Archives For cynicism


Last time we took a look at what tech cynics and technophobes get wrong in their arguments, we focused on their lack of consideration for their fellow humans’ ability to exercise free will. Despite the fact that this is a huge hole in many of their arguments, there’s an even bigger problem with the dismissive stance they take towards science and technology. When they argue that we can’t feed all the hungry house all the homeless, or really prolong lifespans with technology, the facts they cite generally point not so much to technological limitations or scientific ignorance, but very convoluted social and political problems, then insist that because science and technology can’t solve them today, they likely never will, or won’t solve them adequately to consider the problem much smaller than it is today. While this argument is true, it’s also logically dishonest. You can’t fix the world’s problems with technology when the people who should be using it refuse to do so, or hijack it for their own less than noble means. No tool or piece of knowledge can help then.

As some of you might have noticed, the city in the graphic for this post in Dubai, a rich proving ground for how the cities of the near future are likely to be built. We know how to make cities of glass, steel, and concrete right out of science fiction. We know how to build the cheap, efficient housing complexes those making less than a dollar a day need to at least have secure shelter. We know how do diagnose complex diseases early enough to treat them before they’ll become dangerous, much less terminal, and our toolkits for understanding germs, viruses, and complex medical problems like cancers, are growing to become more sophisticated every day. We also have the tools and the money to apply all these solutions to the world at large. With something a little bit short of $100 billion just between Gates and Buffet pledged to fight poverty illiteracy, and disease, and when we can find $2 trillion laying around to help banks with a do-over, clearly, it’s not an issue of not having the technology, the scientific basis, or the cash. The issue is will.

Sure technological utopians have lofty ambitions and it’s valid to be skeptical of many of them, but when they vow that logistical problems can be solved with enough computing and research, they’re right more often than not. When the cynics deride these ambitions by pointing out that a lot of people don’t want to fund mass production of the necessary tools or the required science, and would much prefer to spend them on entertainment and public entitlements benefiting them directly, they’re not highlighting the problems with using technology to save the world, they’re a prime exhibit of why a technology hasn’t transformed the world of fixed a persistent problem. All too often it comes down to them saying it can’t be done, and politicians along with voters simply listening to them and deciding that no, it’s can’t be done since the critics said so, which is why it would be a waste of time to even bother. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, a social variation of Newton’s First Law: a society that insists on the status quo, sticks to the status quo unless an external event or constant pressure forces it to change.

It’s the same attitude which strangled the promising and much anticipated future of space travel and exploration, and we’re still stuck with it. Yes, not every retro-futuristic dream about space or living on other worlds was practical or even feasible and yes, we did need experts to burst our bubble before an unworkable project got off the ground. But today’s science and tech critics are going well past a healthy skepticism about bold claims and venturing into a territory in which they dismiss scientific and technological solutions to global problems for the sake of dismissing them, pointing to other ideas they dismissed in the past and doomed to being chained to the drawing board, and saying that because their relentless cynicism killed the ideas rather than refined the scopes and missions to eliminate problems with them, new ideas building on past visions must be scrapped as well. It’s even more insidious than political vetting of basic science, because vetting at least allows some projects to survive and get refined into new tools and ideas. The withering cynicism of what science and technology can do for us is like an anti-innovation WMD…

national ignition facility

Generally, I don’t like making two posts linking to the same source back to back, but in the case of the egregious wall of sophomoric bile vomited by Charles Seife, I’m going to let myself make a rare exception. As written here many times before, making fusion energy a viable power source is hard. Really, really hard. It involves very complicated high energy physics that we’re only now starting to understand. When the first ideas for commercial fusion plants were just germinating, we didn’t have the technology or the knowledge base to accurately map out the challenges and as a result, as the machines, computers, and research advance, we’re only now starting to get a more accurate picture of what it would take to make industrial fusion work. But if you listen to the fact free rants of Seife, the only people supporting the idea of viable fusion are cranks, nutjobs, or naive futurists divorced from reality, and every research project from ITER to the NIF is ran by idiots who have no idea what they’re doing and exist only to waste taxpayer money.

While I’d love to tackle scientific arguments as to why this is the case, Seife presents exactly no factual reasoning behind his obnoxious and snide dismissals. The only science we get is in his critique of cold fusion — which, of course, lured LENR cranks to the comments — before which he presents Martin Fleischmann of Fleischmann and Pons fame as a leading fusion researcher whose zeal for fusion fueled the rest of the field apparently populated by idiots and cranks who convince gullible politicians to waste billions on their pipe dreams. This is like naming a random cancer quack who achieved notoriety with a failed experiment and then arguing that all oncology and basic cancer research is being done by ignoramuses just like him. Not only is this a childish and incredibly ignorant thing to do, but this should’ve alerted Slate’s editors to tell Seife that his column isn’t going to be published unless he can actually get his facts together rather than fume about money and politics and call every researcher in the field incompetent in what reads like an insult comic’s act on amateur night with the punchlines left out of the final product.

If Seife wants to call all of fusion research crap, it’s certainly his right to do so. But as he does, it becomes apparent that his entire argument boils down to "if you can’t make this work right now, you’re all a waste of space and this whole idea is impossible." I suppose this is an easier stance to take than figuring out that fusion research has been funded with a fraction of a fraction of the pittance that governments force themselves to give to basic science or actually studying how all of the proposed confinement and ignition methods work, as well as why milestones are delayed as energy levels go up and reaction times increase. Why bother with any of that when you could just act like a political talk show pundit? Nature doesn’t give a damn about your dreams, hopes, guidelines, or budgets. Basic research like fusion has a solid theory behind it and no amount of foaming at the mouth about time and money is going to make the theory any less solid. Likewise, no amount of unwarranted insults is going to make scientists discover things any harder. If a pop science writer doesn’t understand that, he doesn’t understand how science works.

Probably one of the strangest critiques many popular science bloggers get when we talk about very advanced concepts which are still far too complex for us to test, isn’t from people who have a grudge against science or conspiracy theorists. Instead, they’re from people who say that some of the most radical ideas we have on the drawing board simply can’t be done. They say none of them will ever work, that they all sound too weird or too vague on details and even indulge in biting sarcasm to make sure we know just how little they think of those fantastical concepts. We can’t blame them for being skeptical, but skepticism is a two edged sword and being a skeptic doesn’t mean that anything outside everyday convention must be immediately waved off as absurd.

overflowing trashcan

History tells us that every time there was a groundbreaking idea, there were more than enough critics to call it nothing more than imagination run amuck. Everything from locomotives to airplanes to manned space flight was once dismissed with sarcasm and strong words. Of course history also tells us that out of the many out- of-the-mainstream ideas really were ridiculous and the number of failed attempts at changing a paradigm in the world of science and technology vastly outnumber successful ones. So how do we tell a good idea from a bad one when it comes to things like warp drives, searching for alien life and building space planes? We do the same thing scientists do with all hypothetical concepts. We test them and see if they work, or at least have the potential to work in the future.

Keep that in mind when you come across an idea that might sound strange to you. Just because it sounds a little off at first, doesn’t mean it’s wrong or it will never work. If it makes predictions you can test at some point in the future, wait until it’s put to the test. Running around and declaring what works and what doesn’t without doing the proper investigation doesn’t make you a skeptic. It makes you a cynic who’s approach to new ideas hinders innovation and hobbles scientific discovery. When such cynics decide how universities and research labs will work and grants are allocated only to those whose research sounds straightforward and intuitive in a meeting, they effectively put a lid on truly creative and amazing research. Maybe it will fail spectacularly, maybe we’ll get a unified theory of everything by the time it’s done, we don’t know. We just have to put new ideas to the test and see how they’ll work. That’s the nature of science.