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Is science too speedy nowadays?

August 17, 2012

An interesting, thought provoking little piece over on The Boreal Beetle blog on whether science nowadays is too fast – its thinking too shallow to gain really satisfying insights and answers, as was the case for Darwin and Mendel. Why is this so? Well, funding bodies and institutes urging for more output in higher ranking journals. (Should that not mean that the thoughts in the papers are deeper though?? Or are the higher impact journals not really publishing the biggest insights? Ive heard they also tend to retract more papers which hints at shallower/plain wrong thinking/manipulation. Another thing Ive heard is that the papers in higher ranked journals arent always based on the best data…what does that say I wonder…)

The Boreal Beetle also pulls Darwin and Mendel into the present research atmosphere and imagines, very briefly, what it might be like them. Basically – they couldnt have done what they did if they were working today.

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  1. It’s not that thinking is too shallow (well, if you’re not a Red Stater by location or inclination), it’s that the unknowns of the natural (real) world are fewer and further between. Ph.D. candidates have to find ever smaller pin heads to study. And that was already true back in the 70’s when I was in grad school. What “science” should be addressing is the population tsunami and the attendant impact on all of our lives. Most folks don’t realize, in an immediate effects sort of way, that the USofA has twice as many bipeds as it did in 1950.

    The Red State, back to the 19th century crowd, actively attempt to persuade the rest of us that all was better then, *and we should conduct the country’s business* as if 2010 ecology (broadly defined) is the same as 1850. Go to Kentucky to see ancestors coexisting with dinosaurs.

    An economist, Robert J. Gordon, has studied economic growth, and reached the obvious conclusion: the 19th century found out much of what there is to find. This quote is from his wiki entry:

    In addition, Gordon has written for economic journals, outlining the relation of the productivity growth of modern day inventions to the great inventions of the late 19th century. He focuses on the impact of computers in the post-1995 economy on the durable manufacturing sector. Furthermore, he emphasises the marginal productivity of computing technology affects standard of living in a much more contained fashion than the earlier great American inventions.[1][2] He downplays the role of computer technology in the economic growth of the latter 20th century in accounting for business cycle and trends. In addition, he also questions the actual productivity of such technological developments.

    So, the problems that need solving are demographic and political. Finding Higgs won’t matter a damn if we intercourse our way through our food supply. Malthus was wrong only because 1) he didn’t know enough about the New World to know about our great plains soils, 2) petroleum, and 3) their attendant chemical fertilizers. Now, we ain’t got a New World to provide basic raw resources, we ain’t got a new petroleum, and we ain’t got abundant synthetic fertilizers.

    • Certainly. I think I was more getting at that granting bodies want results fast, which makes it very difficult to do some of the more long term stuff that might allow us to address slightly bigger questions, of which there are still some about. I dont know that the unknowns are fewer and further between as such, theyre just harder to get at now, because the easy questions are answered. I totally agree that we need to address the population/land space/food issues and related management implications though (from which ever angle, probably a mixture).

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