Low-hanging fruit

Science was, within living memory, a fertile area of genuine discovery. Even during the period after World War 2, the low-hanging fruit had not all been picked, but gradually, step by step, it has.

That wouldn’t matter too much if the science myth was actually true and scientists do science for the love of it – but they don’t. We don’t do anything without some kind of gain – it’s how we are made. Once upon a time that gain was certainly the chance of making a discovery, but where do we go now?

It seems to me that huge numbers of scientists must know perfectly well that the chance of making a major scientific discovery is slight. So the game has to change – and it has.

Career progression, departmental budget, numbers of students, research grants, publications, conferences, academic awards, international travel and pension provisions. These were always important, but for many ambitious scientists of sub-genius ability they are all that is on offer.

The science itself, the discoveries and new developments are still with us, but all they generally do is to feed incremental changes into the corpus of scientific knowledge. They are not likely to be major game-changers.

Opportunities vary of course from science to science. Particularly between sciences where there is an end product, such as the material sciences, and those where there is generally no end product, such as the social or environmental sciences.

This in my view gives rise to science as a business where the main attraction cannot be the scientific ethos, but has to be business or career prospects. Ambitious scientists aren’t fools – they know how unlikely major discoveries are, how a career is the only ambition worth pursuing.

Science is well down the road to becoming just another profession where punters need to be on their guard against loaded advice. Passive smoking and anti-alcohol propaganda come to mind here. Ethical scientists who don’t actually make anything may have little left to give apart from an education.

The science myth is going the way of most myths, but as yet we still seem to be closing our eyes to it. Many seem to think that scientific purity is a permanent feature of our intellectual firmament and scientific prestige is secure.

Even though climate scientists sold their prestige years ago.

24 comments for “Low-hanging fruit

  1. January 6, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Science is well down the road to becoming just another profession where punters need to be on their guard against loaded advice. Passive smoking and anti-alcohol propaganda come to mind here. Ethical scientists who don’t actually make anything may have little left to give apart from an education.

    The ethical ones are going to have to begin their rearguard action soon.

    • January 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm

      I think it’s too late. Look at climate science.

  2. January 6, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Interesting. But studies in biology and ecology still have much to yield, don’t they? And I don’t think cosmology is sorted yet.

    • January 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm

      Still lots to do, but it is far more difficult to make a big contribution than it was a few decades back. I don’t see how it can improve either.

      Dogma beckons.

      • Voice of Reason
        January 7, 2013 at 1:27 am

        There are incredible discoveries in neuro-science and fascinating inter-disciplinary work in biology, among other fields.

  3. ivan
    January 6, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    First question, are the social or environmental sciences real science or are they just being trick cyclists?

    As for real science, it has been hijacked by those I call ‘the keepers of the faith’, such that anyone that questions things like relativity are shouted down when, in fact, they should be encouraged to test their ideas – anyone for cold fusion?

    In fact, if scientists took off the straight jacket of conformity and started asking ‘what if’ we should see progress again. The only problem with that is ‘the keepers of the faith’ also hold the purse strings and therefore nothing that challenges their orthodoxy will get funding.

    • January 6, 2013 at 6:55 pm

      Spot on – couldn’t agree more.

    • Voice of Reason
      January 8, 2013 at 6:20 pm

      Cold fusion was looked at, and turned our to be awful science, if not fraudulent. As I recall, the Japanese invested a huge amount to find that out, even though it was clearly wrong.

      As for relativity, it’s being tested on a regular basis.

  4. January 6, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    I’m with Sackers.

    These clever CERN chaps with their massive budgets do make all sorts of fascinating discoveries (admittedly of no relevance or interest to the common man, but good stuff nonetheless).

    But the chip and computer makers march ever onwards, and where they are still discovering stuff is in agriculture and medicine. To be fair, agriculture has been taken over by Big GM, and most medicines are paid for by the taxpayer, so there is rent seeking involved, but I still think we are far from having discovered everything useful yet.

    • January 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm

      I think there is lots more to discover, but it mostly seems to be incremental improvements to what we already know. What comes after the LHC at CERN?

  5. January 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Why Most Published Research Findings Are False


    • January 6, 2013 at 6:59 pm

      Yes – sobering and not widely known.

  6. Greg Tingey
    January 6, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    And what field has the terminally-ignorant writer of this load of tosh got qualifications in, if any?
    Obviously not Physics, Electronics, any of the areas of “Biology” or Neurophysiology …..

    I refer you to a report very early this year of “negative temperatures” on the Absolute scale – if measured thermodynamically, that is, rather then with a “conventional” thermometer.
    It’s all to do with the energy-distibution of the specific atoms of the specimen under study.
    A new possibilty from QM.
    Like the laser in 1960, it’s a solution looking for problems to solve, but it is really intersting & very different.
    Advances in microelectronics continue as does work on conversion of light energy to other forms – I know this is a combination of real research & a lot of industrial development, but real work still has to be done.
    The advances in the understanding of how parts of the brain(s) of mammals, including us, is also making considerable progress.
    The wildly optimistic (or pessimistic according to some who fear that they might be correct) are suggesting a form opf reverse-engineered AI by 2030.
    And science is NOT advancing?
    What utter, lying bollocks.

    & Jeremy Poynton.
    The article also says … “and correctible & usuallly corrected”. (effectively)
    But you deliberately left those conclusion out didn’t you.
    Are you a cretinist, by any chance? [ Oops, that should have been: “Creationist” ]
    The well-known technique of “quote mining” is one of these liars standard tactics.

    • January 7, 2013 at 7:21 pm

      “And science is NOT advancing?”

      You’ll have to show me where I said that – I can’t quite see it.

    • Voice of Reason
      January 9, 2013 at 3:26 am

      I agree. How much mathematics, or physics, is ‘wrong’?

      • Greg Tingey
        January 9, 2013 at 8:54 am

        Very very little.

        Of mathematics, I would guess less than 0.01%, maybe even lower, because of the contruct of proof required in that field.
        In Physics, I would guess less than 1%, and those results are “around the edges, but, in this filed, that’s where it matters.
        There is one “wrong” result that has been known for over 60 years now, which is still unresolved.
        QM works, very well, it is the most accurate theory [ = underlying physical explanation, & != “an untested idea” ] we have.
        So does General Ralativity.
        Unfortunately, where those two meet, there is a horrible mismatch … I can’t now remember if it is 26 or 23 orders of magnitude – LARGE, anyway.
        Yet both work perfectly.
        Now what?
        Instant Nobel for whoever comes up with the explanation & reconciliation for that one ….

  7. Mudplugger
    January 6, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    But just as our knowledge is finite, our ignorance is infinite.

    It’s the ‘unknown unknowns’ as Donald Rumsfelt once put it.

    But does there now need to be a commercial motive to go looking for them ?

    • Greg Tingey
      January 7, 2013 at 8:55 am

      But there never was, was there?
      What “use” was Einstain’s understanding of the photoelectric effect (which is what got him the Nobel Prize) anyway?
      But we use it an awful lot now ….
      What “use” was Quantum Mechanics back in the period strating on 14/12/1900 until at least the mid-1930’s ??
      But there is/are QM-sependant devices inside all of our coputers, are there not?

      There is nothing in the world more valuable than abstract physical knowledge. Proven time & time again.

  8. Able
    January 7, 2013 at 6:36 am

    Interesting, but science has always been thus. The rare ‘genius’ who ‘discovers’ a paradigm shifting ‘explanation’ followed by years of patient, incremental expansion on that new knowledge.

    Similarly science has always been a business with status, renown or monetary rewards (you think Newton or Einstein did their work out of the goodness of their hearts? No, they did something they enjoyed and were good at whilst expecting some acclaim and recompense, no more nor less than a plumber or playwright).

    The fact that recently there are new ‘constraints’ on what is investigated is reminiscent of the controls the church exercised in the past and so pertinent. Now we have the ‘Church of the Politically Correct’ with gatekeepers to prevent any ‘heretical’ facts coming to light or even being developed. Controlling the research budgets, grants and even access to the alleged centres of learning. Compare and contrast how any scientist who questions AGW with excommunication for heresy and you’ll see more similarities than not.

    The main issue for me is that whilst ‘pseudo-science’ has been here for centuries (Snake oil salesman for example) the average man/woman in the street has such a poor opinion of real science because they have been gulled so many times in the past. Why? Has the charlatan become more convincing and their presentation more complex – no! it’s because the average man/woman now has even less basic understanding due to the abysmal standards of ‘education’ today (not to mention less common sense and responsibility).

    The reduction in ‘morality’ and ‘honesty’ in science is nothing more than a reflection of the same throughout society in general (look at the actions of everyone from politicians, footballers, bankers, permanent unemployed, etc., etc.).

    The truth is I think our whole society is in it’s death throws (the parallels with the fall of the Roman Empire are frightening in their similarity). The solution? I have absolutely no idea!

    Cogito Ego Doleo

  9. Greg Tingey
    January 7, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Bollocks to your later conclusions.

    Look GW IS REAL.

    What IS a scam is the response of guvmints to use it as a money-making exercise, rather than actuially, you know, DOING anything about the real problem.
    That is the utter disgrace of the situation.

  10. Will
    January 7, 2013 at 9:37 am

    People have been saying this forever: http://amasci.com/weird/end.html It’s codswallop.

    Obviously, the fruit to be picked is further up the tree than it used to be, but then the tools for doing science are much better than they used to be. Look at medical science or pharmacology for goodness sake – it’s a ridiculously primitive process of thrashing about with wild guesses and massive automation of crude chemistry used as a desperate substitute for deep understanding. In time, that understanding will come, and our successors will laugh at today’s muddling. It won’t come by sitting-under-the-apple-tree apocrypha, but by chipping away at the bits we don’t know and gradually improving the picture.

    A lot of the really ‘big’ discoveries (earth goes around the sun, etc) took *hundreds* or *thousands* of years to be firmed-up to the point where they could be universally accepted.

    “There’s no more science” is one of those depressing things that people say in a certain mood or a certain stage of their lives. Hopefully young, ambitious people use it only to reinforce their sense that their elders should be ignored wherever possible.

    • January 7, 2013 at 7:24 pm

      “There’s no more science” is one of those depressing things that people say in a certain mood ”

      Maybe so, but that’s not what I wrote.

  11. Greg Tingey
    January 7, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    Will – or when they are ignorant or stupid.
    I wonder if AKH has any qualifications at allbeyond O-level moaning?
    I think we should be told!

  12. Greg Tingey
    January 9, 2013 at 8:56 am

    No answer to my question.

    DOES AKH have any science qualifications, even GCSE general scisnce?

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