Can science survive?
If you look at science as if it were a person, you would not like what you saw.  (I mean the hard sciences of course.   This does not apply to the humanities.  They had a problem some years back when they became a political movement, but that particular movement appears to have been completed and wiped.)  I’m all for science of course.  Most importantly I think my own interest needs a lot of attention from science as well as from other fields.  Secondly science is a quest for truth, at least it is supposed to be, and that is important.  And third it is an intellectual discipline, an exercise for the mind.  There is little enough of that.

But there are three problems.  For one, science is unresponsive.  Scientists try to communicate but it is only an attempt to educate us.  They have little if any interest in input from anybody else.  They don’t even seem to care for each other much.  But they feel no urgency in attending to questions presented to them, unless of course there is a lot of money involved. 

If a person is unresponsive, it is very bad news.  The survival of that person is hanging by a thread.  So that is the first parallel.  Science, like a comatose patient, does not seek accommodation with the social and physical environment.

There have been enormous accomplishments of science recently.  That should be a sign of health.  But those accomplishments have been achieved by virtue of the infusion of enormous amounts of money.  As long as the money is flowing, the field should prosper.  But that is anything but true of a person.  The comatose patient is also the focus of an enormous amount of expense.  It is justifiable if there is hope, because the danger is so great.  But it is not good news.  Federal funds are the respirator of science.

Third problem: old people die.  And science is old.  That is not to say it has been around a long time.  There are religions that are older, and they seem to be in rude health.  But an old person generally is a person who has accomplished what was possible.  The career is over.  The honors are won.  The children are grown.  The house is paid off.  These are not all bad, but they are a sign that the end is nigh.

And whither science now?  In order to learn new things in astronomy it requires instruments of enormous power.  And honestly, the harder it is to see something the less likely it is to be important.  Certainly it would be a diversion to learn of intelligent life elsewhere, but the prospect of being able to communicate with such life seems remote.  Just learning of its existence would mean little since our culture has long since adapted to the possibility of any number of alternative extra-terrestrial forms. 

Massive atom smashers cost prodigious amounts of money but are unlikely to learn anything new that has effects that are visible by other means.  It won’t make much difference to us.

Maybe health sciences will improve our lot, but they are unlikely to have anything like the impact that could be achieved by applying what is already known, such as providing a decent diet, safe water and tight housing to those who now lack it.  Malaria is a disease of the poor.  Good screens and bug repellents and other simple measures have long since driven it from rich neighborhoods. 

The human genome was an impressive accomplishment.  But it is on the shelf and the working out of its details rarely produces as much human wellbeing as a good water supply for a village would.

So science is old.

Old, comatose and kept alive by extreme measures, science is in trouble.  We ought to try to save it.

In the long run, it should be possible to wake the patient up.  There is no reason science has to be unresponsive.  That could be fixed.  And there is no reason it has to be so expensive.  We are never going to run out of questions.  And age is a relative thing.  Science will forever be able to return new truths; it is only the relative cost and the rate of expected progress that makes it look old. 

The basics may be fixable.

But are there immediate threats?  There are places in the world where religious passions seem to conflict with a purely scientific world view.  That is new.  It used to be that clergy, monks, priests and so forth were the principle sources of interest in the world and interest in truth about the world.  If it is new, it is not structural and might be changed.

Perhaps we will run out of the skilled young people that are needed to keep the metabolism of science moving.  That certainly looks like a grave threat from my standpoint.  But the fix has nothing specific to do with science.  All of our great institutions are under threat, and what will save one will no doubt save all. 

Perhaps there is no immediate threat.  Nay, there are always immediate threats.  The respirator cannot work its magic forever.  Those threats are there, only neither I nor anybody else can see them yet.

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