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« Who is John Horgan? | Main | Scientific Regress »

Whacks & Pats

The Columbia Journalism Review, published bimonthly by my alma mater, dishes out Darts for bad journalistic deeds and Laurels for good ones. On my previous blog, The Scientific Curmudgeon, I occasionally issued my version of Darts & Laurels, called Whacks & Pats. Whacks (as in upside the head) are bad and Pats (as in on the back) good.

My first whack is for myself (no pun intended). Re-reading “The Final Frontier,” my update of The End of Science in the October Discover, it struck me that I backpeddled when explaining why—if I really believe science is over—I still write about science, teach at a science-oriented school, even encourage young people to become scientists. I answered that

“I could be wrong—there, I’ve said it—that science will never again yield revelations as monumental as evolution or quantum mechanics. A team of neuroscientists may find an elegant solution to the neural code, or physicists may find a way to confirm the existence of extra dimensions. In the realm of applied science, we may defeat aging with genetic engineering, boost our IQs with brain implants, or even find a way to bypass Einstein’s ban on faster-than-light travel. Although I doubt these goals are attainable, I would hate for my end-of-science prophecy to become self-fulfilling by discouraging further research.”

This sounds wishy-washy now. If I were a reader, I’d whack myself upside the head and yell, “Do you believe a unified theory, immortality, warp-drive spaceships are possible or don’t you??!! Make up your mind!! If you really doubt these possibilities, you should discourage people from pursuing them!!” In retrospect, I had a failure of nerve, brought on by excessive concern about the effect that my negative views will have on impressionable young minds. It took me forever to tell my kids that there is no Santa Claus. I pretend to be tough, but I’m all squishy inside. So let me be more blunt in my advice to would-be scientists:

“By all means become a scientist. But don’t think you’re going to top Newton or Darwin or Einstein or Watson/Crick by discovering something as monumental as gravity or natural selection or quantum mechanics or relativity or the double helix, because your chances are slim to none. The era of those sorts of big discoveries is over. Also, don’t go into particle physics! Especially don’t waste your time on string theory, or loop-space theory, or multi-universe theories, or any of the other pseudo-scientific crap in physics and cosmology that we science journalists love so much. And don’t follow Steve Wolfram and other chaoplexologists chasing after a unified theory of matter-life-consciousness-everything-under-the-sun. That’s as futile as trying to prove the existence of God. Pick a real-world problem that you have some chance of resolving, preferably in a way that improves peoples’ lives. Do something useful with your talent! We need your help.”


Andrei Kirilyuk

Scientific Regress Accumulates Before a Change

I totally agree with John's conclusion about the situation of strong scientific regress dominating in modern fundamental knowledge, on the officially emphasised background of its "prosperous development" (true for profits of official science chiefs). Another example, that was most surprising for me, a professional scientist, is that there seems to be a deep stagnation even in such apparently flourishing (and largely applied) science field as new drug invention. It appears that although the corresponding industry has high and still increasing profits, there is a growing lack of truly new "curing molecules" of drugs, that fundamental corner-stone of the whole field. They can infinitely continue to modify drug structure details and make ever growing profits on related new "labels", but the number of basic, really curing drug bases shows a pronounced saturation effect.

It was surprising for me because if ever one needs to give an example of "infinite possibilities of new invention", it should be this field of biochemistry, with its indeed unlimited diversity of possible molecular structure combinations (and larger molecular complexes). It appears, however, that formal infinity of molecular constructions is not directly transformed into equally large diversity of their (positive) interaction effects in a living organism. This is just one case of an emerging deep crisis in all conventional life sciences (and their medical applications): it appears that Life finally wins over life sciences, at least in their present "paradigm" and despite previously imposed "infinite" optimism about their possibilities (it still turns out to be real, but only with respect to personal well-being of researchers from respective fields).

What could be added to John's vision of scientific "Apocalypse now", which I totally accept as an honest (and therefore exceptional) generalisation of doubtless facts, is that apart from a clearly perceptible "horizontal asymptote" of fundamental science development (the development curve grows ever slower and can never exceed certain, though apparently very close, level), there is also a vertical development asymptote, or "point of singularity", near which the development curve meets an "impenetrable" vertical barrier and can only continue either by a very abrupt uprise ("jump") or by an equally catastrophic fall (the true "end" of everything!). A universally substantiated development law (see e.g. ) implies that coexistence of those two asymptote kinds and related "bifurcation points" are inevitable as any development goes by well-specified "steps", where the system evolution becomes "stagnating" (approaches a horizontal asymptote) just before making a steep uprise to the next "step" plateau (or "complexity level") or "dying out" in the opposite tendency of "final fall". The actual choice between the last two possibilities depends on whether there is still enough of suitable "potential complexity" (interaction energy, or "dynamic information") in the system in order that it can perform a nontrivial "jump" on top of the next step.

It's easy to specify this choice with respect to science problems in question: the current "scientific regress" and related (real!) "end of science" can turn (very dramatically) into another case of basically progressive development if, and only if, some "decisive" part of people involved in science development is "intelligent enough" to understand the real dynamics of real studied systems (instead of its primitive imitation in the currently dominating paradigm). It's not really unexpected as intelligence can also be rigorously specified as certain, high enough level of "unreduced interaction complexity" ( ), so that certain complexity level can really be mastered and controlled only by a superior-complexity system (a manifestation of universal "complexity correspondence principle"). Note that "unreduced dynamic complexity" meant here is very different from any complexity IMITATION in scholar "chaoplexity" correctly denounced in John Horgan writings and NOT containing, CONTRARY to the former concept, a scientifically rigorous, clear expression of the announced "new paradigm" and universal definition of real-system complexity (it actually describes a mechanically "tricky" entanglement/deformation of a one-dimensional line that can always be equally well disentangled, similar to respective "scientific" complexity imitations).

In fact, John mentions the described possibility in his exhaustive "The Final Frontier" story in October Discover ( ) when he refers, in one of his (counter) Arguments, to the existence of many "unsolvable" mysteries in usual science framework that would imply, in principle, further development through essential change. But he finally seems to consider more probable that those mysteries, stagnating for such a long time, can indeed be unsolvable (e.g. because of a fundamental principle or just practical insolubility). Nevertheless, EXPLICIT and extended solution descriptions (QUALITATIVELY DIFFERENT from official "chaoplexity") can be consulted starting from the links below (and above), after which it can certainly be discussed (I was unable to "falsify" it). Here I can only add that all of it provides a rather suitable, well-specified combination (I even show that it is uniquely suitable) between the most ultimate expression of John's "end of science" conclusion and his "another" hope that "something useful" is still possible in science (we may slightly disagree on the nature of that "something", but what a discussion without disagreement?). Let's not "believe" or "disbelieve" intuitively, let's see details and check for consistency.

Andrei Kirilyuk


Dr. Andrii P. Kyryliuk (Andrei Kirilyuk), Senior Research Scientist

Universal Science of Complexity,gr-qc,physics/1/au:+Kirilyuk/0/1/0/all/0/1

Ulrich Mohrhoff

(This appears to be the only post in this blog so far that gives readers the opportunity to comment.)
I am in two minds with regard to the "end of science". Certainly there are many indications that science as we know it has run its course. Yet much remains to be discovered and known by means that at present are not considered scientific. Does the concept of science allow itself to be stretched sufficiently to encompass new methods of discovery and new ways of knowing, or will science by superseded by them? Its either of these.


Mr. Horgan,

Perhaps the reason why the future of science looks so dour is because of your age. You're old and probabily very ego centric. Your arguments all essentially boil down to "since the breakthrough won't be made in my life time why bother to continue to try". That's kinda of pathetic. I couldn't find your age on Wikipedia or on your website but I'll try to guess. If you were a senior writer for a magazine in 1986 (The year my older brother was born) I'll assume you probably graduated from college 6 years before that in 1980 at 21. So you must be around 47 at the very youngest. I was born in 1991 I was five when you wrote that book. I'm 15 going on 16 now and I have a very deep interest in science and the future and I have high hopes for the breakthroughs that your generation might make (in the time you have left), breakthroughs my generation might make in the 2030s and the breakthroughs my grandchildren might make in the 22nd century. You need to snap out of it you're not actually that old! You look healthy and you aren't overweight. You've probably got a good 30 years left in you! That's a lot of time for hope and optimism!

Cheer up sir.


Lou V. Nunez

Brian Altmeyer

Horgan displays a painfully narrow perspective in his arguments for "the end of science," and makes several basic errors as a result. First and foremost, he seems to believe the explosive growth of scientific thought in the 20th century is an inherent property of science, and that failing to meet or exceed that rate of progress is an indicator of decline. I must ask, what precisely is he basing this on? Are we to assume the number of scientists or amount of money devoted to a given field is linearly related to how quickly the field is revolutionized, and deviation from this pattern must reflect fundamental limits of the field itself? A strong case could rather be made for the opposite being true--that profound changes in underlying knowledge occur when, for purely social reasons, compelling heresies are granted institutional access. My point, in essence, is there are very few "end of science" arguments that cannot far more simply be explained by cultural stagnation: I.e., the overwhelming focus on incremental advances, due to how much easier it is to get funding and frequent publication that way.

Some of Horgan's examples are clear-cut illustrations of this principle, most explicitly in the case of the pharmaceutical industry. This is a sector comprised of publicly-held, stock-driven firms whose business models revolve around products just safe enough to win government approval and just effective enough to be marketable. Anything more would, generally speaking, be a drain on profits given how difficult finding "magic bullet" treatments is bound to be. They may discover something extraordinarily beneficial just by chance, but the rate of such discoveries is bound to be very low under shareholder-dictated research models. And yet Horgan takes this highly predictable outcome of market economics as evidence of science itself approaching its limits, which strikes me as beyond absurd.

Or take his example about the absence of new physics: A few decades between revolutions and the failure of alternatives to replace the status quo. As noted above, he seems to have arbitrarily chosen the decades of the Einstein cohort as the baseline for "healthy" scientific progress, and defined movement short of that as deficient. Moreover, as per the cultural issues outlined above, the resources needed to test new theories have rapidly outstripped society's willingness to fund the required hardware. Ergo, we have several seemingly promising theories with testable predictions that aren't being tested because the colliders would be too expensive. Oddly, Horgan interprets this fact as resulting *from* the "end of science," not being a direct cause of the stagnation he cites as indicating it. So, in the case of pharmaceuticals, he deduces that massive funding without massive progress equals dying science, but rather than observe that inadequate funding is holding up physics, he chooses to see that itself as a symptom of inherent limits to the field. Is this not begging the question?

Then he proceeds to describe changes in *expectations* for future scientific progress as representing something about science itself. Namely, if experts are less sanguine on the likelihood of a breakthrough than they were before, that is supposedly "regression." What exactly is it that "regresses" when the universe reveals the shocking fact that it doesn't cater to human expectations? Furthermore, the examples he cites--fusion, space colonies, cancer--are engineering problems involving the application of known principles, not fundamental research. Why did the Greeks fail to expand on the inventions of Archimedes? Why did the Romans develop an advanced architecture and then just cease all progress? Why did the Ming dynasty come within a hair's breadth of industrialization and then pull backward? None of them stopped short because of inherent limits to human knowledge, and yet if your only baseline is the world prior to the Enlightenment, it would be easy to conclude so. The lesson of all history to date is that the only limits to progress are self-inflicted, so instead of indulging solipsism by defining today's cultural flaws as a law of nature, it would be far more beneficial to fix the institutional issues holding up our progress.


Robert E Lee stated need to start Journalism schools to tell South's side of Rebel.; a low but accurate estimate of J. Those who know where treasures lie, will not tell; as excitments are saved for private statements to friends, proteges. Should only real scientists do science journalism? Well, they won't! Does writer even read own pub., or just others in Sci. Fict. Journalist's Clique? Talks too much; reads, mull's over, thinks, too little.

don Emigh

THE END OF SCIENCE included the statement that "Mind, not Space, is science's final frontier." It's strange that Mind hasn't emerged as a "frontier" until just lately, after centuries of technological expansion.

If we look back to the beginnings of Science, in Greece, it appears that Aristotle took a wrong turn. He would have served western civilization much better by making the study of ourselves his first priority. But the workings of the mind, the "self,", the psychological "I," were not at all his concern, nor have they been for scientists since his time.

The price we are paying for this lack of concern is an ever-increasing danger from our own technology. We are finding that we don't have the psychological maturity and understanding to intelligently use the technology pouring from our test tubes and colliders. For that matter, it appears we don't have the intelligence to recognize the danger of a natural environment that we continue to tease.

It's getting late in the game, and one can't help but wonder whether time is running out for us. One of these days we may find, indeed, that Mind has turned out to be our final frontier.

Arnie Urken

John, you say:

Many people today view warfare and militarism as inevitable outgrowths of human nature. My hope is that scientists will reject that fatalism and help us see warfare as a complex but solvable problem, like AIDS or global warming. War research—perhaps it should be called peace research—would seek ways to avoid conflict.

"Peace research" exists, can be traced back to World War I and has become more established in the US since the 1960's.

Peter H

Hello Mr. Horgan,

I have read your article in the October 2006 Discover. I have been somewhat interested in what you have to say since you wrote your End of Science, I read some of your magazine articles, and not long ago I heard your interview on the CBC radio program Tapestry.

You have defined your position as "healthy skepticism toward faith of any kind, scientific, political, philosophical or spiritual", and I agree with you about the first three. I even agree that one must have a healthy dose of scepticim towards any theory and opinion. Where we differ significantly is your misunderstanding about the last point -- faith, especially spiritual, does not work trough the placebo effect! (That's an atheistic presumption right there.) In fact, even if it did, you couldn't rationally conclude that unless you outright declared yourself an atheist. Besides, faith in Zeus is not the same as faith in Jesus, and the faith of theism is nothing like faith in Darwinism or faith in science. You are mixing apples and oranges here. Yet, faith has significant influence on the thinking and opinions of any scientist. (Even an atheist "believes" that God does not exist, since he cannot disprove him)

Your final grand conclusion, or rather your wish, that we can end war, (and who wouldn't want to wish that), is a rather long stretch based on your previous assumptions and conclusions. (Like the bad theologizing at the end of your End of Science.) If religion or faith causes wars, how can faith in science or progress help? Do you advocate atheistic faith in science? And where does morality fit in all this?

These tough issues have been discussed since the dawn of mankind and people still struggle with them. Answering all this would take some time, but, luckily, today there are good answers to most, if not all, that you are raising and asking. Those who have discovered the writings of G. K. Chesterton (and his friend Hilaire Belloc), are way ahead of the rest of the crowd. To briefly answer you, I suggest reading two essays on the following website of online works of Chesterton (

On Darwinism and Mystery (


The Persecution of Religion (

And, of course, if you are interested in more Chesterton, start by reading his Heretics and Orthodoxy. Afterwards you will be most likely hooked on reading the rest of his numerous and interesting works and essays. Or, for a brief overview, go to the American Chesterton Society website (

Paraphrasing Chesterton, it wouldn't be too difficult to ague that too many modern thinkers, and modern scientists in particular, may seem to have a loose tile or two, but "I am only pointing out that there are far more tiles loose on the Hall of Science than on the parish church..."

Peter H.


On the example of failure of nuclear fusion - there's been a breakthrough in recent days:
Cancer and gene therapy: there are constant discoveries in these fields (e.g. and we're just getting started.

Pete Howells

"But don’t think you’re going to top Newton or Darwin or Einstein or Watson/Crick by discovering something as monumental as gravity or natural selection or quantum mechanics or relativity or the double helix, because your chances are slim to none." is the defining problem with the thesis of "The End of Science."

Did Einstein expect to be "Einstein?" Did Watson and Crick expect to be "Watson/Crick?" Not knowing them, I could be wishy-washy and say "doubtful" but I will be forceful and say "no."

How many physicists before Newton did NOT formulate classical mechanics? How many physicists between Newton and Einstein did NOT formulate relativity? How many physicists between Newton and Einstein even had a notion that relativity might be out there waiting for "discovery?"

You, sir, are suffering from a failure of imagination. In asking/demanding that scientists debate the "end of science" with you, all you are doing is asking either that they demonstrate their own lack imagination (misery loves company) or that they do the work for you.

Science does not advance in a vacuum. There was a great deal of incremental physics done in the 250 years between Newton and Einstein, all of which contributed in some way or another to Einstein's ability to arrive at relativity. We are now only 100 years past Einstein's revolutionary work. Perhaps we still have another 150 years before enough incremental physics is performed to allow for the next "Einsteinian" breakthrough; perhaps longer. Perhaps you are correct. The only way to know is to keep plugging away. Bemoaning your failure to imagine what might be waiting out there for us does service to no one.

Christopher Glass

Hi John,

I welcome the end of science, though I don't expect it to be ending anytime soon. Pure science and discovery to me is only the spark for applied sciences, which are more interesting and frankly more relevant to human life. A good example is the design of a wheel. Some human discovered a long time ago that a circle is the best geometric shape for a wheel. It is doubtful that anyone anytime soon will suddenly discover a better shape. Can you imagine pyramidal wheels? However, having no new shape for a wheel that is more efficient and practical then a circle does not kill or end the wheel's use. Nor does it kill innovation of land transportation technology.

If we base science's importance and relevence on whether or not "big" discoveries are left to be made, I think science would be dead. But more optimistically, if we are reaching a point of having discovered all the laws and principles of the world (which i doubt), then it will only open up a whole new, infinite world of applied science possiblities.


John, you take shots at the anthropic principle instead of the multiversal abuse of it like you know even less about it than Peter Woit does, which ain't much.

I've said many very sensible things about the anthropic principle that that make complete sense in context with the elusive stability mechanism for which it came about, (ask Jim W. if you don't believe me)... and yet, misguided ideas about "geocentric arrogance" can't seem to be overcome.

Well, I've got a little news for ya that'll blow the doors right off of your assertions, and I'm hear to tell you right now, John. An accurately stated anthropic cosmological principle explains why the forces can't be unified, and that, my friend, defines a ToE.

Pay close attention to Paul Davies, (unlike Woit, who gave the standard and unapplicable anti-anthropic argument), because the evolutionary physics that defines the "just-right" conditions for the goldilocks constraint applies to other systems that are similarly developed, time and location-wise, as ours is:

The goldilocks enigma constrains the parameters to a balance of extremes... so it only applies to galaxies that formed on the same evolutionary time/location "plane" as we did. Planets orbiting stars in galaxies that are too old or too new, too large or too small, do not fit the "coincidentally balanced" nature as the average of extremes... etc... etc... ect... all the way down to the local ecobalances of the ones that do:

This also resolves the alleged, Fermi "Paradox", as well, since we should not YET expect to hear from similarly developed intelligent life, because their radio transmissions have not had time to reach us... YET... either.

Um... just an FYI, but that's a testable prediction about where and when life will most likely be found elsewhere in the universe.

This paper by A. Feoli, and S. Rampone, further discusses this in context with similarly developed systems, but they fail to take the balance of extremes that defines the "Goldilocks Enigma" into account here, because they apply the mediocrity principle, instead, so their formula and anthropic statement are not quite accurate... overstated:

"Is the Strong Anthropic Principle Too Weak?"

We discuss the Carter's formula about the mankind evolution probability following the derivation proposed by Barrow and Tipler. We stress the relation between the existence of billions of galaxies and the evolution of at least one intelligent life, whose living time is not trivial, all over the Universe. We show that the existence probability and the lifetime of a civilization depend not only on the evolutionary critical steps, but also on the number of places where the life can arise. In the light of these results, we propose a stronger version of Anthropic Principle.

... and uh... when you apply the Goldilocks Enigma, rather than the mediocrity principle, then a more accurate and testable formula falls-out along with a more accurate statement about a strong biocentric principle... just in case nobody noticed.

Wake up and smell reality, John, because the AP resolves the problems without all the other stuff that you hate so much, so you really might want to take another look before you condemn what you don't really understand:

Charles Zigmund

A comment about Horganism: the recent joint discoveries that dark energy and dark matter make up 96% of the universe open up greater frontiers than ever. Neither is currently explainable in any meaningful sense. And the fact that no explanations have come seversl years after the more recent dark energy discovery doesn't mean that they will never come. After Bohr's theory of the hydrogen atom failed, it was quite a while before the triumphant explanations of quantum mechanics in the mid- 1920s. With these two large mysteries to occupy it, astrophysics has its plate quite full. And additionally there are still the problems of where is the Higgs boson, where are gravitons and gravity waves, why gravity is so weak relative to the other forces, and the elusive unification of quantum mechanics and relativity. The last problem implies a new theory that will overarch both. Just because string theory hasn't done it, doesn't mean it won't get done. And just because we can't build supercolliders large enough to test future theories, doesn't mean some brilliant minds will not come up with new and feasible ways to test them.


I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Horgan's book when it came out. It is one of the most concise overviews of the current state of "science" that I have read.

It may be true that we are in for a prolonged era of consolidation in the sciences but, it is a bit of a leap of faith to conclude anything beyond that. And faith is already far too prevalent in the scientific realm. Far too much of it already accepts as "proven" things which are, in reality, merely surmised.

Tom Graney

I enjoyed reading "The Final Frontier". It is a most interesting and thought provoking topic. However, at they very end came this nutty discussion of using science to end war. It begins with the assertion that warfare is "our most pressing problem". What exactly is your basis for saying this. It most certainly cannot be that war is killing more people than anything else so what is it. Perhaps you mean that science will discover weapons so horrible that war becomes unthinkable. Guess what... been there... done that. War is fundamentally a social, political, economic, and cultural problem and if you think science is going to get to the bottom of these any time soon, well, good luck with that!

J. Parker

Anyone here for a "paradigm" shift? I suspect my post may be deleted, and I don't know if Mr. Horgan reads these, or cares, but it entirely possible that all the priests of "orthodox" science, who have made no advances in alternative energy (they're just thinkers who don't allow dissent, why should they, we should respect and serve and obey, which of course, some of you are free to do) are totally wide off the mark.

In fact, the gutting of the plasma cosmology entry on Wikipedia, and the complete elimination of the Electric Universe entry as well indicates to me that the "dissidents" are on to something. If it's improbable or impossible, why "erase" from history?

I want to present a thought:

"Even such a seemingly trivial and 'normal' thing as the compulsive need to be right in an argument and make the other person wrong-defending the mental position with which you have identified-is due to the fear of death. If you identify with a mental position, then if you are wrong, your mind-based sense of self is seriously threatened with annihilation. So you as the ego cannot afford to be wrong. To be wrong is to die."

The Power of Now-A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle

Even for you "orthodox" adherents of the big bang, would you consider the work of Simon Berkovich?

Finally, for those who would consider that is not known, and most of what is "known" is wide off the mark:

josh sussman

I disagree with you John. Yet, i still appreciate your writing and that you put your thoughts out there. However, I can not take any of your rationalizations seriously. You are very good at coming up with metaphors akin to old wives tales. Scientific discoveries are like exploring our planet? The only signifigance of this metaphor is that it serves your arguement. I've just read a 2002 article by you that proposed that your failure to go for a jog in the woods or drink one cup of coffee instead of two is perhaps due to something other than your free will. Your evidence- because there's a 0.1 second latency between electrical brain activity and the ability for us to register our intent. You'll point out the limitations of science when speaking about dogmatic theories, but work with much less when you propose an alternative hypothesis. I agree that limitations are occurring with regards to our ability to sense and percieve the physical world around us, but our technological capabilities are ever-increasing, leaving as much reason to be hopeful as skeptical. In the most practical sense, i have to conclude that your observations are poorly substantiated speculation and thus irrelevant. Keep writing though, by all means. We need you in this world.


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