The Death of Science

I saw a fascinating but sad phenomenon on the web last night. One fellow — call him Mr. Writer — had posted a link to a 1995 paper on the nature of consciousness by David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at Arizona State University. Another fellow — call him Mr. Reader — took umbrage at the content of the paper, and attacked Mr. Writer (not Dr. Chalmers, who wrote the article) for being a “liar” who is promoting superstition and anti-science. I happened to have my browser open to that page at the time, and watched as Mr. Reader began to spam Mr. Writer’s comments area for a good ten minutes with increasingly vituperative comments.

Mr. Reader claims to be a scientist.

Of course, the Internet is full of this kind of folly. There are plenty of people out there consumed by combinations of wrath, insanity, and just plain poor manners, and a lot of them have Google+ accounts. Some of them may even be scientists; or they could be blowing smoke. You can’t take that stuff too seriously.

But it set me to thinking about the future of science.

I don’t know what kind of personal issues Mr. Reader has, but his attitude, as reflected in his abusive comments, is fairly typical of blindly religious/patriotic rage. It’s the kind of rage that holds a single shopkeeper or schoolteacher or policeman responsible for the end of all that is good; it often leads to unpleasantness, and occasionally violence. It’s a little unusual to see that kind of religious devotion, and its consequent murderous wrath toward blasphemers, associated with science. But I’ve personally noticed an uptick in that kind of rabid defense of science against … well, against the unbeliever.

So what is science?

Above all, and this is a point often overlooked, science is a human endeavor — a thing that humans do. We don’t really see the practice of science outside the human species.

As a thing that humans do, there are naturally two major branches of science, which I will call the “theurgical” and the “thaumaturgical.”

Theurgy, technically, has to do with the intrusion of the supernatural into human affairs, but I’m going to replace “supernatural” with “natural,” and focus on the essentially passive role of the theurgist. The theurgical scientist observes nature and learns. That’s the goal: knowledge, wisdom, insight, wholeness. None of the knowledge needs to lead anywhere in particular, nor is there any need for it to be useful in any utilitarian sense. The desired endpoint of theurgical science is beauty or elegance. It’s principally an aesthetic pursuit.

Thaumaturgy, technically, has to do with any human art that invokes supernatural powers, but again I’ll replace “supernatural” with “natural,” and focus on the essentially active role of the thaumaturgist. The thaumaturgical scientist is intent on using science to change the world — ostensibly for the better, though of course there is the antithetical Evil Scientist who uses science for his own benefit, to the detriment of the world. Whether evil or good, utility is of primary importance: the desired endpoint of thaumaturgical science is power. It’s principally a moral pursuit.

Now, there’s a fundamental logistical difference between theurgy and thaumaturgy, which is that very few people, under normal circumstances, are willing to pay for theurgy. They’re quite willing, however, to pay for thaumaturgy.

Few people want to pay astronomers to observe the sky and theorize about dark matter. But they’ll pay readily for an astrologer to observe the sky and give them portents of the future.

The difference between theurgy and thaumaturgy was quite pronounced in the United States in the 1800’s. Pure (theurgical) science was the domain of madmen, the idle rich, and a handful of academics with very little salary and even less funding. Useful (thaumaturgical) technology, on the other hand, was a booming business, particularly in the continued development of steam power. Technical colleges were founded all around the United States throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s, patents were big business, and everyone was or aspired to be a tinkerer/inventor.

This changed in the mid-1900’s. Physics was in the forefront of that shift, as it had introduced what seemed to be pure “natural magic” in the form of electricity, radio waves, and ultimately atomic energy, all of which were converted under wartime pressures into technologies that approached the heights of magic from tales of the Arabian Nights. In the 1940’s, Franklin Roosevelt initiated the National Science Foundation, charged with turning wartime technology into peacetime prosperity.

An idea took root in the public imagination — assisted, no doubt, by government propaganda — that pure science was the wellspring of useful technology. Almost overnight, theurgical science bloomed into a lucrative profession in its own right, with ample salaries to go with tenured professorships, along with laboratory funding and enormous social prestige. As a literary and film genre, science fiction grew enormously through the 1940’s and 1950’s to celebrate the Hero Scientist in ways that had previously been reserved for bold adventurers and mighty warriors and powerful sorcerers.

It’s an old pattern in human history. The Greeks came to revere their philosophers, and then asked them (in their mythology) to rule them wisely as Philosopher Kings. Other societies turned to their revered priesthoods and elevated them to positions of guiding the whole of society in accordance with the Will of  God, or the Gods. We’ve turned to the scientists to guide us according to the Laws of Nature.

Despite the fact that every culture is absolutely certain it has finally found the right form of theurgy to give it the thaumaturgical power it wants, it never really works out. Astrological omens did not save the Sumerians. Sacrifices to Apollo and Athena did not preserve the Greeks. Prayers to God did not stay the Black Death.

There’s ample evidence that we didn’t get it right this time, either.

For one thing, there’s the general problem that theurgists, scientific or otherwise, don’t make good leaders. Their art is passive: they observe. Observers don’t lead.

Worse, where a leader will tell you what to do, and a thaumaturgist will tell you how to do it, a theurgist will more likely tell you that what you’re proposing is a horrible idea, and scold you for even thinking of such a thing. At his most active, the theurgist will rise into a towering prophetic figure, and demand that you mend your ways or perish. One thinks of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, or Dr. James Hansen on the subject of global warming. They may even be right, but people don’t want to be told they have to mend their ways: they want to be told that what they are doing is right and virtuous and will turn out well.

Still more importantly, the belief that pure science is the wellspring of technology is more than just a little speculative. Yes, scientists studied the atom, and out of that came the atomic bomb. But they weren’t looking for a bomb, and it was pure happenstance that they stumbled across something that could make a bomb. They could just as easily have discovered that the atom cannot be unlocked by any mortal means, which is pretty much what scientists have spent a half-century proving with controlled hot fusion.

The same can be said of any other useful scientific discovery. The theurgical science is exactly the same regardless of whether the result is useful or useless. When we look at science as the wellspring of technology, we carefully cherry-pick the cases where theurgy worked out to produce something useful, and ignore all the (far more numerous) times that absolutely nothing useful came of it.

Which leads to the most important point of all: the Law of Diminishing Returns. The cherries that we’re cherry-picking from theurgical science are becoming fewer and further between, like the incidence of prime numbers as the values grow larger.

We’ve been through a five-century (give or take) Golden Age of Scientific Discovery. When you look at where that started — at some of the nonsensical beliefs embedded even within the learned class five hundred years ago, and the outright schizophrenic divide between Church and Nature — it’s clear why, in the early days, even a little bit of careful observation with crude tools yielded big results. But each discovery has grown harder, not easier, and we’ve needed more tools, more training, and more people at each step. The total cost-per-discovery continues to rise, and the cost to turn a discovery into useful technology is more expensive still.

The Law of Diminishing Returns is simply an observation, stated aloud, that this rising investment for smaller returns is both natural and unavoidable.

Please note that I’m not saying science is stalled. If anything, it’s churning out discoveries faster than ever, at least in some fields. My point is that it is increasingly expensive per discovery. Physicists now need an atom-smasher the size of Switzerland to discover anything new about elementary particles: soon, it will be an atom-smasher the size of the moon. They need bigger radio telescope arrays, bigger mirrors on space telescopes, more sensitive detectors on those telescopes. Life sciences are moving away from the Petri dish toward the gene sequencer and massive data centers.

You can’t do much science these days with a couple of beakers and a microscope. There was a time when that represented a well-equipped laboratory, and gave astonishing results.

What this means, simply put, is that the people who are funding theurgical science are eventually going to lose interest in throwing good money after bad. After all, they’ve never been interested in the theurgy, not even a little — they’ve wanted thaumaturgy, and they’ve merely believed and hoped (for a time) that funding theurgy will bring them thaumaturgical power. As returns diminish, investors will reconsider their options. There’s quite a bit of evidence that many of them have already reached that point.

Yes, we may have a few spectacular thaumaturgical successes in the near future that will make theurgical science all bright and shiny again. But like prime numbers, these are growing further apart and harder to find, and investors are never interested in what you did for them yesterday.

So what happens when the Scientist King — our version of the Greek Philosopher King — doesn’t work out? When scientists prove unready and unfit to rule, and the technological power returned on investment in pure science drops below some critical value, and the investors — including the government — all walk away?

It will happen. If not tomorrow, then next year. If not next year, then a generation from now. My money, of course, is on 2030.

When that happens, our mythology says that all technological innovation will cease, and that we will become superstitious savages who eat their own children.

I don’t think so.

Of course, scientists will be yet another class of workers to lose their jobs. That will be a major economic hit, especially as the scientific support industries — everything from disposable Petri dishes to high-tech particle detectors — lose their customers and go out of business. But we’re going to see plenty of that, and on much larger scales, in the next few generations. There aren’t that many scientists, and those job losses will simply be averaged in with the rest.

We’ve had a sixty-year culture of supporting science and mandatory science education in the public schools, yet the average American today is demonstrably more superstitious and ignorant than at any prior point in our nation’s history. I don’t think the loss of science funding is going to affect that trend much in either direction.

Whether we eat our own children is more a matter of economics than of science. It seems more likely to me that our children will send us out on the next ice floe before we have the chance to eat them.

When it comes to technological innovation — thaumaturgy — I personally think it will increase, rather than decrease, though it will perforce be limited to innovation that doesn’t require gene sequencers or Switzerland-sized atom smashers. Innovation will once again be democratized into the hands of tinkerers and inventors working out of garages and basements, doing very pragmatic thaumaturgy.

Will they invent a true 3D television? Probably not. Do we really need a true 3D television? Certainly not.

I’d like to go back to the matter of cherry-picking for a moment, because this is an example of something called observer bias. Or, in other words, seeing only what we want to see. It’s exactly the same human behavior noted by hard-core skeptics of the supernatural when dealing with sloppy claims that prayer works, or that magic spells cure diseases.

I can pray the same prayer of healing for a hundred people, and it’s likely that at least one of those people will experience a dramatic recovery right after I pray, because lots of sick people experience dramatic recoveries, with or without prayer. If I see only what I want to see, I’ll ignore the ninety-nine times my prayers failed, and focus on the one time they worked. It becomes my “proof case” that prayer works.

I think we have the same kind of observer bias at work in the premise that science begets technology. Yes, sometimes it does, or at least seems to. More often, it doesn’t. But if I see only what I want to see, I’ll ignore all the dead-end research, and focus on the few times it worked just the way I thought it should work. It’s my “proof case” that doing theurgical science yields thaumaturgical technology.

With the proof-case in hand, I can then believe that if we want fusion power, we merely need to throw money at fusion research, and it will come to pass. If we want anti-gravity, we just need to fund gravity research, and eventually scientists will give us anti-gravity. If we want a cure for cancer, we need only fund cancer research sufficiently, and the cure will be found. Evidence for this is all the past research that resulted in technological marvels, such as the Manhattan Project: past research that we cherry-picked to see only what we wanted to see.

Observer bias is a means of lying to ourselves, and there’s always a part of us that knows we’re doing it. Which means there’s a part of each of us that isn’t buying the story, and is probably even a bit angry for having fooled ourselves in the first place.

People usually take one of two approaches to self-deception when it comes near to the surface of discovery: they either rip off the covers and become righteously wrathful opponents of their onetime fellow-believers, or they throw on layer upon layer of additional self-deception and become righteously wrathful opponents of the unbelievers.

The third approach — the “sadder but wiser” approach of suffering (allowing/accepting) and forgiving (letting-go) and moving on — is simply not very popular, though in the end it is far healthier for the individual and for civil relations.

When I see someone like Mr. Reader, who flies into what seems a completely irrational and uncontrollable rage over someone who is, in his mind, blaspheming against the essential truths of science, I see someone who is approaching awareness of a self-deception of some sort, and is taking the second approach of attacking the blasphemer.

I think Mr. Reader is becoming subliminally aware of the fact that theurgical science may not be able to give us fusion-powered flying cars or a pill that cures cancer, at least not before the paymasters decide to pull the funding. So we’re in a desperate time that calls for desperate measures: we must not have people lose faith in science at this critical juncture, and therefore cannot tolerate blasphemers.

I’m always astonished by the tenacity with which people — I include myself — can cling to beliefs they’ve already stopped believing in. But we do sometimes break free, and often swing to the other extreme. If I had to venture a guess, I’d guess that Mr. Reader will be exploring astrology in a few years, and badmouthing the pathetic close-mindedness of science. And then, if he’s diligent and lucky, he’ll come to the middle place of being sadder, but wiser.

I sincerely wish him luck on that journey.

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6 Comments on "The Death of Science"

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2 years 8 months ago
Brilliant, Joe. You’ve defined and explained the problem thoroughly and with your typical brand of insightful wisdom. Thank you. Though I would like to argue that we are nowhere near the point of diminishing returns when it comes to medical research. We know so little about our bodies that a great deal of theurgical observation remains necessary (and fascinating). The problem with bringing lifesaving new medications to the people who need them is more about the incredibly confounding bureaucracy and the astronomical costs in time and money that the red tape causes. If we could provide more support to citizen-scientists,… Read more »
2 years 8 months ago
I’d argue that the law of diminishing returns applies from the very start. The first discoveries are astonishing and easy. The next round of discoveries are slightly less astonishing, and slightly less easy. The next, less astonishing, less easy. We actually know an enormous amount about the human body, compared (say) to what Leonardo da Vinci knew. All he needed was a scalpel and a corpse to vastly increase his knowledge. A modern medical researcher learns everything Leonardo learned while in graduate school, and pretty much exhausts the well of knowledge represented by a scalpel and a corpse. A modern… Read more »
2 years 8 months ago

I got a Ph.D. in a physical science in 1999 from a very reputable university, and you seem to have hit the nail on the head. At least half a dozen times I’ve had to explain to my employers that their basic project concept simply isn’t consistent with the laws of physics as we know them. The effect on my employability has been entirely predictable.

2 years 8 months ago

I’ve been there. Degrees of disconnect from reality differ.

One thing to keep in mind: most employers only want to close the sale. Instead of telling them how they can’t do what they want to do, try to tell them how they can close the sale without breaking any laws of nature. That’s really what they want.

2 years 8 months ago

These were mostly contract research organizations with the specifications set before I was hired, so that approach didn’t work for me.

2 years 8 months ago

Aieee. Nope, it surely will not. It’s hard to be the bearer of bad tidings.