Month: January 2018

Sarewitz’s New Science

Just got through reading an interesting assessment of the problems facing contemporary science, by Daniel Sarewitz, at The New Atlantis.

The article is both spot-on and frustrating. Spot-on, in that Sarewitz very nicely gathers together a list of the forces behind why science is failing—particularly, diminishing returns due to crippling complexity and ambiguity of the remaining problems. He sees such problems as bedeviled by what he calls “trans-scientific” issues that fundamentally are too messy to ever be decided by science. This creates a world where scientists can “research” a problem indefinitely without creating any stable or useful gain in knowledge—which, it bears noting, sounds exactly like the “ironic science” that John Horgan was warning of over 20 years ago.

But then, having thus placed himself on the verge of a powerful but unpleasant conclusion—that science as a vital, vanguard-progressive enterprise is destined to transform largely into an archival, practical, and often sophistic one—Sarewitz seems to blink and change tack, deciding to argue that Progress could surely be restarted if only science became more command-and-control or goal-oriented, and specifically more focused on technological deliverables. His model is the Pentagon’s supposedly no-nonsense results-oriented approach to improving jet engine efficiency and information technology.

Underlying this belief, the credulous “as if” assumptions Sarewitz must make are so numerous as to be hard even to list. As if research labs don’t clamor to snap up the newest technologies as soon as they are able! As if there aren’t currently legions of scientists very much searching and desiring to cure breast cancer! As if Einstein in his patent office or Fleming in his lab only performed their wonders by being set strict objectives by a somehow all-knowing boss! As if the answer to a problem of wicked complexity is to introduce an additional layer of managers and deadlines! And most of all, as if there have not been legions of failed and wasteful but very much “problem-solving” focused initiatives undertaken by engineers and defense agencies, even in the heyday of such initiatives!

That the examples Sarewitz cites—a cancer vaccine initiative that hasn’t found anything yet and a, ahem, woodpecker preservation initiative—are (with all due respect to our feathered friends) almost the opposite of compelling, or that the very trans-scientific nature of the problems crippling science would be just as intractable under any management style or incentive system, seems not to occur to him.

In the end, though his searingly clear-sighted assessment richly describes academic science’s abysmal if not terminal condition, Sarewitz’s remedy boils down to a mere ignoring of his own conclusions, and a contrived faith in can-doism. He can see the fatal contradictions in today’s research culture, and he can see their tracks leading up to the doors of Technology and Big Defense, but he cannot countenance that these precious bastions, too, have been blighted. Thus the necessary reckoning with the limits of our deepest assumptions is put off, and the conditioned reflexive belief in the eternal technological fix rears up, wearily and tediously, once again.

Some Thoughts on the Economy-as-Organism

Watching the markets and cryptocurrencies explode upwards lately for little or no apparent reason, it seems more and more like it may be in the nature of money to eventually be driven to hallucinatory status by speculation, fantasy, regulatory capture and limitless debt. It is invented out of nowhere by the trillions of dollars for the benefit of the ultra rich and the ultra large companies.

Thermodynamics or energy-based accounting is unbiased in principle, having as it does some sort of grounding in physical laws,  and it seems to offer an alternative to the money-centered view, but it is essentially impossible to straightforwardly apply it to a process as complicated as a whole economy.

So what is real? What do we look at as an indicator of societal robustness? Of diminishing returns? Perhaps none such exists; as long as there is new stuff to dig out of the earth and new things to covet, the growth continues, and money flows are simply a rationalization or fig leaf for the deeper trend.

Given these bafflements, it may be that the only system we know of that is complex enough to be usefully comparable to an economy, or any sort of guide to it, is the metabolic/genetic life of a growing organism (probably not ecosystems, as these don’t grow and multiply or have distinct pathways comparable to economic sectors). Call it the econo-organism.

In this view, money is not the source of change nor the energy that propels it, only a kind of anabolic hormone that tells the econo-organism, “make more stuff”. (There is no catabolic hormone, or if there is, it appears to be a Thing That Must Not Be Spoken Of.)

Moreover, because many resources are essential to the econo-organism (non-substitutable), higher prices are not a given if such prices threaten the organism. For the resource MUST continue to be produced “economically” for the economy to survive.

So the price will be kept low, if necessary by money infusions to the producers. But by that point money has, again, become meaningless, or at least now reflects reality in a completely unintentional way. The signal has become pathological, rather like runaway inflammation.

Growth is a reflexive urge of the econo-organism. Only when every last pore of ground has been scoured will the econo-organism tip from triumphal log-growth into profound illness or quiescence.

Or equivalently, there may be a hidden threshold where a given resource becomes too dilute for even new technology to exploit it to net advantage, even with invisible subsidy. Then something like a vital cofactor deficiency will take hold, despite adjustments by the system.

For example, copper, an indispensable and largely non-substitutable element for the econo-organism, is now mined from porphyry deposits that may contain as little as 0.15% copper. The first deposits to be exploited on the other hand were up to 10-30% copper, but have since been depleted.

It is impressive on the one hand that the econo-organism has evolved or deployed a way of getting enough copper from deposits that seem rather dilute.

But on the other hand, that also means it now has to move and crush and chemically treat about 660 parts rock to get at 1 part copper (probably more since extraction isn’t totally efficient), versus 3-10 parts rock in the old days. At what point does diluteness, with its costs in energy and environmental damage, overcome the combined powers of cleverness and increased scale?

(Similarly with fracking and wind power: the econo-organism manages to keep up with its energy needs, but at the expense of much larger land use.)

This is analogous to an organism that begins to express higher levels of a high-affinity transporter to absorb a trace mineral it’s not been getting enough of through the usual lower-affinity one (or perhaps a goiter where the iodine-absorbing organ becomes disproportionately expanded due to iodine deprivation). The organism may switch on pathways that let it conserve and reuse more of the mineral. Or there may even be a mutation (innovation) that increases the transporter affinity even more.

These are all clever and helpful responses on the part of the (econo)organism. Yet eventually, if there is just no mineral at all, or not enough to sustain the pathway it is needed for, the organism will die–or at least stop growing.

The earth is mostly dilute, but it is also quite big. That is what makes it hard to tell whether there is a big problem, or a minor problem, or no problem at all. However the econo-organism is quite different from a natural organism not only in lacking a catabolic signal, but in having apparently no ability to switch to a quiescent state. Either it grows, or it begins to fall apart.