Common misconceptions about the nature of progress

The other day I was chatting with my dad, and somehow we ended up on the topic of unfortunate accidents frailty of human life. Naturally, being a both a futurist and an optimist I expressed my hope that in a few decades we will be able to free ourselves from the tyranny of accidental death via some sort of mind digitization procedure. Before you say anything, let me remind you that my consciousness interruption objection does not apply to unfortunate accidents (as in “oh shit, I fell out of the 10’th story window right into the path of an exploding bullet train). His reaction was fairly interesting, so I decided to do some research on the subject and figure out what exactly people out there think about progress.

Unsurprisingly, it seems that those who have never did any serious academic research often form their opinions about the nature scientific progress based on movies and TV shows. That is, most people are smart enough to realize that movie science is not always the same as real science (except computer science – that’s higher arcane magic that no one understands and everything you see in movies is true) but I noticed that there is a common thread of misconceptions.

Science is advanced by geniuses only

I noticed that quite a few people labor under the impression that most ground breaking inventions are done by some ultra-bright genius secretly working alone in a secluded lab. They make their projects from scratch, developing them from basic scientific principles, they never use other people’s research, they rarely take notes and when they build a prototype it is always one of a kind, irreplaceable and un-replicable design. If something happens to the inventor or the prototype then all the years of their work are ruined and rendered unusable. Also, every single scientist must keep their research as a strict secret, least someone will still it and sell it to the competition (or something like that).

In reality, science is usually a collaborative team sport more often than not. Even if you are flying solo, you usually have mentors, collaborators and peers who help you review your shit. No one ever works in a complete void, and most scientific advancement is done by climbing the shoulders of giants that came before you. I can assure you that no one comes up with a design for a flux capacitor because they slipped and hit their head on the toilet seat. That’s actually the opposite of how it is usually done. Most of real science is simple incremental improvement. You gather up all the existing research done on a given subject, read it, grok it, identify flaws in the methodology of your predecessors and then try to improve upon what they did. If you succeed you publish your results in a peer reviewed journal. If you fail, you still might get your results published and people working on this problem in the future will know that your approach was clearly not the way to go. Every once in a while your contribution happens to have a lot of real world applications, or happens to disprove some established theory revolutionizing the field and then they give you a Nobel prize or something. But a stroke of genius is almost never necessary for advancement. Scientific geniuses exist, but they are simply able to grok things quicker, and perhaps see a few steps ahead as compared to the rest of us. But we can move forward without them.

MiB’s will steal your science

Let’s say you are a scientist and you have discovered a cure for cancer (you know, working alone from principles in your secluded lab, never telling anyone, yadda, yadda, yadda). One day you try to get it published, and the overlords of the Big Pharma cabal catch wind of your research. Next thing you know, bunch of military type dudes wearing black suits arrive at your lab in black unmarked vans, set all your research on fire and then shoot you in the head execution style while wearing reflective shades. After all, if the world only knew you have cured cancer they Pharmaceutical companies would loose millions of dollars in profits and they will stop at nothing to prevent that.

What happens in real life is nowhere near as dramatic or exciting. It’s actually quite boring and sad. If your research is deemed “unprofitable” or if it may rattle the cage and cause big changes on the market then chances are no one will want to fund it. You can safely publish your results in peer reviewed journals, and let the world know about it. The problem is that the world does not read scientific journals, and few people outside of your field care about results of some research study or the theory you have. The only way your research can affect the world, the economy and the industry is if someone actually develops it and brings it to the market. And that usually is a lengthy process that costs money.

So even if you develop a wonder-drug that cures AIDS, cancer and old age at the same time, you may never see it sold in a pharmacy, and you may never be allowed to treat people with it outside of clinical trials, unless some big company figures out how to make money on it, gets it through the mandatory FDA approval, bottles it up and ships it to retail chains.

G-men keep best science for themselves

While talking to people I found out that many believe that the government actually has access to better science than the private sector. There is this notion that there is regular puny science done academic researchers, and there is the secret super science done in classified governmental labs. No one really knows what is it that they are inventing in these hidden labs, because it is top secret. Only super-spies and military big-wigs have access to the ultra-science gizmos, magic cures and hack-into-everything devices.

This one is clearly influenced by spy novels, Hollywood action movies and popular conspiracy theories. Most people who believe this also do not rule out the possibility that there are working alien spaceships being reverse engineered at Area 51.

Actually, I wish this one was true. Then we could just all download all the super-science research and alien technology blueprints from Wikileaks.

Science is inherently dangerous

When you are doing science, there is like 80% chance that your research is going to backfire and lead to some world-wide pandemic, zombie apocalypse or both. If your doing anything even remotely related to genetics then that chance is more like 99.99%. The only way to avert the destruction of the world as we know it, is to stop doing all science altogether. What we have right now is perfectly acceptable, and doing any more science is basically like spitting in the face of god, and it needs to stop.

Most people who express those beliefs, do so while checking their Facebook on their iPhone, taking their antibiotics while eating a yoghurt with lab grown, genetically altered live cultures. Then they whine to me that their broadband internet connection is slow, and they can’t stream their movie with multi-million dollar cgi effects. But fuck science – what has science ever done for them. Nothing, that’s what.

What are your favorite science misconceptions?

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6 Responses to Common misconceptions about the nature of progress

  1. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Back in 2003-ish, about the time that the Pentium 4 CPU debuted (but all hardware nerds know that the AMD64 chips were loads better!), I remembered this guy I met talking about how the US government “already invented but will never release to people” CPUs that are like “Pentium 8″ already.

    I was too stunned to say anything. I just gave a polite nod.

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  2. StDoodle UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    There is some truth to the “government has better tech” side. Mostly in that the very bleeding edge is always super-expensive, and it tends to be only the largest organizations — such as a government — that can make use of it. But it’s more “governments are alpha testers” than “governments keep all of the best stuff for themselves.”

    One added point for the “MiB’s will steal your stuff” argument is that it’s very, very rare that someone will have an idea — whether for a drug, a new piece of technology, or whatever — that is highly conclusive in the design stage as to what it will accomplish. You kind of touch on this, but the thing to remember is that we rarely see “I’ve invented a cure for X,” and more often see “I’ve invented something that might, if this hunch is correct, cure X.” The “cancer cure is hidden” argument always bugs me. Sure, I can buy that some promising treatments may well have been ignored because they didn’t seem profitable. But cancer isn’t just a simple little thing that happens in one exact way, so all we need is something that counteracts that one problem. Each type of cancer is ridiculously complicated, never mind “cancer” as a whole. I think I have more “faith” in some elderly old dude in the sky caring about my every thought than I have in the idea that someone has come up with a way to cure every single type of cancer, in a way that’s self-evident from pure theory, without needing to do countless clinical trials, refinements, etc.

    But I kinda disagree on the “science isn’t dangerous” idea. Sure, a lot of the process as a whole is fairly mundane. But the very nature of cutting-edge, breakthrough science is that we don’t have a good grasp of how things work, what will happen to X when you do Y, etc. Looking at the history of science, many of the most memorable moments are not “yes, that worked exactly as I predicted,” but more along the lines of “huh, wouldn’t have thought THAT was what was going on.”

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  3. people in white lab-coats, mixing chemicals and screaming heureka if it doesn’t explode!

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Mart:

    LOL! Priceless.

    Dr. Azrael Tod wrote:

    There is some truth to the “government has better tech” side. Mostly in that the very bleeding edge is always super-expensive, and it tends to be only the largest organizations — such as a government — that can make use of it. But it’s more “governments are alpha testers” than “governments keep all of the best stuff for themselves.”

    Well said. Yes, they do have better tech – like space shuttles for example. Well, we had those I guess. But it works as an example.

    What people forget though is that a lot of these things are built by private contractors. The government funds the research and development but a lion share of it is done by civilians, and not in super-secret underground science bases in Area 51.

    StDoodle wrote:

    But cancer isn’t just a simple little thing that happens in one exact way, so all we need is something that counteracts that one problem. Each type of cancer is ridiculously complicated, never mind “cancer” as a whole. I think I have more “faith” in some elderly old dude in the sky caring about my every thought than I have in the idea that someone has come up with a way to cure every single type of cancer, in a way that’s self-evident from pure theory, without needing to do countless clinical trials, refinements, etc.

    Well, figuring out how to effectively combat cancer is one of the steps required for immortality. The cell aging (accomplished via shortening of the telomer regions each time a cell divides) is actually a built in cancer defense. Since cells have finite lifespan, the usually die before they accumulate enough DNA transcription errors to go cancerous. Cancer cells are basically cells in which that mechanism fails, and they have no built in kill switch. So if you make cells immortal, you essentially make them potentially cancerous at the same time. So we need mechanisms to control and correct DNA damage that make cells go rogue.

    So I think it is something we should be able to figure out within the next few decades but we just don’t have the means to do this yet.

    We just need to get over our hung ups about dangerous science, playing gods and etc.. :)

    StDoodle wrote:

    But I kinda disagree on the “science isn’t dangerous” idea. Sure, a lot of the process as a whole is fairly mundane. But the very nature of cutting-edge, breakthrough science is that we don’t have a good grasp of how things work, what will happen to X when you do Y, etc. Looking at the history of science, many of the most memorable moments are not “yes, that worked exactly as I predicted,” but more along the lines of “huh, wouldn’t have thought THAT was what was going on.”

    But that’s the beauty of it. I guess the main danger of scientific breakthroughs is that our first instinct is to weaponize them. But I think we sort of got a handle on that. I mean, we managed to avoid a nuclear war so far. While we absolutely love to murder each other over stupid shit, I think the cold war proves we can keep our fingers off the triggers on doomsday devices most of the time.

    I was talking about people’s fear of advancement inspired by Hollywood blockbuster logic. Like releasing genetically engineered tomato on the market causes a global zombie apocalypse. Or you write a pretty clever self improving AI program, and BOOM, three months later it goes all SKYNET on your ass.

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  5. Luke Maciak wrote:

    Dr. Azrael Tod wrote:

    There is some truth to the “government has better tech” side. Mostly in that the very bleeding edge is always super-expensive, and it tends to be only the largest organizations — such as a government — that can make use of it. But it’s more “governments are alpha testers” than “governments keep all of the best stuff for themselves.”

    Well said. Yes, they do have better tech – like space shuttles for example. Well, we had those I guess. But it works as an example.

    What people forget though is that a lot of these things are built by private contractors. The government funds the research and development but a lion share of it is done by civilians, and not in super-secret underground science bases in Area 51.

    i feel misquoted! ;-)

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    Whoops. I don’t know how the hell that happen. I guess the quote plugin got confused. lol

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