Little Horns And Big Ideas

We live in an age of (what I call) “the cult of science”, a generally positive inclination to honest, critical inquiry towards understanding our world. This positivity is not unrelated to some of today’s popular personalities advocating this sort of world view. You’ve probably already heard his radio-quality voice, but have you seen Neil DeGrasse Tyson dance? I think we can safely say we’ve never had scientists this cool.

I think it is important to remember that attitude isn’t sufficient to gain the insights that modern science has acquired; we need the ability allocate massive amounts of capital and future cashflows in concentrated assets representing specialized training and instruments that bear the possibility of little or no return (think of space shuttles, particle accelerators and clinical trials for new drugs).

A lot of times what people mean by “science” isn’t the underlying method, but the government and corporate funding which allows developed countries to perform science at the level they do. A side effect of this system is that research programs are often unveiled with fantastic promises and visions in order to gain the financial resources they require. Sometimes these promises and visions are not realized.

Let me provide you with an example: “nanotechnology”. I cringe when I hear about children wanting to be nanotechnologists when they grow up. Why? After all, there are a number of government programs, scientific journals and foundations which make it seem like nanotech is already here (and we’re just polishing the nano-edges)! The reality is that it is a sort of “victory by declaration”. We originally dreamt of tiny robots doing things like fixing individual cancer cells, but what passes as nanotech today is probably (more fairly) called “chemistry”, “biology” or “material science”. Sure, we are doing some amazing things at the molecular scale these days, but I don’t think we could look back at our dreams and say that we are anywhere close to realizing them yet.

Another aspirationally-named field that comes to mind is “astrobiology”. People really are doing some fantastic work under the funding initiative, but the name makes it sound like we’ve already found life outside our planet (and we haven’t).

The last speech bubble is inspired from the responses of Felisa Wolfe-Simon and Ron Oremland to studies that demonstrated that their super-hyped “arsenic life” paper was plainly wrong. The linked article is a much better recap of the story than what I could provide here, but I found the author’s responses didn’t really acknowledge the fact that carefully observed evidence clearly (and correctly) contradicted their earlier findings which were in error.

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