Discover more from 70 Years Old. WTF!
Is science stagnant, a rant
No. And you are morons.
My friend JL is trolling with this article. So let me take the bait and wax hyperbolic for a minute. ( I have an abundant supply of hyperbole wax just for this purpose.) This article is wrong in so many ways that I can’t count them. Okay. I’m calming down.
Actually, I am not calming down
Here’s the article’s subheading:
Despite vast increases in the time and money spent on research, progress is barely keeping pace with the past. What went wrong?
Really? Are you fucking serious, Atlantic?
Progress is barely keeping pace with the past. Wow! No progress! I guess that’s why the cell phone that I have is so sucky compared to the one I got a decade ago—and—no, wait it’s better. It’s my computer that’s worse. No, it’s better and cheaper. So is my internet speed. So is my car. Everything technological that I can think of is better. But no progress.
The article is full of fuzzy thinking, false analogy, poorly defined terms. Their analysis has a patina of scienciness. But it’s not science. Here’s the “research” on which they base part of their claim:
…we surveyed 93 physicists from the world’s top academic physics departments (according to the Shanghai Rankings of World Universities), and they judged 1,370 pairs of discoveries.
That sounds like a scientific endeavor, right?
Imagine that you’re one of the top physicists at one of those top academic physics departments. Say you’re someone like Stephen Hawking. Peter Higgs. Alan Guth. David Deutsch. Some randos send you a letter or email and ask you to waste invest your time helping them with their important “scientific” research. Are you going to drop what you are doing and respond? Well, no.
Their survey: For physics the polled 1,000 scientists from the top 54 universities, and got 93 responses, about 2 per school.
So rather than implying that these are top-ranked scientists, it’s more accurate to say that these surveys were filled out by the two scientists at each school who had the most time to waste on a stupid survey.
So they give each respondent 20 pairs of comparisons from eight decades of Nobel prizes or 80 x 70 = 5600 cross-decade pairings. Of the possible pairings, 20x93 = 1860 were sent, and only 1370 got answers because one or both of the pairs were unknown to the respondent. If one was unknown, there’s a good chance that it was not particularly important. But it might have been. And that could have made a big difference in the “outcome.” No pairing was likely to have been checked even twice—so we can’t rely on consistency between raters. But they did check some of the respondents to verify their rankings later to see if the results were consistent over time and they found—oh, they didn’t do that.
Today, there are more scientists, more funding for science, and more scientific papers published than ever before
But for all this increase in effort, are we getting a proportional increase in our scientific understanding?
First, why would it matter if our understanding was proportional? There are lots of places where we get diminishing returns and are unsurprised. Perhaps this is one.
I would distinguish understanding from knowledge. I would argue that if two people know the same thing, that it is (roughly) the same knowledge, but more understanding.
And how do we measure ‘our scientific understanding?’ If twice as many scientists understand something, has our understanding doubled? I would argue that it has—because the goal is not simply the acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but knowledge so that it can be used to obtain more knowledge and that requires understanding.
And not all knowledge is equal. This may sound like hair-splitting, but I think there’s something deeper here. The goal of science—I take this from Deutsch—is to generate better explanations. The knowledge that science seeks is explanatory knowledge. Knowledge that can be understood.
Or are we investing vastly more merely to sustain (or even see a decline in) the rate of scientific progress?
Why merely? What’s mere about scientific progress? Do we have a better place to invest? If so, let’s invest. But don’t call it ‘mere.’
It’s surprisingly difficult to measure scientific progress in meaningful ways. Part of the trouble is that it’s hard to evaluate how important any given scientific discovery is accurately.
Well, sometimes it’s hard. But so what?
But even though it can be hard to assess the significance of scientific work, it’s necessary to make such assessments. We need these assessments to award science prizes, and to decide which scientists should be hired or receive grants.
How do you make these comparisons?
If someone comes up with a “big” discovery, whatever the fuck that means, and 1,000 people come up with “small” discoveries, how do we compare them? And why? The authors argue that we need to compare them to “to award science prizes, and to decide which scientists should be hired or receive grants.” But why do we need to award science prizes? Did that motivate Einstein (who by the way never got a Nobel prize for general or special relativity, or the relationship of mass and energy, E = mc**2m but for the photoelectric effect.)
We have much better ways to decide which scientists should be hired and receive grants. We hire scientists and give them grants to solve specific problems. We don’t compare them to others in disparate fields. No one seriously decides whether the 1952 Dodgers would have beat the 1985 Yankees. You don’t compare Joe Namath to Wilt Chamberlain to determine “who was the better player.” They’re not comparable.
The article tries to pretend there’s some science behind what they are doing.
There is none.