Scientific Regress: When Science Goes Backward

11-15-AirFranceConcorde John Horgan in Scientific American:

To celebrate the ends of years, decades and other milestones, science publications often churn out “Whither science?” predictions. Just last week, The New York Times Science Times section celebrated its, um, 32nd birthday with a special issue on “What's next in science”. What I found fascinating was the issue's overall tone of caution rather than the traditional boosterish enthusiasm.

Gina Kolata recalled a job interview 25 years ago with U.S. News and World Report, an editor of which asked her, “What will be important medical news next year?” Kolata replied that “next year gene therapy will be shown to work.” Gene therapy, of course, has been a big bust. Kolata goes on to say that the best answer to “Whither science?” is to expect the unexpected. (Fortunately for her, Kolata didn't get the job with what a mean friend of mine liked to call “U.S. Snooze and World Distort,” the print version of which just died after years of terminal illness.)

My favorite answer to the Science Times “What's next?” query was James Gorman's list of things that scientists won't accomplish. They won't find ET or the ivory-billed woodpecker, clone Neandertals, download our psyches into computers, and so on.

If the Times had asked me to chime in, I would have pointed out areas of science, technology and medicine that are regressing. I don't mean what the philosopher Imre Lakatos referred to as a “degenerating research program,” which produces diminishing returns. That's merely declining progress. I mean fields of research that actually go backward, as measured by some specific benchmark.

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