Why is science so sloooow

06/05/2010

Updating Magic Universe

WHY IS SCIENCE SO SLoooOW?

Despite the vast increases in the number of researchers and their funding, can anyone claim that the major discoveries of the past two decades are noticeably more glittering or more rapid than those of a century ago? The first two columns show discoveries selected in Magic Universe, and the third has the seven choicest from Breakthrough of the Year in Science magazine.

A provocative story in Magic Universe has the title “DISCOVERY: why the top experts are usually wrong”. It is largely about the battles that many discoverers still have with the scientific establishment. As for the point in the subtitle, it is childishly simple:

As there is not the slightest sign of any end to science, as a process of discovery, a moment’s reflection tells you that this means that the top experts are usually wrong. One of these days, what each of them now teaches to students and tells the public will be faulted, or be proved grossly inadequate, by a major discovery. If not, the subject must be moribund.

More subtle (I hope) is the evidence adduced for the harm science does to itself by its highly organized resistance to discovery. That’s why I have compared the big advances of the 1990s with those of the 1890s to show there is no sign of acceleration.

The only aim in this Update is to check that the 1990s were not an anomalously unlucky decade. To generate a new list of my own might take weeks of study, so I’ve resorted to Science magazine’s annual “Breakthrough of the Year” for 2000-09. In order to match the seven items per decade used earlier I’ve left out the three least impressive “breakthroughs” (2004 avian influenza, 2007 global warming, and 2009 Ardipithecus ramidus).

Dear reader, you can add or subtract whatever you like, but I don’t think you’ll find we live in any sort of golden age of discovery. So why not?

I mention in Magic Universe that the needless delays and inefficiencies of current science give more time for the world at large to adapt to the consequences of discoveries. But that is not a policy democratically prescribed by taxpayers who fund the research. Having checked (to my own satisfaction) that it doesn’t need revising, I shall simply repeat what I have about science’s self-harm, within that “Discovery” story.

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