Why modern science has largely been a disappointment


People seem disappointed in many things, including love, religion, spectator sports and cinema, but not in science. When asked what people have excelled at, they might all say “science.” Even other areas of outstanding human achievement, such as athletics, are attributed to “advancements” in science.

Science is impressive at first glance. It shows us spectacular images of galaxies; It claims to have photographed a black hole, known the origin of mass, and had proof that gravity is a wave. And for sick people it is very difficult to die because there is some magical medicine or miraculous medical procedure. The word “scientist” continues to inspire awe and gratitude. They just add some “quantum” and we admit it must be important. And all they have to do is prefix their profession with “neuro” and they can say anything about the mind as if they know what they’re talking about.

Despite all this glory, the science was a disappointment. It was a disappointment in terms of its contribution to our quality of life, our understanding of the nature of physical reality and consciousness. The healthier you are, the more disappointing it is.

This is not an easy argument. When I say science is “disappointing,” what does that refer to? Science has done exceptionally well compared to many other professions. Take two from me – journalism and literary fiction. Both have deteriorated. They have lost prestige and importance. Middlebrow Fiction has survived because of streaming, which is a technological evolution, not an artistic one. Yes, science in 2022 isn’t as exciting as science fiction predicted, but we shouldn’t blame science for writers’ fantasies. In any case, good-natured science fantasy tended to be more prophetic than political dystopian fiction, like The Handmaid’s Tale or the works of George Orwell, who got almost everything wrong, driven, as he probably was, by a tuberculosis-induced gloom that spanned generations of depression had misunderstood intellectuals as political analysis.

So the science is disappointing compared to what? Science disappoints compared to its own reputation.

Consider knee surgery. The knee is a simple joint. When the bones wear out, as they do in old people, some parts are replaced with plastic or metal. Hospitals give the impression that people undergoing this procedure are getting new knees. But the fact is that they simply limp less after the exchange. It’s not like the elderly can suddenly start jogging after “replacing” their knees. Even when fixing a simple joint like the knee, medicine is far from imitating the strength of the natural human body.

Modern medicine does not rejuvenate. It doesn’t prolong life; it prolongs death. It may seem that science has helped people live longer; but the fact of the matter is that people just die later. Most old people have a poor quality of life for decades before they are finally allowed to walk. I don’t know about you, but none of this is good enough for me. According to current science, my knees only have three decades of walking left. After that, I’m expected to accept the bad life of an old man and a generally meaningless existence. You may argue that within three decades a wonderful innovation will help me walk forever, but the science is so bad at actual rejuvenation that I’m very concerned.

Even science is unable to answer many simple questions unequivocally. For example, is it good or bad to fast when having a viral injection? Science has no answer to just about every reasonable question about fitness. A quest for clarity would be a journey through camps and cartels, all claiming different conclusions based on “the scientific process”.

Nor has our understanding of the nature of reality changed significantly in the last hundred years since the Copenhagen Interpretation formalized the ideas of quantum mechanics, despite the investment of billions of dollars in large hadron accelerators and the apparent discovery of many particles. Many exotic things that have been said in science are more speculative than people realize. Our understanding of the universe, dimensions and time has not changed significantly in decades either. There is a reference to this in popular science.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar speaks of the same cute sexy science mentioned in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos published in 1980 in Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time published in 1988. It would be absurd to say that there has been no progress in the world in the last 50 years, and I am not suggesting that at all. But I will say that the progress made has been rather modest. The James Webb Telescope, launched last year, for example, takes clearer pictures of galaxies than the Hubble, which was launched in 1990, but the Webb Telescope is not the transforming machine that Hubble was three decades later. Commercial air travel has not become any faster in the past 60 years either. If we consider the sinking of the Concorde, air travel has slowed down for the rich.

You can argue that the failure of the Concorde indicates that we haven’t made any advances in science; It’s just that these breakthroughs still make good business sense. Also, the modern tech industry has products that it cannot bring to market for ethical reasons – like some forms of genetic engineering. But transformative technologies, held back for commercial or ethical reasons, are very few. In general, we don’t have some things because we don’t know how to make those things.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist and creator of the Netflix series Decoupled.

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