Culture Magazine

John Horgan Asks: "Is Science Hitting a Wall?"

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Back in 1996 John Horgan kicked up a mighty fuss with The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, which was recently reissued. Put rather crudely, Horgan argued that in field after field, science seems to be spinning its wheels. Perhaps we've run up against limits to our knowledge? In a review-essay I published in 1997 I suggested that perhaps the limits are imposed by our current systems of thought, but that other systems are possible. "What has come to an end, I argue, is a certain view of the world which sees reality as reducible to simple laws about simple systems underpinning the superficial complexity of phenomenal experience. On the contrary, reality is fundamentally complex and reductionism is doomed. The universe is fecund in that it has evolved multiple Realms of Being, with the later ones being implemented in the former."
Be that as it may, he's at it again.  He opens a recent post with some observations:
In “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, four economists claim that “a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms show[s] that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” The economists are Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones and Michael Webb of Stanford and John Van Reenen of MIT.
As an counter-intuitive example, they cite Moore’s Law, noting that the “number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling every two years of the density of computer chips is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s.” The researchers found similar trends in research related to agriculture and medicine. More and more research on cancer and other illnesses has produced fewer and fewer lives saved.
These findings corroborate analyses presented by economists Robert Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation. Bloom, Jones, Webb and Van Reenen also cite “The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”, a 2009 paper by Benjamin Jones. He presents evidence that would-be innovators require more training and specialization to reach the frontier of a given field. Research teams are also getting bigger, and the number of patents per researcher has declined.
The 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.
He continues with a grab-bag of observations he made at recent on the subject of whether or not science is slowing down. Here's one of them:
How much are “pure” discoveries like the big bang or out-of-Africa hypothesis worth? I’d like to say they are priceless, but that answer won’t suffice when we’re talking about government funding. Should we spend billions of tax dollars on a next-generation particle accelerator, gravitational-wave detector or manned mission to Mars when millions of people lack decent health care, housing and education?
I call this the Whitey-on-the-Moon Problem in honor of rap pioneer Gil Scott-Heron. In his 1970 song “Whitey on the Moon” Scott-Heron says, “A rat done bit my sister Nell/(with Whitey on the Moon)./…The man just upped my rent last night/('cause Whitey's on the moon)./No hot water, no toilets, no lights/(but Whitey's on the moon).”

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