what’s holding back modern science and technology

Two afflictions shared by a majority of the public are dragging down our advancements as a civilization and a species.

lost astronaut

In the interest of full disclosure and not to pull a Lehrer on you, you should know that today’s posts was originally a comment I left on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog prompted by a discussion about the end of the shuttle program and why NASA didn’t get a chance to have another vehicle waiting to take its astronauts into orbit as soon as the last shuttle was grounded. Since then, I’ve tried to rephrase and expend it, but since I managed to say exactly what was on my mind, exactly how I wanted to say it, all the rewritten drafts just seemed to fall short for me and the text of the comment just kept on coming up. So instead of trying to rewrite my thoughts on why research, development, and exploration have been suffering lately, I’ll simply make them into a post with a few additions and the relevant backstory on their origins as comments for Phil’s readers.

Humans can do amazing things when they’re motivated to do them, but they’re also prone to resting on their laurels and slacking off. The powers that be now are afflicted with two conditions that are nearly fatal to any scientific endeavor; the WIIFM disorder and the GE syndrome. These conditions are not on any diagnostic manual, but they should be, especially when it comes to public discussions about the future of science and technology in the United States.

WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) disorder manifests itself as the inability to evaluate the promise of a future venture outside one’s immediate concerns and desires and results in willful ignorance of what scientific research and exploration delivers. Example: people arguing that they don’t care to spend any money of space flight because they need jobs while negating to reason that by investing in space exploration and commercializing its applications will create the jobs they want. Combined with political demagoguery which casts the civilian government’s involvement in anything other than propping up banks on demand as being just one step short of summoning Satan from the fiery pits of Hell, this leads to a dearth of both funding and interest in scientific exploration, as well as lack of concern for the long term effects of this neglect.

The GE (Good Enough) syndrome is a chronic unwillingness to reach above everyday, mundane mediocrity to try and do something great. Those suffering from it are worried about just living out their lives as uneventfully and stably as possible, taking their chronic boredom with the way things are as “the way things are supposed to be” and lashing out at those who want to try, to dream, and to pursue something new and something great, calling them careless, wasteful dreamers who are missing sight what’s really important: to be just as complacent and bored as they are. Hey, it was good enough for their parents, it’s good enough for them, and by FMS’s left meatball, it should be for you too.

We’re not in danger of giving up on space because we suddenly won’t be able to reach it again or develop the technology that lets us explore far and wide. But we are facing a very real threat of one day taking the final step into space because those who were selfish and apathetic shut down space agencies while insisting that keeping their cubicles or paying their electric bill is far more important than humanity’s future. Only when we try to set goals other than “make lots of money,” or “make sure Timmy gets As in school so he can make lots of money too,” or “do what I think an invisible man in the sky who so happens to agree with my every opinion telepathically told me,” are we going to see renewed public interest in, and funding of, space exploration and bleeding edge science and technology.

The money, jobs, stability, and other benefits will follow when we invest in our long-term future after realigning our priorities and try to follow our aspirations. I really hope we’re seeing a generational thing on its way out because when I’m an old geezer, I’d like to see more and more mad scientists trying bizarre new things in their labs and help them out with something crazy I was able to build after getting the funds to do some serious curiosity-driven, hypothesis-generating experiments of my own. What makes humanity great was its penchant for exploration and its innate curiosity. Even as kids we want to touch everything, know everything, and see everything. And today, we’re beating these winning traits that made modern civilization possible out of them and praising this as a “return to the important basics in a tough time” rather than recognizing this as a triumph of those with no vision and mundanely vain ambitions over the dreamers whose work can not only create new jobs and careers, but advance humanity. That’s both very scary and very sad, and the WIIFM/GE attitudes simply cannot be allowed to dominate the public forum without a serious challenge.

# politics // realpolitik / scientific research

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