Why modern science has largely been a disappointment

People seem disillusioned with many things, including love, religion, spectator sports and cinema, but not science. If asked what people excel at, they would all say ‘science’. Other areas of extraordinary human performance, such as athletics, are also attributed to ‘advances’ in science.

At first glance, the science is impressive. It shows us spectacular images of galaxies; It claims to have photographed black holes, and claims to know the origin of mass, and proof that gravity is a wave. And it is very difficult for sick people to die, because there is some magic medicine or a wonderful medical procedure. The word ‘scientist’ continues to evoke reverence and gratitude. They add ‘quantum’ to something and we grant that it must be important. And they need to prefix their profession with ‘neuro’ and they can say anything about the brain even if they know what they’re talking about.

Despite all this brilliance, science has been disappointing. It is disappointing in its contribution to our understanding of the quality of our lives, physical reality, and the nature of consciousness. The healthier you are, the more frustrating it is.

It is not easy to argue. When I say science is ‘disappointing’, what does that have to do with it? Science has fared better than most other professions. Take two of mine – Journalism and Literary Fiction. Both are damaged. They have lost prestige and relevance. Middlebrow fiction survives because of streaming, which is a technological development, not an artistic one. Yes, science in 2022 isn’t as exciting as science fiction predicts, but we shouldn’t hold science accountable to the imaginations of writers. However, good-natured science fiction has been more prophetic than political dystopian stories, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, or the works of George Orwell, who got almost everything wrong, as he was probably inspired by the tuberculosis-induced gloom that depressed generations. Intellectuals have misunderstood political analysis.

So, science is hopeless compared to what? Science is disappointing compared to its reputation.

Consider knee replacement surgery. The knee is a simple joint. When bones break down, as they do in older people, some parts are replaced with plastic or metal. Hospitals advertise that people who undergo this procedure receive new knees. But the fact is that they hobble less after replacement. It’s not like an old man suddenly starts running after having his knee “replaced.” Even in fixing a simple joint like the knee, the medical field is far from mimicking the natural human body’s strength.

Modern medicine does not rejuvenate. It does not prolong life; It prolongs death. It may seem that science has helped people live longer; But the reality is that people just die later. Most older people have a poor quality of life for decades before they are finally allowed to go. I don’t know about you, but all this is not enough for me. According to current science, my knee has only three decades left to run. After that, I expect an old man to accept a poor quality of life and a generally pointless existence. You could argue that an amazing invention within three decades would help me run forever, but the science is so bad at actual rejuvenation that I’m very concerned.

Also, science cannot provide clear answers to many simple questions. For example, is it good or bad to fast while having a viral injection? Science does not know the answer to any practical question about fitness. The search for clarity will travel through camps and cartels, all of which claim different conclusions based on the “scientific process.”

Also, our understanding of the nature of reality has not changed significantly in the last hundred years since the Copenhagen interpretation formalized the ideas of quantum mechanics, despite billions of dollars of investment in large hadron colliders and the discovery of many particles. Many outlandish things in science are more predictable than people imagine. Even our understanding of the universe, dimensions and time has not changed much over the decades. Popular science has its cues.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar talks about the same cute sexy science that Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, published in 1980, mentioned in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, published in 1988. It would be absurd to say that no progress has been made in this area. The past 50 years, and I do not recommend it at all. But I would say that the progress is really modest. For example, the James Webb Telescope, launched last year, takes clearer pictures of the galaxy than Hubble, which was launched in 1990, but the Webb Telescope is not the transformative machine of Hubble, which came three decades later. Even commercial air travel has not gotten faster in the last 60 years. In fact, if we consider the demise of Concorde, air travel for the wealthy has slowed down.

You could argue that the Concorde failure indicates that we haven’t made progress in science; It’s just that those successes have yet to make business sense. Also, the modern tech industry has products that it cannot market for ethical reasons – such as some forms of genetic engineering. But there are very few transformative technologies that are held back for commercial or ethical reasons. Usually, we don’t have things because we don’t know how to make them.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist and producer of the Netflix series ‘Decoupled’.

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