The Future of NASA
Michael Griffin is gearin...
More Features
Looking to apply for a Discover Credit Card? Members/Subscribers Log In      
My Problem with Big Pharma
Has Newsweek Sold Out to Big Pharma?
Dark Side of Green, Continued
The Dark Side of Green
The Green Bandwagon
Green Book Award: Nominations Wanted
Wilson Wins “Green Book Award”
The End of Total War?
Does the Desire for Peace Cause War?
[ Full Blog Archives ]
[ Who is John Horgan? ]
[ What is Horganism? ]
Mind & Brain
Ancient Life
All Newsletters
Discover Magazine  Blog  Archives

« Scientific Regress | Main | Science As Escapism »

Scientific Regress, Continued

Here, quickly, are some other examples of scientific (defined broadly to include medical and technological) regress:

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. They filled a flask with methane, ammonia and hydrogen (representing the primordial atmosphere) and water (the oceans) and zapped it with a spark-discharge device ( lightning). The flask was soon coated with a reddish goo containing amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. 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. Scientists have failed to show how mere chemicals can become animate, and the origin of life now appears more improbable and mysterious than ever. As Francis Crick once wrote, “the origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have to be satisfied to get it going.” ( Crick was an agnostic leaning toward atheism.). That’s regress.

Space colonization: While I was still in journalism school in 1983, I wrote a story—which with the help of the Columbia News Service actually got published in a few small papers--about the space-obsessed L5 Society and its 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 the earth and moon cancel each other. The first blow to these space-colonization fantasies occurred in 1986, when the Challenger blew up. Then the Cold War ended, and the U.S. and Russia scaled back their space programs, which had always really been more about saber-rattling than exploration. Only Trekkies and other sci-fi geeks take space colonization seriously any more.

Supersonic commercial transport (SST): The supersonic Concorde flew its last flight three years ago. We had commercial supersonic transport. Now we don’t, because economic and environmental problems (ozone destruction, sonic books over populated areas) killed it. Prospects for an SST revival are slim to none. Regress.

The other examples are alluded to in my “Final Frontier” article:

Commercial fusion power: In 1983, when I was in journalism school, a professor took me and a bunch of other students down to Princeton to ogle the Tokamak, an experimental magnetic-confinement fusion reactor the size of a small house, covered in cables, gauges, transformers and other gear. I was impressed, and when the physicists working on it told us that fusion reactors could be generating electricity within 20 years, naturally I believed them. As I note in “Final Frontier,” that dream has vanished. Too bad.

Curing cancer: Again, as noted in “Final Frontier,” in 1971 the U.S. declared a “war on cancer” and started pouring huge sums into the search for cures. But mortality rates actually rose over the next 20 years--that’s regress—before a recent, modest decline.

Unified theory of physics: In 1980, just after he was named Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a chair held by Newton three centuries earlier, Stephen Hawking delivered a typically outrageous lecture titled, “Is the End of Theoretical Physics in Sight?” Hawking predicted that physicists would wrap up physics within a generation by discovering a “quantum-gravity” theory accounting for all of nature’s forces. Over the next decade, physicists’ hopes for such a “final theory” have waxed and waned. Today, only a few die-hard supporters of string theory believe that physics is on the verge of fulfilling Hawking’s prophecy. A few years ago, I bet the string advocate Michio Kaku (whom I’m debating at Stevens on October 18) $1,000 that no one will win a Nobel Prize for string theory or any other quantum-gravity theory by the year 2020. I have absolutely no doubt that I’ll win this bet.

Unified theory of mind: Since this is the topic of my book The Undiscovered Mind, let me just quote a relevant passage:

Although reductionist is often used as a disparaging term, science is reductionist by definition. “Leaving something out is not a feature of failed explanations, but of successful explanations,” the philosopher Daniel Dennett stated in Consciousness Explained. Science at its best isolates a common element underlying many seemingly disparate phenomena.

Newton discovered that the tendency of objects to fall to the ground, the swelling and ebbing of seas, and the motion of planets and the moon and the sun could all be explained by a single force, gravity. Modern physicists have demonstrated that all matter consists basically of two types of particles, quarks and electrons. Darwin showed that all the diverse species on earth were created through a single process, evolution. In the last half century, Watson, Crick and other molecular biologists revealed that all organisms share essentially the same DNA-based method of transmitting genetic information to their offspring. Neuroscientists have yet to achieve their reductionist epiphany. Instead of finding a great unifying insight, they just keep uncovering more and more complexity. Neuroscience's progress is really a kind of anti-progress. As researchers learn more about the brain, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine how all the disparate data can be organized into a cohesive, coherent whole.


Alex Mathy

My problem with your thesis is how you want it to encompass ALL of science, and declare the whole lot dead. In order to support your argument, you need to pick examples of dubious validity.

Sure, the origin of life research hasn't panned out to a Newtonian-style climax. But molecular biology in general has been booming for the past decades. The other example you often provide as proof of the death of the biological sciences is the lack of progress towards immortality. This one really gets my goat. Only a handful of loonies on the fringe of biology consider this as attainable or desirable. There is plenty of progress being made in biology (for instance the recent discovery of microRNA's).

The death of Concorde is no more an indication of scientific regress than the death of BetaMax videotapes was: Concorde was just not a viable business. Aeronautical engineering, as can be garnered from all the new military goodies deployed in the last few wars, is alive and well.

Fusion research has been a disappointment, but with the recent shot in the arm given by the new research project in France, it's far too early to call it a day on that one.

As for cancer: actually, recently there has been a new wave of therapies (monoclonal antibodies, etc...) which show promise and potentially less toxic than chemotherapy. As for the mortality rate not dropping, there are plenty of reasons for this, most of them sociological (smoking, diet, decline in people dying from other causes etc...) and political. Medically speaking however, treatment of breast cancer is phenomenally better now than it was previously for instance.

As for GUT, I reckon that this is the crux of your argument, the part of science you actually care most about. And of course, this area of physics is stuck for the moment. However, some of your critiques of candidate theories (usually string theory) are often misguided. Your appeal to "common sense" to discard the outlandish theories is particularly strange. By this standard, Dirac would not have come up with his famous equation. I think you would have a much better case if you just stuck to berating string theorists for their arrogance and loudness in trumpeting their achievements as the final product when their theories cannot be probed experimentally (yet?).

Unified theory of mind: this is certainly one of the biggest frontiers in science. Personally, I'm of the opinion that no scientific theory can ever explain the mind to our satisfaction. This does not undermine, however, the tremendous progress and insights that have been gained by neuroscience in the past 50 years or so. Just this year for instance, we have experimental proof that LTP is involved in memory formation.

So overall I think your message is: "Fundamental physics is stuck, and there's a lot of nonsense science out there". But you overreach when you act as coroner for Science, and talk of scientific regress. Why, 20 years ago, the idea of writing a blog would have seemed science fiction...

Andrei Kirilyuk

Deeper implication of scientific regress

The growing list of scientific regress examples and their details imply increasingly that the involved tendencies are deeper than only internal science development problems, current "limits of knowledge", etc.

A characteristic feature of many cases of scientific regress is that despite the evident failure of a particular initiative, investments in such obviously bankrupt enterprise can often continue at an ever increasing rate, against any reasonable efficiency estimate. Thus, in the first "new" John's example, the failed "Origin of life" attempts, the same quest still prosperously continues with very comfortably supported, "top" international projects of a "special", half-secret status, etc. After all those evident failures, they still directly put some simplified, "pseudo-bio" components into a test-tube and then shake it, in the hope that something "alive" will suddenly smile from within... The same is true for the mentioned "hot" fusion super-projects ("Commercial fusion power"): the more it is problematic and money-wasting, the more new money and "global" ambition is put into its further support. In openly falling conventional cosmology super-expensive satellite observation tools are SPECIFICALLY designed and launched to find proofs of that actually dead but artificially maintained doctrine. The total list will be long as it includes practically all "prominent" directions of scholar science. It is even more scandalous that at the same time much deeper approaches to the same problems, giving much more real hopes for their solutions or explicit solutions themselves, are almost totally expelled from support (or even result communication) without any sensible explanations. Any deeper insight into the true origin of life beyond the "central dogma" is thoroughly excluded from otherwise flourishing science programmes, the sad story of "cold", much cheaper fusion attempts is widely known, while persecution of "heresy" in cosmology (and fundamental physics in general) continues even despite a veritable and rather massive revolt in the field (see e.g. ). So do we deal here with intrinsic "limits of knowledge" or with equally intrinsic limitations of dominating science hierarchies, their "human" (or rather inhuman?) components?

The European Community alone will spend more than 10 billion Euro every single year for its science programmes within the starting next "framework", FP7 (today's sums are equally impressive). Using that money, one could solve all serious problems during one year and still have enough for a gigantic celebration of success. But in reality during many years of those programmes activity no essential advance at all is made: the astronomical financial support is being selfishly "eaten" by mediocre scientific oligarchy during infinite number of generously sponsored "events", "training courses", and senseless "capital investments" without results. This is indeed gigantic celebration of ... ABSENT success. There are widely known, strictly informal (but very efficient!) European rules of a project proposition acceptability for support, involving participation of "suitable" persons desirably from a particular country, none of them known for any essential advance in real problem solution... Yet orders of magnitude greater sums are senselessly wasted in national scientific programmes, while any attempt to propose explicit problem solution is invariably suppressed. Knowing that "subjective" but absolutely dominating science practice, how can one ever expect anything but "scientific regress" as a result? Any kind of production would immediately die had it the same, "ultimately unfair" practice of "self-estimate" that uniquely dominates in official science. Realistic (though nontrivial) solution of each of those "hard", now clearly stagnating problems is very much possible, but in order to achieve it one should be looking for and favour (provable) solution of scientific problems, rather than personal problems of ever more numerous "intellectual" mafia members, their omnipresent, inflating families and clans, affiliated scientific bureaucracy, industrial management "elite", etc.

The same kind of strangely "subjective" origin of regress is clearly seen in mentioned more applied, technological fields of knowledge. Technically, we certainly could have many versions of new, better commercial supersonic air transport (maybe rather for more expensive, "luxury" flights, but still), we could well be sending "space tourists" to the Moon now, rather than only to "old good" near-earth orbits, etc. Something "human", almost "spiritual" has been seriously broken since the exceptional scientific enthusiasm of 60s-70s that uniquely permitted realisation of many "fantastic" ideas. Stanley Kubrick was right: the monkey species "amused to death" (Roger Waters) by low-level consumption effects needs another "additional" push (from within or outside) in order to restart another level of genuine, progressive development, in science and beyond. I also demonstrate the necessity of such "revolution of complexity" in a mathematically rigorous form (see and discussion in my other comment in Horganism, ). The end is the end, it cannot "last" in principle, evolutionary stage of relatively smooth progress is now definitely finished.

The role of science and especially its current crisis solution cannot be over-estimated here: science structure is but a relatively independent and slightly advanced in time subsystem of the whole civilisation that influences the development of the latter not only directly (by "discoveries") but also indirectly, by "showing (and substantiating) the way" to the new level, or else to the definite "end", final degradation of "generalised system death" (or equilibrium), as it unfortunately happens now. This is a "globally" important part of our "end-of-science" discussion: it's not only science that's ending, baby... But also maybe it's rather suitable efforts of people involved with science that uniquely can (if ever) initiate efficient issue from the "embedding" civilisation crisis, far beyond conventional "scientists for peace" kind of efforts.

In the meanwhile, the officially supported scientific bordello continues its crazy feast at a full scale and ever extends its spectrum to new, "promising" fields, such as notorious nanotechnology or quantum computers. Although those last giga-frauds of scholar science are still in their young, "inflating" stage, usual features of "scientific regress" are clearly visible in them: none of "bright promises" is kept (e.g. for fullerenes, let alone "nano-robots", in nanotech, full-scale quantum computation, etc.), despite very intense investment during many years; the less is real success, the greater is the new investment; corruption is complete and "perfect"; valuable, problem-solving approaches are rejected without discussion, etc. Further development following recent destiny of high-temperature superconductivity ( ) is evident... Let's call it in a scientifically fashionable way, "EMERGING scientific regress"!

Thomas Larsson

Perhaps because my wife is doing cancer research, let me dispute your claim that an increased mortality in cancer necessarily proves that cancer research has failed.

It is rather likely that we all will eventually die (but then again, no now living person has ever died, so who knows). If more people die of cancer, it might be because the treatment of cardio-vascular disease has improved. If you survive your heart attack, you may live to die of cancer. The goal of medicine is not to eliminate death, which would be futile, but to eliminate young and middle-aged death.

There are two more likely explanations why cancer mortality has not fallen. One is that cancer research has been more successful at diagnosis than cure; people who used to die from undiagnosed stomach pain now die of colon cancer. A more likely explanation is that medical research is fighting an uphill battle against deteriorating life styles. We all know that excessive consumption of alcohol, tobacco and sugar is bad for your health, and we Europeans are rapidly becoming as fat as you Americans.

But then again, maybe you are right. During the first half of the 20th century, plummers probably did more for public health than physicians did; by improving sanitary conditions, they basically eliminated infectuous disease as a major killer.

Andrei Kirilyuk

The Origin of Objections to the End of Science

One, already evident useful result of blogging on the end of science with open Comments is that now everybody can see not only John Horgan's argumentation but direct attitudes of his critics, which appears to be quite instructive even though I basically agree rather with the object of criticism. It seems that the unifying, major argument of objections to the End of Science is kind of “how can one deny, or even have serious doubts in, progress when we all profit intensely and increasingly from its fruits?!”. This argument has an undeniable practical basis: indeed we can blog now and couldn't do it before, indeed people can profit from much more cures of cancer (even if yet increasingly more may suffer from it, due to various reasons), indeed all “numeric” technologies simply “explode” today, and one may only be lacking time and money for their better use, etc. At that background, a rough form of objections would imply something like “shut up, you poor pessimist, and don't spoil our exquisite pleasures from technological progress products!”. Something like that is always behind the objections: don't touch our life pleasures, especially because they seem to be increasingly “positive”, “humane”, etc. John Horgan appears in higher layers of a decadent empire, which are always on top of their material power at that stage, and tries to tell them honestly that they are ending, disappearing, decaying! Hard task, John, bon courage!

However, an important logical point, very unanimously neglected by those “unaware optimists” is the essential DIFFERENCE between fundamental science as such and practical technology more closely related to “applied science”: fundamental science state and progress are mainly determined by the rate of growth of UNREDUCED reality UNDERSTANDING, basically irrespective of applications, whereas technology and its fruits are determined just by “applications” that can be, and actually are, obtained in a largely EMPIRICAL way, without essential, specific input from fundamental science discoveries (i.e. true understanding). Thus, even such “sophisticated” tool definitely associated with “science” as electron microscope is mainly an empirical technology product: they still don't know how to solve all those “mysteries” about electron duality and its physical nature, but electron microscopes work without problem and serve very well for new product development! Do you think anybody's trying to solve Maxwell equations while elaborating an essentially electromagnetic structure of a modern TV set? No, because all they need is very repetitive and therefore complicated in detail application of very simple rules, such as Ohm's law (at maximum), which could be established in a totally empirical way. Therefore let's not be mistaken about modern technology successes: we are still doing the same kind of job as our ancestors did with the stone axe, simply the size and shape of our “axes” have changed considerably, which gives all the enormous advantages we can profit from. But our massive ability (and unfortunately also desire!) to UNDERSTAND did not progress much more than in simple proportion with our EMPIRICALLY elaborated instrument capacity: we are stupidly (without TRUE understanding) looking into an electron microscope picture as well as our ancestors were stupidly looking at the “colours of the sky”. Real humans are (practically) “tricky” rather than (scientifically) “intelligent”, including all top scientific priesthood of today and even ALMOST all “great scientists” (very few exceptions exist, I won't cite them here). That purely empirical approach of the dominating Homo habilis (rather than Homo sapiens!) can, in fact, be used for “explanation” of many things, already by their simple empirical decomposition into components (combined with “trial and error”), but it also has its strong limitations, it is fundamentally “limited from above” by the necessity to really UNDERSTAND something like nontrivial system dynamics that CANNOT be “decomposed” (it just disappears or changes completely when one tries to do so). And that specific (but omnipresent) feature explains why such apparently successful, almost “omnipotent” conventional science “suddenly” stops before those strange “mysteries” appearing already at the MOST ELEMENTARY levels of Being, let alone mysteries of life, intelligence and other “truly complex” systems. The End of Science John Horgan is talking about is eventually related to THAT specific kind of limitation, and it indeed becomes completely evident and practically important only now (there were some hints before, however).

The whole situation is additionally complicated by the fact that being related but also largely independent (due to the above split), fundamental research and technology have sufficiently contradictory development features already in those their “private”, independent lives, while their occasional interactions, and especially involvement with subjective, egoistic human interests, entangle the problem knot yet more. In summary, it seems that we have today various relatively independent, but eventually related “ends” of USUAL, now dominating forms of fundamental knowledge, empirical technology, social structure, art, religion, thinking, feeling, ... , Homo abilis in the whole?! Thus, even if one accepts only positive facts about modern technology results neglecting all PARTICULAR difficulties (equally evident), it still will kill us without a very essential change to a “superior” level, due e.g. to environmental effects (they cannot be really cured by simple technology “cleaning”, see ). Impossibility of truly positive advance in biology by the current empirical approach also becomes evident, while genuine understanding of THAT system dynamics is definitely impossible within the current paradigm, irrespective of material resources applied (cf. ). Progressive, truly positive and sustainable solution of these and other, equally “difficult” problems is not impossible, but it needs another, qualitatively higher level of genuine, complete understanding of real system dynamics (see also my previous comment at ).

It is interesting to note, finally, that the “world scientific elite” in reality understands very well the real situation, as it follows unambiguously from e.g. a recent popular book “Our Final Hour” by Sir Martin Rees, but it's enough to try to propose anything like a real problem solution, just anything new to its major representatives in order to see how deep is the End and close is “our final hour”... I am just wondering sometimes, why THEIR final hour should also be ours?

The comments to this entry are closed.

Wishful Seeing
Shiny Happy People
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Sleep
Can New Neurons Teach an Old Mouse?
The Woman Who Never Forgets
Why We Get Diseases Other Primates Don't
Vital Signs: Trouble in the Nursery
Natural Selections: The Potential Pandemic You've Never Heard Of
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Death
Natural Selections: The Potential Pandemic You've Never Heard Of
Recently Covered in Discover: The Man Who Finds Planets
Sky Lights: The Dark Side of the Universe
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Meteors
Sky Lights: The Dark Side of the Universe
Islam Hits International Space Station
Neighborhood Watch Goes High Tech
Going Atomic... Again
Jaron's World: The Murder of Mystery
How to Make Anything Look Like a Toy, Round II
Raw Data: The Rigorous Study of the Ancient Mariners
Will We Ever Clone a Caveman?
This Month's Ask Discover
How Life Got a Leg Up
Mammals Stake Their Place in Jurassic Park
You Say "Ook Ook," I Say "Aak Aak"
Guilt-Free Gossip for Greens
A Greener Faith
Whatever Happened To... the Exxon Valdez?
Life After Oil
The Next Katrina
  Full access to all site content requires registration as a magazine subscriber.
© 2005 Discover Media LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Privacy Policy / Your California Privacy Rights | Terms and Conditions | Educator's Guide | Subscribe Online Today | Online Media Kit
Customer Care | Contact Us