Arnold Kling  

Scientific Stagnation?

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David Brooks summarizes some recent articles complaining about stagnation in scientific innovation.


The time traveler would be vibrating with excitement. She'd want to know what other technological marvels had been invented in the past 41 years. She'd ask about space colonies on Mars, flying cars, superfast nuclear-powered airplanes, artificial organs. She'd want to know how doctors ended up curing cancer and senility.

I think we tend to under-estimate the achievements of computer technology because they become so widely available so quickly. Going to the moon seems amazing, because almost nobody participated in that. Using Google Maps seems pedestrian, because all your friends can do it.

Along more optimistic lines, Walter Russell Mead writes,


W. Brian Arthur, in a report for McKinsey, writes that we are witnessing enormous fundamental changes to the global economy: "in fact", he writes, "it may well be the biggest change ever in the economy." This change is due to what Arthur calls "the second economy" or a "digital economy" that exists alongside the physical economy. It goes beyond the changes the media is fond of discussing

Forty years ago, people who expected a cure for cancer did not understand cancer very well. If you read The Emperor of All Maladies, you will appreciate the complexity of it. The goal of curing cancer has receded, ironically, because we have made great scientific strides.

One could argue that the social payoff from space travel just hasn't been there. The trip to the moon was not epoch-making because the moon had very little going for it. If Christopher Columbus had discovered a continent with the ecology of the moon, that discovery would not have been an epoch-making event.

Faster airplanes? As it is, I spend more time at the airport than I do on the plane. More important, with a laptop and Wi-Fi you no longer have to count travel as "down time."

The great scientific project these days is coming from the Department of Energy. In Steven Chu's mind, he is a superhero saving the planet. In my mind, he is something unprintable.

Spare me the great scientific projects coming from Washington. No, they have not all been failures. But perhaps wealthy individuals, if they were not having their wealth confiscated to be spent by politicians, would do as well or better at directing their money toward ultimately useful science.

If it takes hold, the practical impact of the scientific stagnation hypothesis will be to serve as an excuse to enhance the power and resources of politicians. If so, then scientific stagnation will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, Ray Kurzweil says that government regulators are like stones in a river with respect to technology. The river keeps moving, in spite of the stones.


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Scott Sumner writes:

"Faster airplanes? As it is, I spend more time at the airport than I do on the plane. More important, with a laptop and Wi-Fi you no longer have to count travel as "down time.""

Books?

Maximum Liberty writes:

"If Christopher Columbus had discovered a continent with the ecology of the moon, that discovery would not have been an epoch-making event."

Anyone know who Captain John Davis was?

No? He was the captain of the expedition that was the first in recorded history to set foot on Antarctica. I'd say no epochs were made, pretty much proving the professor's point.

Max

bryan willman writes:

actually, the real value of the web is to reduce the number of trips one has to make and increase the value of each trip.

by far the fastest trips are the ones made by telephone, video call, voice mail.

the sheep nazi writes:

Books?
Please to explain. What are these "books" of which you speak?


Brent Buckner writes:

Judging from _The Currents of Space_, Isaac Asimov would have been impressed with the state of videoconferencing....

the sheep nazi writes:

Books?
Please to explain. What are these "books" of which you speak?


Thomas DeMeo writes:

Over time, our economies are becoming far more complex and interrelated. A single invention will usually not change things as much any more, because now it is one step in a process or workflow that is otherwise still constricted.

Computer technologies are working their way through our economy and solving these bottlenecks, but we often don't realize the breathtaking potential until an entire process has been re-engineered from start to finish.

Chris T writes:

My observation has been that it's the people with the least amount of scientific/technical knowledge who see stagnation. To them, scientific progress is a string of 'Eureka' moments rather than the highly iterative process it actually is.

Dan Hill writes:

@Sheep Nazi

Books?
Please to explain. What are these "books" of which you speak?

They're things you read on a Kindle or iPad...

Daniel Lemire writes:

First: I agree with your post, and I share your point of view overall.

I sure hope we won't waste government money going to Mars. (It looks, anyhow, like a few wealthy investors want to do it... good for them. I hope the history books will remember them!)

But just to push the ideas:

You are not providing counterexamples regarding scientific progress. You are an economist... are economists making progress or just playing cargo-cult games? Are people true to the ideal of science, which is to oppose authority with facts, or have they falling prey to politics?

You assume that medical research is making "theoretical progress" despite a lack of practical progress (e.g., our better health is mostly explained by the fact that we are richer). That's nice, and very generous of you, but that's like investing in a venture which is never making any money... with a CEO who makes great presentations about how they are better understanding the market... If you are not making practical progress, after a time, you have to start worrying.


I offer a counter-point on my blog to your post and others:


Why aren’t we getting richer? The scarring tissue theory
http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2011/10/10/why-arent-we-getting-richer-the-scarring-tissue-theory/

joeftansey writes:

No idea how politicians could make the case for more money/power to enhance scientific progress. The great thinkers never utilized exorbitant resources.

Scientific progress is something that just kind of happens. You can't accelerate the rate at which Einstein Jr. writes equations on a piece of paper. It comes down to luck and brains. You can't buy either.

Costard writes:

Good points, but IMO regulation is the major obstacle. You could design a superior alternative to airbags, but when every car is required by law to have airbags....

In many industries, bringing new methods or new technologies into production requires a great deal of money, and ample political connections; regulation often needs to be rewritten. Innovation becomes the playground of the large and the established -- in other words, those with the least incentive to innovate. Alphabet agencies and regulatory bodies serve the same purpose today that trade guilds did in pre-industrial Europe. A depressing thought.

A notable exception is the kitchen gadget sector. Any insomniacs amongst us can testify that, here at least, technological progress marches bravely on.

Andy writes:

If you compare innovation in cancer treatment from the beginning to 1970 and 1970 to today I think the latter period has a clear victory, so I'm not sure why people are using that example. Transportation is a much better area where we've "stagnated". But then there are inherit physical limits, and we've mainly advanced in efficiency not in speed.

Jonathan Bechtel writes:

I think Tyler Cowen and the Great Stagnationists have a point, but the "Where's My Jetpack?" theory of stagnation they often attack is becoming a straw man.

A lot of the things we innovate in today are just more subtle, and their lack of detection is an attribute, not something to be chided.

Troy Camplin writes:

In addition to the inevitable problems with government taxation and interference in science, we are beginning to face something else entirely: we are moving from simple physics and chemistry to complex biology and other kinds of networks. We should not be surprised that simple science gave rise to a lot of technology rather quickly; but neither should we be surprised that complex science is slower to give rise to complex technology. Even the biotech we have succeeded with have been based on the simple science model -- the one gene, one product model that is inapplicable for over 99% of the genes.

I wrote about this recently:

http://zatavu.blogspot.com/2011/09/future-is-complexity.html

Sol writes:

I've been thinking about this in terms of science fiction. Back in the fifties, it was easy to imagine the amazing progress in transportation technology continuing forever: thus flying cars, jetpacks, and easy space travel. Computer technology, on the other hand, was tubes forever, and a really powerful computer had to be the size of a planet.

Today, on the other hand, it's computer technology that's going to continue improving forever at an impossible rate: thus strong AI, nanotech, the Singularity, etc. Yet I think we're already starting to hit the point where the magic improvements in computing become more mundane. Already mostly the things don't get faster, they get more energy efficient and more portable. This may yet yield some incredible stuff, but I think it will fall far short of the promises (premises?) of science fiction.

All of which makes me wonder what the next area of "magic" progress will be....

Chris T writes:

we are moving from simple physics and chemistry to complex biology and other kinds of networks. We should not be surprised that simple science gave rise to a lot of technology rather quickly; but neither should we be surprised that complex science is slower to give rise to complex technology.

Putting aside whether science and technology is actually stagnating (I work in S&T and most working in it would say the opposite), there aren't really categories of 'simple' or 'complex' science. While science certainly gets more and more complex as it advances, so to do our tools.

Transportation is a much better area where we've "stagnated". But then there are inherit physical limits, and we've mainly advanced in efficiency not in speed.

Technology for speed has continued to advance, however, it hasn't found its way into consumer products because demand hasn't really been there. The bigger concern has been responding to the rapidly increasing number of people who want to travel. Cost, reliability, and improved coordination are far more pressing market concerns. After all, supersonic planes do little good if they get stuck in holding patterns above heavily congested airports.

Colin K writes:

The closing of Concorde service had no effect on my life, even though I traveled regularly between the US and Europe on business during its twilight years; it was just too expensive. It was a complete evolutionary dead end.

The Internet, however, completely changed the dynamic of global business and even human relationships. I regularly visit an internet forum for hobby machinists, and a large chunk of the members are from Europe, Australia, even a few Asians, South Americans, and Africans.

Go back to 1976 when Concorde began service, and aside from ham radio operators, it was unknown for an average person to maintain regular ongoing conversations with a wide number of people from other countries.

The withdrawal of Concorde had no more effect on the world than the retirement of steam locomotives. The shutdown of the Internet, however, would cast us back to a world that even many older people would immediately feel adrift in.

[Comment edited for inappropriate language.--Econlib Ed.]

James C writes:

i read a paper a while back about shortening flight time for airplanes. but instead of trying to make the plane fly faster, the planes would travel higher in the atmosphere, cutting distance being traveled by more than half. it was actually quite amazing now that i think about it.

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