Science questioning science:
I have read an article (Colin Macilwain The Unlikely Wisdom of Chairman Mao NATURE vol. 495 no. 7440 March 14, 2013 page 143) I very much like.  He calls for American scientists to be more critical of themselves, particularly with regards to how the vast sums of money we spend are used. 

But I do have a few qualifications.  For one thing money is not everything, even in science.  There.  I’ve said it.  Break out the tar and feathers. 

What he refers to approvingly is the tendency of the Chinese to criticize themselves.  I suspect this is a cultural thing far deeper than the writings of “Chairman Mao” for whom I have nothing nice to say.  Didn’t he kill more people than Hitler, Stalin and a couple Chechens I shall not name combined? 

One thing the Chinese seem very self critical about is their lack of innovation.  Really?  Some years ago the Chinese were building an observatory in Antarctica.  In order to get above ground turbulence they were putting their telescope on a tower.  This was expected to get above ninety percent of atmospheric disturbance.   Do I have this right?  Doesn’t that mean that they were going to get 90 percent of the performance boost of having a telescope in orbit for the cost of the gantry crane that would prepare a rocket for launch?  And servicing the instrument, even in Antarctica was going to be infinitly easier than servicing the same device in orbit.  Then recently a graduate student at MIT named, Lei Dai – from China – published a way to discern how close a species was to collapse by looking at an aerial photograph rather than spending years doing field counts.  His experimental demonstration required only a few bottles, yeast, some culture medium and a few weeks pouring things back and forth and doing counts.  That sounds pretty innovative to me.

From the numbers he offered in 2000 China spent 25 billion dollars on research while the US spent 300 billion.  China produced 3% of the science literature while the US produced 27%.  When I do the arithmetic, the average Chinese paper cost less than the average US paper.  They were money light and thought heavy. 

So why the self flagellation on China’s part?  I think this is a matter of the tradition of the pep talk.  Traditional societies do it better than we.  Years ago I produced a few, oh maybe a half dozen, movies.  Never once did I give my cast a pep talk.  And pretty much the shows all bombed.  I was totally absorbed with the production process and didn’t reflect that my cast were real people who didn’t necessarily have my feel for the script and could have used some encouragement to reach for their own.  But the pep talk just isn’t a big part of our lives.  Indeed I have never responded positively to one myself. 

Yes, America does innovate.  But an odd thing is that America is very resistant to innovation.  Sloping tank armor was an American invention but it was first deployed in Russia.  The Wright brothers built the first successful powered heavier-than-air aircraft but had to go across the Atlantic to find anybody who was interested in helping them take it farther.  Claire Lee Chennault figured out how effectively to deploy fighter aircraft in combat.  But he had to go to – yes – China to find anybody willing to give it a try.  Like sloping armor and airplanes it was dazzlingly successful. 

Sure we should be frugal with our dollars.  But we should be indulgent of our ideas.

Macilwain calls for science to be self critical, and there is certainly room for that.  (Keith Weaver Scientists are Snobs page 167 in the same volume.)  The biggest criticism I have to offer of scientists is they seem to indulge in magical thinking.

Time to dump the tar and feathers and reach for the hemp rope I guess, eh?

It’s not all their fault.  Magical thinking seems to me to be on the rise.  Don’t think about yourself.  Think about people you disagree with.  That’s more objective.  If you don’t believe in extra-terrestrial visitors you probably think those who do are really being superstitious.  If you believe in them you probably think everybody else is sticking the old head in the sand.  If you believe in evolution you probably think the nay sayers are benighted.  If you don’t you probably think that science is a religion garbed as a quest for truth.  If you go to the movies you are far more likely to see a show about gods or aliens or fairy tales than the case when I was a child. 

I’m guilty myself.  I don’t believe in a lot of supernatural stuff but I certainly do notice things that I have then to dismiss as “spectral.” 

And of course there is the big one: demographics.  If you have family.  If you have worked at a career where something can be carried forward that is good for the world.  If you get an emotional reward out of creating art or music and take pleasure in the fact that people enjoy it.  If there is a religion or tradition you cherish.  If any of these things matters to you, it can only survive if there are people in the future who will be affected by it. 

The threat of demographic collapse dwarfs anything you can contribute.  If it hangs over you, it must become at once your primary goal to address it.  Do you care for science?  It ends if people end.

And it’s not just hanging over us.  It’s happening right here and right now.

But people and I particularly mean scientists have this eerie, not to say creepy, way of just shrugging it off.  It just can’t be that bad.  They don’t want to think about it.  It will be all right.  That is magical thinking sure and certain.  It is spectral.  And it won’t work.

Again let me say that I appreciated the article not only for what it said but for what it goaded me into thinking. 

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