reason he had stopped competing in the Tour de France was that he had now had found better ways to spend his time and money. It may be true; but does not disguise the fact that an 80 year old could not compete in international cycling races even if he wanted to. [...]
We don't sacrifice goats to Apollo any more either. Would it be accurate to say we don't do that because we no longer know how? Arnold Kling points out that we don't build stone cathedrals like we used to either. Is it because we don't know how or don't want to? Surely some of our stone-cathedral-building skills have lapsed, but who cares?  We have better things to be doing.

Charlton is treating technical abilities like they're a genetic trait that has passed from our grasp, like an athlete growing old. (Or more like Tolkien treated nobility and honor: our metis has faded away like the glory of Gondor without her King.) It doesn't work like that. Humans of 1961 had no innate capability for getting into orbit. They had to learn how.  We could re-learn whatever we've let lapse, and probably do it better and cheaper to boot.
On the job problem-solving means having the best people doing the most important jobs. For example, if it had not been Neil Armstrong at the controls of the first Apollo 11 lunar lander but had instead been somebody of lesser ability, decisiveness, courage and creativity – the mission would either have failed or aborted.
Actually most of the engineers involved wanted the landing to be automated. The Pentagon vetoed that because they wanted their flyboys to have some extra glory.  Armstrong really shouldn't have been at the controls in the first place.
But since the 1970s there has been a decline in the quality of people in the key jobs in NASA, and elsewhere – because organizations no longer seek to find and use the best people as their ideal but instead try to be ‘diverse’ in various ways (age, sex, race, nationality etc). And also the people in the key jobs are no longer able to decide and command, due to the expansion of committees and the erosion of individual responsibility and autonomy.
NASA doesn't have the best people any more because it doesn't need them. They're off doing more important things. Organizations which do put diversity above achievement (and some do; no idea if NASA is one) inevitably fall behind those that value achievement. If NASA indeed prioritizes diversity or bureaucracy over accomplishment then why judge people based on what NASA can do? Look elsewhere for human achievement.
By 1986, and the Challenger space shuttle disaster, it was clear that humans had declined in capability – since the disaster was fundamentally caused by managers and committees being in control of NASA rather than individual experts. [...]
No, that's evidence that NASA declined in capability, not humanity as a whole. And only if you happen to cherry pick your other point of comparison as Apollo 11 and not, say, Apollo 1.
Since the mid-1970s the rate of progress has declined in physics, biology and the medical sciences – and some of these have arguably gone into reverse, so that the practice of science in some areas has overall gone backwards, valid knowledge has been lost and replaced with phony fashionable triviality and dishonest hype. Some of the biggest areas of science – medical research, molecular biology, neuroscience, epidemiology, climate research – are almost wholly trivial or bogus. This is not compensated by a few islands of progress, eg in computerization and the invention of the internet. Capability must cover all the bases, and depends not on a single advanced area but all-round advancement.
This is so wrong I don't even know where to begin. Physics has stalled (not regressed) a little recently because it is struggling to move into much harder problem areas that are entirely immune to what humans can experience and observe unaided. Biology is advancing by bounds; future historians will divide biology into a pre-genetic period and a post-genetic period we are just starting to explore. Neuroscience has likewise never been more robust. In fact neuroscience didn't even exist when Buzz Aldrin was buzzing, it's been born as a discipline within the time that Charlton thinks we've been fading. Medical research is likewise advancing: Would you rather be in a hospital in 1969 or 2010? Climate research ... that's a whole can of worms I don't want to touch: too politicized, too ideological, too unscientific, but it's not in any way indicative of human capability as a whole. And as a computer scientist I think it's a little insulting to take all of computerization — truly a revolution for Science and the world — and just brush it away as an "island of progress."
The fact is that human no longer do - *can* no longer do many things we used to be able to do: land on the moon, swiftly win wars against weak opposition and then control the defeated nation,
Does this guy know any history? Civilizations have tried and failed to decisively win wars for as long as there have been wars.  How many times did the Romans fight the same people over and over, failing to fully suppress their enemies over a period of generations? There's a reason there were three Samnite wars, four Macedonian wars, three Celtiberian wars, three Mithridatic wars and three Jewish-Roman wars. And I'll let the three Punic wars and three Servile wars pass, not to mention all the ongoing struggles that don't get counted as multiple individual wars but could be, like the Macromanic wars.

Hell, who needs to know history when you can open a newspaper: how long have the Brits been trying to pacify the Irish? Centuries.
secure national borders,
I don't have the patience for listing all of the unsecured national borders in history. I'll just counter that the US also has the longest secure (and undefended) border in the world, and probably in world history.  (Hi, Canada!  How's it going up there?)
discover ‘breakthrough’ medical treatments,
Tell that to all the people working on visual/neural interfaces to cure blindness or targeted reinnervation to provide neural control of prosthetics, just to give two examples I have followed loosely.
prevent crime,
When the hell could we prevent crime, and when did it have to do with our technical prowess?
design and build to a tight deadline,
Nothing is built to deadline anymore?  Furthermore Apollo only got in on deadline because Abe Silverstein had been around the block enough to know that he should take all the estimates his underlings gave him and double them.  They came in on time and relatively on budget because he padded everything so generously.
educate people so they are ready to work before the age of 22,
Nobody is capable of working before 22?  I've been working 20 or 30 hours a week while in school (and more when out of school) since I was 18, and a big chunk of those hours have been spent doing things that were beyond the imagination, not to mention the prowess, of people four decades ago.  A lot more people stay in school later, but that's a sign of success, not failure.  They're purchasing a luxury their parents couldn't have afforded.
block an undersea oil leak...
Again, we've never been able to block a leak under a mile plus of water. This isn't a valid comparison to the past in any way.
50 years ago we would have the smartest, best trained, most experienced and most creative people we could find (given human imperfections) in position to take responsibility, make decisions and act upon them in pursuit of a positive goal.

Now we have dull and docile committee members chosen partly with an eye to affirmative action and to generate positive media coverage, whose major priority is not to do the job but to avoid personal responsibility and prevent side-effects; pestered at every turn by an irresponsible and aggressive media and grandstanding politicians out to score popularity points; all of whom are hemmed-about by regulations such that – whatever they do do, or do not do – they will be in breach of some rule or another.
Who is this "we"? Does "we" mean "a government agency"? Because I guarantee they were staffed by just as many half-assed loosers back in the Good Ole Days as they are now, it's just the faces that have changed. Think about all the incompetent sons-in-law and frat brothers and friends from prep school who got postings because they knew the right people. Think about all the talented women and Jews and Catholics and Africans and so on that got passed over for jobs or educations where they could have helped make progress. Politics and human pettiness is nothing new.
So we should be honest about the fact that human do not anymore fly to the moon because humans cannot anymore fly to the moon.
Again, what evidence that we can't do this vs don't want to waste resources doing so?
Humans have failed to block the leaking oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico because we nowadays cannot do it (although humans would surely have solved the problem 40 years ago, but in ways we can no longer imagine since then the experts were both smarter and more creative than we are now, and these experts would then have been in a position to do the needful).
What would possibly lead him to think we could have blocked this well in 1970? The Deepwater Horizon was operating in 8000ft of water, the deepest a rig could get in 1970 was on the shallow side of 1000ft. Why would someone drilling in 1970 be equipped to plug a hole three orders of magnitude deeper than they were operating in?
There has been a significant decline in human capability. And there is no sign yet of reversal in this decline, although reversal and recovery is indeed possible.

But do no believe any excuses for failure to do something. Doing something is the only proof that something can indeed be done.
Doing something is proof, but so is having done something. I'm not actively tying my shoes right now, but that doesn't mean I lack proof of being able to tie shoelaces.
Only when regular and successful lunar flights resume can we legitimately claim to have achieved approximately equal capability to that which humans possesed 40 years ago.
This is nothing but fetishization of the Apollo program coupled with a very severe case of Back in the Good Ole Days. The entire post boils down to "back in the golden ages we did this one thing I think was so damn impressive and now we don't do it anymore and somehow it's the fault of all these things that I hate anyway and if we could only do this one thing then all our problems would be solved because we would be super like we were back then when everything was great." Cranky, myopic bullshit on stilts.

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