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.

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