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Who fuels the cycle?

June 16, 2010

I have a comment featured on the Daily Dish (thanks Andrew!). This all began when the Dish highlighted a Wired article in which Jonah Lehrer questioned our faith in reductionist, technological solutions:

Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, once divided the world into two categories: clocks and clouds. Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be solved through reduction; clouds are an epistemic mess, “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.” The mistake of modern science is to pretend that everything is a clock, which is why we get seduced again and again by the false promises of brain scanners and gene sequencers. We want to believe we will understand nature if we find the exact right tool to cut its joints. But that approach is doomed to failure. We live in a universe not of clocks but of clouds.

The scientist who responded, actually did a good job of demonstrating Leher’s point: scientists are overconfident in their ability to solve problems with the clocks approach. He or she claimed that if we are disappointed with scientific progress, we should blame the media, not science, for exaggerating expectations. Of course, this gets directly at the topic we discussed earlier this week. I responded:

Sure, the media play their part in the “cycle of anticipation and disappointment” with science, but scientists profit from it immensely as well. The recent New York Times article on the Human Genome Project’s failure to produce miracle cures demonstrates the “disappointment” part of the cycle. But it also points out the ways in which scientists themselves were fueling the anticipation with grandiose promises of miraculous advances in medicine. Blaming the media for this cycle is totally naive.

There are two interpretations of those promises made by scientists, and they are both right. First, they are just part of the political game of science. To attract resources you need to show the potential public value of the work, even if the claims are a bit flimsy. Second, our tendency to accept those claims stems from our overriding faith in the ability of science and technology to solve our problems, no matter how complex. That is exactly what Lehrer was getting at in the first place. We may not like it, but technocratic approaches using reductionist science aren’t cut out for cloud type problems, especially those with a strong social component (health, climate change, energy, etc).

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 21, 2010 5:08 am

    Congrats, and great comment. You have just accomplished one of my life goals.

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