April 19, 2018

Earlier this year, I took a look at the apparent slow down in the rate of innovation. This is something that economists are worried about because of all the other things that depend on it – like productivity and growth.

In a blog for Scientific American, John Horgan considers an even more disturbing possibility, which is that science itself is stagnating:

“…economists are concerned primarily with what I would call applied science, the kind that fuels economic growth and increases wealth, health and living standards. Advances in medicine, transportation, agriculture, communication, manufacturing and so on. But their findings resonate with my claim in The End of Science that ‘pure’ science—the effort simply to understand rather than manipulate nature is bumping into limits. “

What evidence do we have that that scientific progress is slowing down?

“Some scientists… [scoff] at the idea of a scientific slowdown. Biologists, pointing to CRISPR, optogenetics and other advances, [are] adamant that the pace of discovery is, if anything, accelerating. My response: Yes, fields like genetics and neuroscience are indeed churning out findings, but to what end? Gene therapy has been an enormous disappointment, and treatments for mental illness remain appallingly primitive.”

The implication here isn’t just that innovators are failing to find applications for advances in scientific understanding, but that the advances – or at least the fundamental ones – aren’t being made. Mental illness is a case in point: while the psychiatry profession is good at finding new ways of classifying certain symptoms, we don’t seem much closer to explaining their causes.

Of course, scientific progress is never constant; in each field there are times when the breakthroughs come thick and fast, followed by periods of stasis. That said, there comes a point when a discipline has been stuck for so long that its collective mind starts wandering:

“…many physicists remain stubbornly committed to strings and multiverses, things too small and large ever to be observed. Theories of consciousness have also gotten wackier lately. Prominent experts are espousing panpsychism, which holds that consciousness might be a property of many kinds of matter, not –just brains. As with strings and multiverses, panpsychism cannot be experimentally confirmed.”

Another symptom of malaise is the replication crisis and the related issue of ‘HARKing’ (hypothesising after results known) – a great way of churning out findings to dubious effect.

The strain is beginning to show:

“Another sign that science is running out of gas is the sharp increase in average ages of winners of Nobel Prizes in science, and especially physics.”

I think the implication here is that the big prizes in science are turning into a kind of long-service medal, instead of a way of rewarding the younger scientists whose discoveries turn their disciplines upside-down. That’s not to argue that today’s prize-givers are snubbing the revolutionaries, but rather that scientific revolutions are now few and far between.

Even the good news has a cloudy lining:

“I began my career 35 years ago writing on these contraptions called ‘typewriters’ and doing research in places called ‘libraries.’ I’m still blown away by my ability to access virtually infinite knowledge instantaneously from a smart phone or laptop. Yeah, fake news, spam, cyber-war, but still.”

Horgan is right to be excited: this is an opportunity without precedent in all of human history. But why isn’t it fuelling a 21st-century renaissance – in both the sciences and the humanities?

That, surely, is an urgent question for the most brilliant minds of our day.

I’m not sure they’ll like the answer.