Recommended by Tyler Cowen, this story is a follow-on to a couple of recent posts, one on human progress and one on scientific groupthink.
We tend to think that human progress is defined by innovation and discovery, but the instant report clearly shows that it is possible for progress of that kind to simply end. Groupthink may be a cause, but the cause might otherwise be that Nature herself offers only a finite number of basic problems to solve. Or perhaps Nature is infinite, but the human mind is only capable of conceiving a finite problem set.
Another possibility is that scientific disruptions ebb and flow according to some rhythm we have yet to detect or understand.
A final possibility is that the disruptive science of the past has been erroneous to the point that new innovations will be impossible until we correct our mistakes.
3 thoughts on “‘Disruptive’ science has declined — and no one knows why”
Interesting premise. My take is that low hanging fruit has been harvested. Plus the cost of some research, like the recent fusion breakthrough at $3.5 billion, makes small or independent labs at a disadvantage. Not a lot of disagreement.
The internal combustion engine was a breakthrough. After more than a century, we are still using that same principle, but with incremental changes. Yet, would those incremental changes have even taken place had not environmental science not put up some red flags. Much greater efficiency, coupled with power and cleaner running. LA smog was a big driver for innovation in CA, but it spread as have most of CA ideas.
“ Nature herself offers only a finite number of basic problems to solve.”
I think nature has no problems to solve. We might with regards to living alongside, rather than in, the natural world. Just about every breakthrough has to do with making us more detached and comfortable than nature would allow us otherwise.
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I think Len has it largely right, the low hanging fruit are gone in most fields.
A couple of fields are different.
First, in medical science, the cost of making a major find has been artificially raised.
From discovery to commercial use, penicillin only cost a hundred thousand or so to bring to market, even adjusted for inflation, only a few million. Bringing an equivalent find to market today would easily cost billions.
However, there are still low hanging fruit in artificial intelligence that can be harvested at a reasonable cost. Assuming it doesn’t kill or enslave us.
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I’m partial to the last of the given possibilities: “that the disruptive science of the past has been erroneous to the point that new innovations will be impossible until we correct our mistakes.”
This is similar to the low-hanging fruit explanation in that any particular problem set appears to be finite until the assumptions on which it is based become exhausted. Only then can new assumptions emerge to form the basis of a new problem set.
I have no good reason to think this way, except my faith that science is capable of infinite extension.