17 November 2010

Lack of jetpacks and flying cars does not mean Science is regressing.

Scientific American: Cross-check Blog | John Horgan | Scientific regress: When science goes backward

Just last week, The New York Times Science Times section celebrated its, um, 32nd birthday with a special issue on "What's next in science". [...]

If the Times had asked me to chime in, I would have pointed out areas of science, technology and medicine that are regressing. I don't mean what the philosopher Imre Lakatos referred to as a "degenerating research program," which produces diminishing returns. That's merely declining progress. I mean fields of research that actually go backward, as measured by some specific benchmark. Some examples:

*The end of infectious disease: Decades ago antibiotics, vaccines, pesticides, water chlorination and other public health measures were vanquishing diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, polio, whooping cough, tuberculosis and smallpox, particularly in First World nations. In The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance (Penguin, 1995), the journalist Laurie Garrett noted that in 1967 U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart said that it was "time to close the books on infectious diseases" ...
That's not a problem of Science going backwards. That's scientists being overly optimistic.

We know just as much about infectious diseases as we did in '67. It's the implementation -- the engineering -- that's the problem, and that's because the goalposts have moved. Fighting evolving enemies is a constantly shifting battle, quite literally.

I could also counter this by saying that when I was growing up I was told that AIDS would kill us all. It was only a matter of time before everyone had some scary sexual virus. Well AIDS is rather over in the first world. It's expensive to treat, but we can more or less fight it to a standstill at this point.
*Space colonization: While I was still in journalism school in 1983 I wrote a story about the L5 Society, a group of space enthusiasts, and their guru, the Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill. O'Neill and his supporters proposed building factories, solar-energy generators and huge, cylindrical, rotating (to create artificial gravity) habitats in the L5 region of space, where the gravity of Earth and the moon cancel each other. ...
Again, this is an engineering challenge, not a scientific one. And an economic challenge of course. The fact that we don't have O'Neil cans sitting at Lagrange points says more about our priorities than it does about our knowledge. (Priorities I happen to agree with, by the way.  There's simply not a reason to hang out in space.)
*Supersonic transport: Fifty years ago, supersonic commercial flight seemed poised for takeoff. The Anglo-French Concorde began regular transatlantic flights in the 1960s. [...] But from the beginning supersonic flight was plagued by problems, especially huge fuel costs, noisy takeoffs and sonic booms. The last commercial SST flight took place in 2003. At the moment, prospects for revival of commercial SSTs are slim to none.
Again, this is an economic matter, not a scientific one.

It's also very narrowly defined. The Concorde is out, but the A380 is in. Who's to say we're worse off with one than the other?
*Commercial fusion power: In 1983 I visited Princeton University to ogle its tokamak machine, an experimental magnetic-confinement fusion reactor the size of a small house, covered in cables, gauges, transformers and other gear. I was awestruck, and when the physicists working on it told us that fusion reactors could be generating electricity within 20 years, naturally I believed them.
We haven't regressed with respect to the science of 20 years ago, we've failed to live up to the high expectations of 20 years ago. There's a world of difference.
*The origin of life: In 1953 Harold Urey of the University of Chicago and his graduate student Stanley Miller simulated the "primordial soup" in which life supposedly began on Earth some four billion years ago. [...] This famous experiment raised the hopes of many scientists that one of nature's deepest mysteries—genesis, the origin of life on Earth—would soon be replicated in the laboratory and hence solved. It hasn't worked out that way.
Ditto. This wasn't scientific knowledge, it was an unverified claim made by some scientists. There will always be false starts and dead ends in scientific research. It's completely necessary, just like failed businesses are to the vitality of a market economy.

Horgan seems to be confusing Science with science-related public policy and commercial endeavors. These bullet points have nothing to do with science regressing and everything to do with people failing to live up to Horgan's daydreams about what the future would be like.


  1. Isn't Horgan the guy who wrote "The End of Science," claiming that we are close to answering all the remaining questions in science? And now all of a sudden we're regressing? Wish he'd make up his mind.

  2. Good point! I didn't realize that was him.

  3. Your point about many/all of these being engineering challenges rather than scientific ones is well taken. I would like to add though, that all engineering challenges are simultaneously economic challenges. If you ask an engineer "can you do X?" the response will almost invariably be "yes, if you're willing to throw enough money at it," e.g. the Apollo Project. The trick is getting the task done within realistic budgetary constraints. It's not that many of these tasks can't be done, it's that they're not worth doing at what it would cost to make it work.

  4. Very true. It's tough to disentangle "how do we do this?" and "is it worth it?"