The Diminishing Prospects of Science after Peak Oil

Excerpted from John Michael Greer:

“The core problem is that scientific research was necessary, but not sufficient, to create today’s industrial societies. Cheap abundant energy was also necessary, and was arguably the key factor. In a very real sense, the role of science from the middle years of the nineteenth century on was basically figuring out new ways to use the torrents of energy that came surging out of wells and mines to power history’s most extravagant boom. Lacking all that energy, the technological revolutions of the last few centuries very likely wouldn’t have happened at all; the steam turbine, remember, was known to the Romans, who did nothing with it because all the fuel they knew about was committed to other uses. Since the sources of fuel we’ll have after fossil fuels finish depleting are pretty much the same as the ones the Romans had, and we can also expect plenty of pressing needs for the energy sources that remain, it takes an essentially religious faith in the inevitability of progress to believe that another wave of technological innovation is right around the corner.

The end of the age of cheap abundant energy is thus also likely to be the end of the age in which science functions as a force for economic expansion. There are at least two other factors pointing in the same direction, though, and they need to be grasped to make sense of the predicament we’re in.

First, science itself is well into the territory of diminishing returns, and most of the way through the normal life cycle of a human method of investigation. What I’ve described elsewhere as abstraction, the form of intellectual activity that seeks to reduce the complexity of experience into a set of precisely formulated generalizations, always depends on such a method. Classical logic is another example, and it’s particularly useful here because it completed its life cycle long ago and so can be studied along its whole trajectory through time.

Logic, like the scientific method, was originally the creation of a movement of urban intellectuals in a society emerging from a long and troubled medieval period. Around the eighth century BCE, ancient Greece had finally worked out a stable human ecology that enabled it to finish recovering from the collapse of Mycenean society some six centuries before; olive and grapevine cultivation stabilized what was left of the fragile Greek soil and produced cash crops eagerly sought by markets around the eastern Mediterranean, bringing in a flood of wealth; the parallel with rapidly expanding European economies during the years when modern science first took shape is probably not coincidental. Initial ventures in the direction of what would become Greek logic explored various options, some more successful than others; by the fifth century BCE, what we may as well call the logical revolution was under way, and the supreme triumphs of logical method occupied the century that followed. Arithmetic, geometry, music theory, and astronomy underwent revolutionary developments.

That’s roughly where the logical revolution ground to a halt, too, and the next dozen centuries or so saw little further progress. There were social factors at work, to be sure, but the most important factor was inherent in the method: using the principles of logic as the Greeks understood them, there’s only so far you can go. Logical methods that had proved overwhelmingly successful against longstanding problems in mathematics worked far less well on questions about the natural world, and efforts to solve the problems of human life as though they were logical syllogisms tended to flop messily. Once the belief in the omnipotence of logic was punctured, on the other hand, it became possible to sort out what it could and couldn’t do, and-not coincidentally-to assign it a core place in the educational curriculum, a place it kept right up until the dawn of the modern world.

I know it’s utter heresy even to hint at this, but I’d like to suggest that science, like logic before it, has gotten pretty close to its natural limits as a method of knowledge. In Darwin’s time, a century and a half ago, it was still possible to make worldshaking scientific discoveries with equipment that would be considered hopelessly inadequate for a middle school classroom nowadays; there was still a lot of low hanging fruit to be picked off the tree of knowledge. At this point, by contrast, the next round of experimental advances in particle physics depends on the Large Hadron Collider, a European project with an estimated total price tag around $5.5 billion. Many other branches of science have reached the point at which very small advances in knowledge are being made with very large investments of money, labor, and computing power. Doubtless there will still be surprises in store, but revolutionary discoveries are very few and far between these days

Yet there’s another factor pressing against the potential advancement of science, and it’s one that very few scientists like to talk about. When science was drawn up into the heady realms of politics and business, it became vulnerable to the standard vices of those realms, and one of the consequences has been a great deal of overt scientific fraud.

A study last year published in the Journal of Medical Ethics surveyed papers formally retracted between 2000 and 2010 in the health sciences. About a quarter of them were retracted for scientific fraud, and half of these had a first author who had had another paper previously retracted for scientific fraud. Coauthors of these repeat offenders had, on average, three other papers each that had been retracted. Americans, it may be worth noting, far more often had papers retracted for fraud, and were repeat offenders, than their overseas colleagues.

I don’t know how many of my readers were taught, as I was, that science is inherently self-policing and that any researcher who stooped to faking data would inevitably doom his career. Claims like these are difficult to defend in the face of numbers of the sort just cited. Logic went through the same sort of moral collapse in its time; the English word “sophistry” commemorates the expert debaters of fourth-century Greece who could and did argue with sparkling logic for anyone who would pay them.”

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