Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Salvaging Science

Last week’s post on the collapse of American education strayed a certain distance from the core theme of the present series of posts, the reinvention of a “green wizardry” based on methods and technologies tried and proven during the energy crises of the Seventies. There’s a purpose to the divagation, since what’s being discussed here is an educational project in the broad sense of the term, and one that has no real chance of being embraced by the established educational institutions of American society.

Mind you, it’s quite possible that a university here or a community college there might make itself useful in one way or another. Once it becomes impossible to ignore the mismatch between the energy resources available to Americans and the habits of extravagant energy use that have grown up in this country over the last three decades, new college programs to train alternative energy professionals will no doubt pop up like mushrooms after a hard spring rain, competing with the handful of such programs that already exist fto attract an expected torrent of students. Some of these future programs may even be worth the time, though with the current trajectory of college expenses, it would amaze me if any turn out to be worth the cost.

They’ll probably get the students, though. It’s hardwired into the American psyche these days that a problem for one person is a business opportunity for someone else, and preferably someone else with the right degree. Books with titles such as Profit from the Peak are already festooning bookstore and library shelves, and there will doubtless be much more of the same thinking on display as peak oil continues its journey from a fringe concern to an inescapable reality. That’s the American mindset as the 21st century moves deeper into its first great period of crisis; if scientists were to announce tomorrow that America was about to sink beneath the waves like Atlantis, I don’t doubt for a moment that tens of thousands of Americans would rush out and try to launch new careers manufacturing and selling water wings.

The green wizardry I’ve been discussing in these posts doesn’t lend itself to that sort of thinking, because it’s not intended for specialists. Now of course it will help a few careers along—unless you’re a dab hand with plumbing, for example, you’re better off getting a professional to install your solar water heating system—and it may get some started—I’ve spoken several times already about the range of small businesses that will be needed as the global economy winds down and maintaining, rebuilding, and repurposing old technologies becomes a significant economic sector. Still, most of the techniques and strategies I’ve been discussing aren’t well suited to make money for some new wave of specialists; their value is in making life more livable for ordinary people who hope to get by in the difficult times that are gathering around us right now.

It’s worth noting, in fact, that the twilight of the contemporary cult of specialization is one of the implications of peak oil. A couple of decades ago, the mathematician Ilya Prigogine showed by way of dizzyingly complex equations that the flow of energy through a system tends to increase the complexity of the system over time. It’s a principle that’s seen plenty of application in biology, among other fields, but I don’t think it’s been applied to history as often as it should have. There does seem to be a broad positive correlation between the energy per capita available, on average, to the members of a human society, and the number of different occupational roles available to members of that society.

As energy per capita soared to its peak in the industrial world of the late twentieth century, hyperspecialization was the order of the day; as energy per capita declines—and it’s been declining for some time now—the range of specializations that can be supported by the economy will also decline, and individuals and families will have to take up the slack, taking over tasks that for some decades now have been done by professionals. During the transitional period, at least, this will doubtless generate a great deal of commotion, as professional specialists whose jobs are going away try to defend their jobs by making life as difficult as possible for those people who, trying to get by in difficult times, choose the do-it-yourself route. That process is already well under way in a variety of professions, and we’ll be discussing a particularly visible example of it in next week’s post, but this week I want to use this lens to examine the future of one of the industrial world’s distinctive creations, the grab bag of investigative methods, ideas about the universe, and social institutions we call “science.”

It’s rarely remembered these days that until quite recently, scientific research was mostly carried on by amateurs. The word “scientist” wasn’t even coined until 1833; before then, and for some time after, the research programs that set modern science on its way were carried out by university professors in other disciplines, middle class individuals with spare time on their hands, and wealthy dilletantes for whom science was a more interesting hobby than horse racing or politics. Isaac Newton, for example, taught mathematics at Cambridge; Gilbert White founded the science of ecology with his Natural History of Selborne in his spare time as a clergyman; Charles Darwin came from a family with a share of the Wedgwood pottery fortune, had a clergyman’s education, and paid his own way around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle.

It took a long time for scence as a profession to catch on, because—pace a myth very widespread these days—science contributed next to nothing to the technological revolutions that swept the western world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Until late in the nineteenth century, in fact, things generally worked the other way around: engineers and basement tinkerers discovered some exotic new effect, and then scientists scrambled to figure out what made it happen. James Clerk Maxwell, whose 1873 book Electricity and Magnetism finally got out ahead of the engineers to postulate the effects that would become the basis for radio, began the process by which science took the lead in technological innovation, but it wasn’t until the Second World War that science had matured enough to become the engine of discovery it then became. It was then that government and business investment in basic research took off, creating the institutionalized science of the present day.

Throughout the twentieth century, investment in scientific research proved to be a winning bet on the grand scale; it won wars, made fortunes, and laid the groundwork for today’s high-tech world. It’s a common belief these days that more of the same will yield more of the same—that more scentific research will make it possible to fix the world’s energy problems and, just maybe, its other problems as well. Popular as that view is, there’s good reason to doubt it.

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 last week’s post described 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.

To be fair, scientists as a class would have needed superhuman virtue to overcome the temptations of wealth, status, and influence proffered them in the post-Second World War environment, and it’s also arguably true that the average morality of scientists well exceeds that of businesspeople or politicians. That still leaves room for a good deal of duplicity, and it’s worth noting that this has not escaped the attention of the general public. It’s an item of common knowledge these days that the court testimony or the political endorsement of a qualified scientist, supporting any view you care to name, can be had for the cost of a research grant or two. I’m convinced that this is the hidden subtext in the spreading popular distrust of science that is such a significant feature in our public life: a great many Americans, in particular, have come to see scientific claims as simply one more rhetorical weapon brandished by competing factions in the social and political struggles of our day.

This is unfortunate, because—like logic—the scientific method is a powerful resource; like logic, again, there are things it can do better than any other creation of the human mind, and some of those things will be needed badly in the years ahead of us. Between the dumping of excess specializations in a contracting economy, the diminishing returns of scientific research itself, and the spreading popular distrust of science as currently practiced, the likelihood that any significant fraction of today’s institutional science will squeeze through the hard times ahead is minimal at best. What that leaves, it seems to me, is a return to the original roots of science as an amateur pursuit.

There are still some corners of the sciences—typically those where there isn’t much money in play—that are open to participation by amateurs. There are also quite a few branches of scientific work that are scarcely being done at all these days—again, because there isn’t much money in play—and their number is likely to increase as funding cuts continue. To my mind, one of the places where these trends intersect with the needs of the future is in local natural history and ecology, the kind of close study of nature’s patterns that launched the environmental sciences, back in the day. To cite an example very nearly at random, it would take little more than a microscope, a notebook, and a camera to do some very precise studies of the effect of organic gardening methods on soil microorganisms, beneficial and harmful insects, and crop yields, or to settle once and for all the much-debated question of whether adding biochar to garden soil has any benefits in temperate climates.

These are things the green wizards of the future are going to need to be able to figure out. With much scientific research in America moving in what looks uncomfortably like a death spiral, the only way those skills are likely to make it across the crisis ahead of us is if individuals and local groups pick them up and pass them on to others. Now is probably not too soon to get started, either.


Avery said...

There's no easily available list of when today's energy sources were invented, but a partial list is very interesting:

Oil wells: Medieval, predating the Industrial Revolution.

Shale extraction: Medieval, ditto.

Hydroelectricity: 18th century, first attached to electricity grid in 1880s. Generates large amounts of electricity from damming.

Wind turbine: 19th century, first attached to electricity grid in 1940s and 1950s. Generates small amounts of energy from the wind. Also reduces bird populations.

Offshore drilling: Today's form was perfected in 1947 by BP. Extracts large amounts of oil with the occasional environmental disaster.

Fracking: 1950s, Halliburton. Extracts large amounts of natural gas at immense environmental cost.

Solar energy: Today's form was invented in 1954, by Pearson, Fuller, and Chapin. This is essentially a toy, that's cool to look at and can power calculators and simple clocks, but is not a feasible way to meet the energy demands created by oil.

Nuclear energy: 1950s, government project with mass investment. Generates mass amounts of electricity with the occasional environmental disaster. For some reason it is scarier to most people than offshore drilling.

Hypothesis: Everything after the 1950s has just been making existing systems more efficient, and of the serious existing systems only hydroelectric and nuclear are renewable. Nothing was actually invented for mass use after the 1950s.

idiotgrrl said...

On the co-option of scientists into the current economy and value system, "Sunday, July 31, 2011
Science center tops pay in district
Things won't get fixed, until this sort of thing gets fixed. Unfortunately, it will require a great deal more pain:

The St. Louis Science Center last year spent more on compensation for its top executives, and took up a larger share of its payroll for them, than any other tax-supported cultural institution in the Zoo-Museum District.

The nine highest-paid executives at the science center in 2010 collectively received more than $2 million in compensation, which includes salary, retirement packages and other benefits. That made up 19 percent of what the science center paid for its entire staff, which includes 184 full-time employees and 410 part-timers.

None of the other four local institutions that receive tax money paid that much collectively to their highest-earning executives — those making more than $150,000 in total compensation — or took up that much of their payroll for them. "

Courtesy of Wally's Doghouse blog. That well certainly not survive for long. David Brin is dreadfully upset by the Republican "war against smarty-pants intellectuals." I wonder if you've put your finger on one of the main reasons.

I summarized your findings for a friend in 3 email posts. The final one was "...and science is committing suicide."

Meg said...

Supporting evidence for your contention that science has exhausted its 'low-hanging fruit':

Tully Reill said...

I feel just like with anything else, Science lost a great deal when it went from the hands of those whose souls contained the passion for it to those that were driven by the almighty dollar.

Perhaps with it returning to the hands of the amateurs we will see some of those surprises you speak of.

Don Mason said...

JMG said: “…science itself is well into the territory of diminishing returns…”

The law of diminishing returns is definitely starting to appear in pharmaceutical research.

In heart disease (which itself is largely a disease of the modern, affluent lifestyle), the results of massive research expenditures are increasingly unproductive.

The early statins (lovastatin, simvastatin, etc.) that were developed in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s have proven to be highly effective; when properly used, you can generally get about a 30% reduction in cardiac events with acceptably low rates of side effects, considering the alternative (i.e., death).

Now that the patents have expired, these early drugs are available generically at extremely low prices, considering the benefits that they offer (i.e., not dropping dead). I only need 5mg a day, so I buy cheap, monster 80mg generic tablets of simivastatin and chop each one up into 16 pieces (crumbs, really). It costs about $2 a month - and I’m still alive, although I’m not helping the drug company’s bottom line much.

But attempts to develop new patented statins to generate continued drug company profits seem to be resulting in much more powerful drugs with – unavoidably - much more powerful side effects. For example, Baycol had to be withdrawn from the market after patients demonstrated an unacceptably high incidence of rhabdomyolysis (i.e., the drug started melting the patients’ muscles).

These newer statins are really overkill. Few patients seem to be able to tolerate them in high dosages; and at lower dosages, we have the older statins that are just as effective, better studied, and much, much cheaper.

So the development of these newer statins really cannot be justified on public health grounds; they primarily serve the purpose of maintaining the profitability of the medical/industrial complex.

Villager said...

"It’s a common belief these days that more of the same will yield more of the same—that more *scentific* research will make it possible to fix the world’s energy problems and, just maybe, its other problems as well."

The nose knows.

TwyliteFlyer said...

Good day JMG, I hope you had a glorious Lughnasadh,

This whole post kept reminding me of an article I read not that long ago. It was talking about how when people get an idea in their head, the more evidence you present dis-proving said idea, the more fervent they become in that belief. The article was written in regards to religion, but the same could be said for science, especially since many scientists are religious in their following of it. (I tried to find the article, but it seems to have dissolved into the ether, and it's a hard one to google)

I have a couple of links I've been dying to share. I'm sure you must have seen one or both of these in your travels by now, but in case you haven't, and for the interest of others who haven't...

The Story of Stuff. For most people here, you'll watch this video and go "well, duh!". But I find it to be a good primer for those who are still reluctant to acknowledge the cycle...

Freedom to Learn. This one is more on par with last weeks discussion. I apologize for being late to the game, but I've been trying to catch up on reading all the comments before I post. There are a lot of posts there, but among them are some excellent takes on the state of modern education, some alternatives, and the history behind all of it. I seem to recall there's a recent post regarding fraud in science.

I can't help but wonder if Apple Jack Creek and I live in the same Canada. I decided way back in High School (in the early 90's) that if I ever had children, I would do whatever I could to homeschool them. Even in the midst of it all, I recognized the inadequacies of our education system. And don't look now Creek, but we're already well on our way to being USA 2.0.

And I just have to share a fantastic quote I heard today:
"I'm a large proponent of nuclear power, we have a very safe reactor sited 93,000,000 miles away, it's called the sun. That's my nuclear reactor" -Ed Begley, Jr

John Michael Greer said...

Avery, good -- except that nuclear power isn't renewable in the real world. (You may have noticed that none of the countries that launched breeder reactor programs with so much fanfare a while back got far with them.) And of course there's that little problem with waste that has to be isolated from the rest of existence for a quarter of a million years...

Grrl, that's one of many examples of science in its decadence. If I lived there I'd start putting major pressure on the relevant politicians.

Meg, thank you! A very nice bit of quantitative data.

Tully, I certainly hope so. It would be a pity to see something that's one of the truly elegant creations of the human mind get lost because it ended up dominated by intellectual prostitutes.

Don, that's a useful case study. Thank you!

Villager, er, maybe it's my Aspergers or something but I have no idea what you mean by that.

GHung said...

Avery: "Solar energy: Today's form was invented in 1954, by Pearson, Fuller, and Chapin. This is essentially a toy, that's cool to look at and can power calculators and simple clocks, but is not a feasible way to meet the energy demands created by oil."

Gosh I'm so glad you have awakend me from the delusion that solar energy has been the baseload of our home energy usage for over 15 years. Great toys, though.

Enjoy paying those increasing utility bills...'til the lights go out..

BTW: I never expected solar to replace oil. Perhaps we don't suffer from the same 'longage of expectations'.

Time to put my toys to bed.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Great post, JMG. When I get into discussions about science, I always use the metaphor of it being a tool. Science is a very useful tool, but it is still used by humans for human purposes, sometimes it's misused as in the faked papers, sometimes used incompetently, and sometimes used for worthy ideals.

If more people thought of science as a tool, I think the discussions surrounding it would be much more reasonable. The problem lies not in science itself but in scientism, the religious belief in science as the only way to understand anything. After all, it's impossible to prove scientifically that there isn't anything that's outside the scope of scientific inquiry. It's like if eyesight was the only of their physical senses that someone had, and they tried to claim that sounds and smells either didn't exist or didn't matter because you couldn't perceive them with eyesight. The belief in science as the one and only tool of inquiry strikes me as in the same realm as the monotheistic belief in one and only god.

Even among things that are suited to scientific investigation, it doesn't mean that other methods applied to learning about it couldn't yield additional valuable information as well. Using the eyesight metaphor again, once you've looked something over to the smallest detail, touching or smelling it often gives you more information.

If science is to be preserved, which I hope it will be because it's a very useful tool, it needs to be divorced from scientism. I doubt scientism will make it through the decline of industrial civilization, as it's contributed much to placing us in this predicament. Emphasizing science as a tool may keep the baby from being thrown out with the bathwater, as I fear many people will turn against all science based on the failures of scientism.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Down toward the last, where you mentioned local environmental studies ...

Two of my most treasured books are small things, from small presses. The first is "Why Wild Edibles?" by Russ Mohney (1975). He was a local author who had a weekly "outdoor" column in the paper. It's very specific to western central Washington State.

The other little gem is "A Walk on Seminary Hill" by Rufus Kiser. Seminary Hill is a good sized natural area within our city limits. His book is a month by month observation of the plants, birds and animals you are likely to see in that area.

These books are hard to find, and I won't be letting loose of mine, any time soon. Maybe future local environmental guides will have notations like some of early Britain's history, "based on earlier works which are now lost."

Tully Reill said...

Avery, I've got to agree with GHung on the bit about solar. I've had two occasions that I have lived off-grid for several years and relied on solar power for my home electricity demands. Granted, it won't replace oil, but it's far from being a toy.

Steve said...

Another close to home post, and very astute. I work at a university research institute, funded by NSF and other acronym dollars. My lab requires the following things to continue operating:

-uninterrupted 24/7 electricity
-high-purity industrial gases on demand
-compressed liquid nitrogen
-consistent natural gas piped in
-stable internet connections
-a global sampling network staffed and managed by NOAA
-a steady stream of replacement parts
-a steady stream of tax money for research

With degrees in physics and engineering, several people have suggested I pursue a PhD and "advance" from my lab technician job. Personally, I'd rather stay in a position that's part-time with benefits, requires no travel, and lets me hone up my skills with electronics, plumbing, and machining. With my spare time and money, I'm busy making my home more green-wizardy and learning some new skills while the mistakes aren't so costly. Besides, there are others at work who share gardening tips and homebrew recipes, so what's not to like?

I don't expect this job to be around forever, but while I have it I can prepare for another "career" while using my income to sustain others who are already working in the fields of the future. Money for insulation, solar hot water, nursery plants, etc. sure helps.

As for science, I have faith that the method will live on, but Big Science is not too far back in the line for the chopping block. Once the economic contraction becomes harder to hide, there will be plenty of PhDs in the bread lines, just like the other abandoned classes of American society.

William Hunter Duncan said...


Thank you. Nice work. I've been waiting for someone to punch a nice, neat hole in Science's stance as the arbiter of all understanding. The question is, how are we as a people going to balance our scientific materialism, with our sense of the divine?


ChemEng said...

Mr. Greer:

You said, "It’s rarely remembered these days that until quite recently, scientific research was mostly carried on by amateurs."

Just before opening this blog I had been re-reading H.G. Wells' story "The Invisible Man", published in the year 1897.

Although this is a work of fiction it is striking that the culture of the time accepted that individual scientists, working by themselves with very limited equipment in remote country houses can come up with amazing discoveries - such as how to make people invisible.

I suppose that the nearest we have to that is the idea of a few "nerds" working in a garage inventing whole new computer systems in their spare time.

Avery said...

GHung: Hate to get hung up on your reply over basic peak oil dogma, but rising oil prices will affect way more than just your energy bill. You may have the electricity for the dishwasher, but not the fluid or water; the power for the computer, but not the Internet link; etc. I wouldn't feel too smug about a solar-powered home just yet.

M.C.P. said...

Hmmm… I don't know about the reversal of the process of specialization. Maybe in the way of stores/shops that sell commodities... Scientific research that supports gadgets and technologies for other commodities would be included in that.

But I don't think that we will see a reversal in specialization when it comes to things like medicine and health, nor in the science based research that backs them. If we will, we aren't seeing it yet. Don Mason's comment seems to highlight the fact that pharmaceuticals are a type of Service-Commodity hybrid that seats itself in the Health/Medical industry. For all I am concerned, that probably will (and probably should in my opinion) fade away into generalization. However, when it comes to research and specialization for medical understanding, procedures, and development of "experts," everything is splintering right now.

I do understand that you are saying this WILL happen, not it IS happening now. However, I don't see that claim supported by evidence except in the realm of energy and resource theory and only if you take that theory and play it out way ahead in time in a vacuum, supposing that the theory will meet reality exactly as theorized, which doesn't happen all the time, or even a lot of the time.

I do think its very interesting that not many of us remember that "science" has a longer history as an amateur "hobby" than as a profession. It does shed some perspective on the fallibility of the often deemed "infallible."

However, the fact that those research papers were tossed out, even after the same scientist tried to fudge his/her research for a second time, does chalk up a point for the idea that science weeds out what doesn't work over time (which is what I was taught, not that scientists don't try to lie sometimes).

Thanks for the piece. Interesting read.


Mean Mr Mustard said...


Regarding education and science... You may recall last week that I was considering whether to continue what are soon to become bargain Degree courses with the Open University, (a very fine distance learning institution currently available to all at low cost) as its ‘Open’ doors close behind me. Well, I’ve since looked through the long lists of courses relevant to either an Arts or Science degree, and found there’s a considerable overlap, with many courses deemed equally applicable.

Now, as bravely and openly discussed here of late, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and coping strategies. One area where I definitely lack aptitude is Maths. In my teenage days, at two different schools, I had to force the teachers to put me in the intermediate level maths class – challenging their routine assumption that by being advanced in written work, which came naturally, I’d also be highly numerate, which I’m assuredly not. (Incidentally, we did have an abacus lesson one day as a fun diversion, but it sadly passed me by. And in a late 70’s classroom, one of those enduring resilient slide rule things would have been another bygone curiosity.) Despite my lack of aptitude, I’ve since got by professionally, being competent to work a spreadsheet for a budget or such, while always silently praising the wondrous electronic calculator.

In my current assignments on the Sustainable Energy course, there’s a fair amount of maths. Some being straightforward conversions, percentage efficiencies and the like. But other questions involve algebra (eg, thermal efficiency) or equations (eg, function of turbines). So, working on the 80/20 rule, I skip those entirely, and recover the points in my essays on energy policy and history.

Nearly all the courses I’ve completed or noted for the future are officially equally applicable to either the BSc or MA qualification. But while I’ve consistently avoided the numbers – I could still opt for the BSc – becoming a barely numerate ‘Scientist’ – and becoming a walking talking scientific fraud! No harm would result, as it’s just hobby studies for me...

And to top it all, there’s only one short course I’d like to do, that, incredibly, doesn’t read across to the Science qualification – ‘Ethics In Real Life’! It closes down soon too, so it will be my next choice, putting me, by the narrowest of margins, on the true and righteous path of an Arts degree.

Synchronicity, or what?

phil harris said...

A quibble.
You say that per capita energy use has been declining for a while now. True for the USA and UK, but not true for whole of EU until 2009. There has been some recovery in OECD since the 2009 crash. I just checked Wikipedia and World Bank. This from Wikipedia: According to IEA world statistics in four years (2004–2008) the world population increased 5%, annual CO2 emissions increased 10% and gross energy production increased 10%
Difference between population and CO2 emissions tells a lot.
Otherwise, as retired scientist, I tend to agree with your position, though I spent a career moving from high energy and labor cost diagnostic techniques to successively lower unit costs with greater effectiveness. Took a lot of fuel energy costs to do it, of course.

Cherokee Organics said...


I look forward to your skewering of the medical profession in an upcoming post. Of course, I may be wrong and it's some other profession entirely! Celebrity CEO's could use a bit of skewering while you're at too.

Actually I've noticed a shift in our culture over the last decade or so where people tend to think that an individual performance can exceed that of a team - it's not true.

The medical profession have erected massive barriers to entry which serves to restrict the number of practitioners so that they can enjoy high levels of remuneration. Nice work. They've also edged out most competitors.

Over here recently they've taken away insurance for mid wives who won't work in a hospital environment under the supervision of a doctor who may or not be present at the birth. Given the litigious nature of people these days it's kind of pushed the non-complying mid wives out of the industry or underground. Sad.

The medical profession also tend to treat a symptom rather than look holistically at the problem. This act tends to increase their fees and reduce the contact time with patients. Sad.

PS: The suggestion about the study is a good one. I still can't believe that the bio char suggestion keeps raising its head in temperate environments. What a waste of time.

Hi Avery,

I'm with Ghung, Solar energy provides most of the electricity in my house. It's certainly no toy. Hope you enjoy those electricity bills and power outages!



Justin said...

Avery, I would say you have it backwards: the problem is that for some reason, most people don't fear off shore drilling as much as nuclear energy.

JMG, I won't try to repackage and regurgitate, but I am with you. Points 9 and 12 specifically.

I link whore myself to further the discussion; it seems to me that as you noted about discovering the limits of philosophy, we are discovering but not yet acknowledging the limits of science to find solutions to the problems of the human condition in a social context, but we keep on trying. I believe we are laboring under the false assumption that if we can just get the right Cartesian system of checks in balances in place, the right mix of incentives and laws, the right statistics to measure performance, then all our social issues will be resolved.

Anyway, your points about the low hanging fruit having already been picked even in the search spaces where science is well suited to find solutions to are salient and related, in my view.

Georgi Marinov said...

One has to distinguish between science and technology when these subjects are discussed, because the two are hopelessly mixed in the minds of most people and the definition is actually very relevant to how the role science plays or should play in society is seen. How science is a defined is a notoriously contentious subject, but I see two useful ways to think of it and neither of those has much to do with technology. First, the goal of science is to understand how the world around us works. Which has been in a way the goal of all intellectual activity from antiquity until now but what separated what we call science now from the kind of intellectual activity medieval monks were engaged in is the methodology; and we can talk all we want about the scientific method, it is very important but it did not come prepackaged in its current form, it gradually evolved (it is not even universally applied in practice) so the second useful definition is that science is that set of epistemological rules that has proven to work and be useful for understanding the world around us. Note that this leaves it open to change and further evolution - there is nothing more anti-scientific than religious faith, yet if faith and revelation turned out to be useful ways for deriving objective knowledge about the world, scientists would immediately incorporate them into their methodology; it just happens that they don't work, that's why they were abandoned.

As you correctly point out, technology development was a separate activity for a very long time, but this only serves to illustrate the point that it is not the same thing as science. Technology development is getting things to work the way you want them. The reason it is so closely tied to science these days is that at some point in the process of technology development, you hit the limit of what you can do without and understanding of the principles which govern the behavior of the system you are trying to get under control, and then you need to achieve that, by definition scientific, understanding before you can get things to work.

Of course, at some point, we hit the point of diminishing returns in the process of understanding the world around us. Scientists are perfectly aware of this phenomenon and are often discussing it in private. There isn't anything you can about it, that's how it is. What it does not mean though is that science is useless for further understanding of the world, because remember, science is that methodology that has been shown to work, while everything else has been conclusively demonstrated not to work, so in a way there isn't anything else other than science that we can reliably use. Once it gets very complicated and difficult to make progress at the same pace as before, scientific progress will slow down, but this does not mean that no further progress is possible, it is just going to be slower, and when it comes to particle physics and cosmology, increasingly theoretical (this unfortunately isn't going to happen because most of the knowledge accumulated so far will be lost in the near future). Which is unfortunate but it is only a really serious problem from the perspective of the expectation for eternal ever accelerating technological progress, and that itself comes from the kind of mindset that postulates that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet while not really understanding the difference between science and technology. But that's a mindset that ignores both the definition of science as that set of human activities directed at understanding the world around us unified by a set of useful epistemological rules, and the understanding of the world that is has achieved so far, for which science is not to be blamed.

Andy Brown said...

Usually, I'm not sure what people mean when they say "science". But in light of the green wizardry projects I think it's relevant in at least two distinct ways. First as a practical problem solver. Every gardener who works with careful observation and tries out different things (or repeats the same things) to see how they work follows the ancient tradition that led to and through the best of science.
But Second, science (like logic) owes much of its power to its potential to cut through the cloud of misapprehension, obfuscation, and willful self-delusion that characterizes normal human thought and social interaction. People who adopt either logic or science sincerely as a discipline gain a powerful tool for seeing the world as it really is rather than as we imagine it. This is sometimes handy, especially when the human fog is thick.
You rightly note that sophistry and normal (hyperspecialized) science demonstrate how this can fail spectacularly. Nevertheless, the ability to see the world as it is, rather than as we'd like it to be, or fear it to be, is something that the best green wizards will have to achieve - and that too represents the tradition that led up to and through the best of science.

Larry said...

I recently read Gavin Menzies, 1421, The Year China Discovered America, a great read and an important contribution to the social sciences, if in fact what he writes is correct.

What I also found interesting about this book is that an amateur potentially has rewritten the history of the world.

One sees that's it's often the amateurs who are providing the new ideas, such as Joel Salatin (owner of Polyface Farms) various writings on alternative agriculture.

My own take on this, is that there tends to be "an immediate bureaucratization of activites" once you put someone on the payroll in an organization. Once the paycheck is secure it seems to be human nature that attention turns to status and security rather than the job one was in theory hired to do (rare cases excepted of course.)

Adam Smith comments on this phenomenon in his 1776 classic, Wealth of Nations, and wonders why employers ever put anyone on salary!

JMG, thanks for your excellent essays. I enjoy reading them (and the readers comments) every Thursday morning.

GHung said...

JMG: " would take little more than a microscope, a notebook, and a camera to do some very precise studies of the effect of organic gardening methods on soil microorganisms, beneficial and harmful insects, and crop yields..."

May I suggest folks get a copy of Organic Plant Protection: A Comprehensive Reference on Controlling Insects and Diseases in the Garden, Orchard, and Yard - Without Chemicals, 1976, Rodale Press.

Quite science based and detailed, the bibliography includes studies of organic pest control and gardening going back to the early 1950's. 650 pages. My copy stays in the "reading room" ;-)

Les said...

Thanks for another thought-provoking post. I think Georgi’s comment that it’s worthwhile distinguishing between science and technology is a good one, and an aspect that is way too often ignored.
The history of the development of technology really is one of finding more and better ways to burn fossil fuels, and it’s this that most people think of as "science".
As a once-was-physicist-turned-IT-geek-turned-permie-ecologist, I figured there must be a whole heap of counter-examples to your argument that pure science has done little for so-called “progress”.
You mentioned one, Maxwell et al and the subsequent development of an electricity industry. I came up with the quantum crew, who spawned electronics and a whole new understanding of chemistry, not to mention the nuclear industry. Newton, who defined classical mechanics and helped the machine builders along. Darwin, who redefined the way we look at why we are the way we are. Then there’s Crick & Watson who spawned a whole host of developments in medicine, biology and agriculture.
And after a few hours thinking on the topic, that seems to be about it; everything else pretty well boils down to engineers coming up with those new ways to burn fossil fuels.
So, I don’t think it’s drawing too long a bow to look at the whole modern edifice as being based on the insights of about a dozen people.
Even if I believed that “someone will think of something” to get us out of the hole we’ve dug, the above demonstrates just how vanishingly small a chance there is of that. The LHC may show us some new and interesting things about dark energy (for example), but the chances of turning that into practical applications for powering space ships? Nil.
Likewise, guys in garages fiddling with magnets to make free energy? Ditto.
Ah, well, back to the garden.

Bill Pulliam said...

I think there are two separate things getting conflated here. The first is the increasing difficulty of making major advances in many fields, the second is dishonesty and out-and-out fraud. Especially on the second point, I think you should be EXTREMELY careful about extrapolating from the medical and (especially) pharmaceutical industries to the entirety of the scientific endeavor. The linked article about rampant fraud refers ONLY to the medical literature, not the entirely of the scientific literature. In my time in Academia I don't recall a single case of fraud being exposed in my field. Even plagiarism only turned up in one case, and this was where a grad student had plagiarized from my own dissertation when writing her dissertation proposal. That was many levels below the published literature.

I also think it is also a bit slanderous to contrast "those whose souls contained the passion for it" versus "those that were driven by the almighty dollar," as Tully did in his comment above. Given the first matter, about the increasing difficulty of advancing the frontier, if you are driven by a passion for it then you will of necessity need to hunt for more dollars (euros, whatever) to pursue it. This does not in ANY WAY mean that your primary reason for being involved in the endeavor is to make money. Once again, don't tar particle physicists or ecologists with the Big Pharma brush. This is also a facorite tactic of the "climate change is a fraud!" lobby. It doesn't change the fact that these big projects will become increasingly impractical (and then impossible), but makes a lot of difference in ones perception of the ethical integrity of scientists.

JMG, you actual point does not even need the fraud stuff to be made. The fact that Big Science will necessarily go the way of all other Big Endeavors (even if those pursuing it have hearts of gold, every one), and that its pursuit is necessarily subjugated to political and commercial interests purely because of the quantity of resources it requires, is really the crux of the matter here.

scodoha said...

Avery, good -- except that nuclear power isn't renewable in the real world. (You may have noticed that none of the countries that launched breeder reactor programs with so much fanfare a while back got far with them.)
--This is just a plain straw man statement. What does "having got far with them" have to do with their ultimate viability? What sort of energy is renewable if you look at the infrastructure needed to support it? Wood? Well perhaps if you can keep the climate going to enable plant growth.--
And of course there's that little problem with waste that has to be isolated from the rest of existence for a quarter of a million years...
--And this statement is just plain ignorance of the facts. The waste generated from an Integral (fuel reprocessing on site) Fast Reactor is a small, very short lived quantity, around 200 years to background radiation levels, not quite 1/4 million years is it? This could be handled easily with the containment structures already designed for holding long lived waste in the Yucca Mountain site and merely dumping them in the ocean.

Kirk said...

From a dark corner of the Halls of Science, a hearty "Amen"! Thanks also for the hope in the last paragraph. Scientific thinking is a powerful tool for sorting out good and bad explanations, as long as one is honest with oneself about the results. Problems ensue when one is overly invested in a particular outcome.
I agree that science is great at dissecting and explaining, and that this has about reached its useful limits. What we need now is a shift of perspective like what Joe Jenkins describes in his book Balance Point; let's imagine that Gaia is the center of things, not humans. Alas, one runs into problems with replicating treatments since there's only one Gaia that we know of. No statistical testing, so we'll just have to fall back on good old intuition!
Thanks again, JMG; I so look forward to Thursday mornings!

sgage said...

@ Ozark,

"The problem lies not in science itself but in scientism, the religious belief in science as the only way to understand anything."

I make the same distinction. Science is not a religion, Scientism is.

But I think you only got the half of it, what I call Soft Scientism. Hard Scientism adds "... and Science can understand everything, and will Some Day."

I am an ex-scientist (though I still teach at the college level). It seems to me that most of the scientists I knew and worked with were not adherents of Scientism at all.

They knew clearly that science is a tool, very good at what it's good at, and very poor at other jobs.

I think non-scientists, not really knowing how science works, are much more likely to be Scientistic, as it were. Most real scientists are acutely aware of what they know and don't know, and the provisional nature of what they know.

GHung said...

Avery: "You may have the electricity for the dishwasher, but not the fluid or water; the power for the computer, but not the Internet link; etc. I wouldn't feel too smug about a solar-powered home just yet."

If one trys hard enough, one can always find some caveat to one's best plans. Most folks ignore this, though I try not to.

Since the primary dishwasher (me) needs no electricity, the water is gravity flow from a spring (albeit pressure boosted by solar), and further, primary heat is passive solar (passive cooling as well) supplemented with wood, super insulated structure, etc. I'm fairly confident that our situation involves a fairly high level of resilience. Toys?

BTW: I don't mean to sound smug, just content to be constructively lazy.

Regarding hard science vs. basic observation and common sense: After deciding on the location of our home, a site selected for an earth-bermed, passive solar home, I could have used modern equipment to determine the precise orientation and layout of the structure. Devices like the The Solar Pathfinder are great at providing information as to the best location and orientation of solar stuff. I chose to use a straight pole, level, good watch, a timetable of solar noon for our exact longitude, and spent a couple of seasons simply observing the site, getting a feel for the place. One can learn alot by just sitting and observing things. Using my method, I discovered that true (solar) south deviates from the magnetic deviation as stated on the quad maps by almost four degrees, in our specific location. Using a good compass, magnetic south is almost nine degrees east of true south. Moving less than a mile from here, the deviation drops to less than five degrees. Using a simple pole at high noon, especially on the winter solstice, gives one a nice shadow pointing due north.

Using this observation method I also determined that the passive solar design would benefit from orienting the house about ten degrees west of true south due to the ridge to our east. I also calculated the roof overhangs this way. Using a science based device may have given the same results, but likely would have robbed me of understanding the nuances and 'feelings' of the site. Some things get lost when we apply neatly packaged science-based solutions to simple problems.

At some point, science (and humanity in general) crossed some threshhold into finding solutions looking for a problem. Goes to diminishing returns..

BruceH said...

In discussing the limits of science, I was surprised that you did not mention any of the limits inherent in the history and structure of science described by Thomas Kuhn in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962). It is a very important part of the myth of progress that scientific knowledge grows continuously. As a result, far too many people today, who may disregard many of the important recent findings of science such as global climate change and peak oil, still maintain a general belief that science will solve all and any problems that may arise in the future and allow us to go on our merry way as we always have unimpeded by any limitations of energy or resources.

This faith is reinforced by the way science is taught today as an ever increasing collection of facts rather than as a way, like logic, philosophy or religion, of understanding our world.

In my brief career as a high school science teacher, I tried to stress that knowing the method and basic principles was more important than knowing all the tidbits of knowledge. You don’t have to be a scientist to use the scientific method. Following Kuhn, I tried to stress that science has its limits. And taking a page from, Stephen Jay Gould and his idea of “non-overlapping magisterial,” I stressed too that science, contrary to popular belief, could not solve all of our problems or answer all of our questions. Something can only become science if it can be communicated to someone else. This puts a natural limit on what questions science can answer.

The kids hated my tests because I asked them to explain what they’d learned in their own words and avoided the usual multiple choice, true/false framework. Unfortunately, in our country’s growing obsession with high stakes testing, it’s easier to write and score tests based on the facts than ones based on understanding and demonstrating one’s ability to use a method. And since funding is based on test performance, I guess I should not have been surprised when my position was eliminated in the next school board budget.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

When I was earning my Ph.D. degree in the 1980s, a wise member of my doctoral committee, and a very good friend and colleague, once proffered that he only needed to truly invest in two doctoral candidates during his academic entire career. One to eventually numerically replace him when he retires, and one to handle what was still an expanding discipline (geography) at the time or to go to work in an applied capacity. Everyone else earning PhDs are just "extras."

I would love to be the tinkerer/inventor/independent scientist with the laboratory in the basement or able to contribute open-source computer code or course lessons in the meantime. But it is hard to do with the time and energy I seem to lack at the end of the work day. There are many days when I fancy it would be nice to substitute six (or even seven) shorter "working days" for the current standard 40/5 just to have more energy to think and do at the end of each day.

hapibeli said...

"JMG wrote;the spreading popular distrust of science as currently practiced, the likelihood that any significant fraction of today’s institutional science will squeeze through the hard times ahead is minimal at best. What that leaves, it seems to me, is a return to the original roots of science as an amateur pursuit. "

And that I think can cover the "unscientific" beliefs that are held regarding alternative medicines practiced today. Personal stories from friends and relations about the alternative practices that work or don't work, and similar stories about allopathic and Big Pharma stories prove to many in the public that they are better off with acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy, and many of the more esoteric {esoteric only to today's "enlightened" scientific believers}. Caveat emptor may always be the deciding factor in choosing a health care or therapeutic modality of any kind.

My donkey said...

"...the range of specializations that can be supported by the economy will also decline, and individuals and families will have to take up the slack, taking over tasks that for some decades now have been done by professionals."

This has been happening for some time, and it's not just professionals who are affected (unless by "professional" you mean anyone who gets paid to do a job).

Think of the various tasks that people used to perform as part of a paying job, but now we do ourselves: fill our own fuel tanks and pay at the pump (replacing gas jockeys & clerks), use ATMs and do banking online (goodbye bank tellers), book our own flights and print our own tickets & boarding passes (versus travel agents and airline check-in staff), record and bag our own purchases at self-checkouts (vs. cashiers), and shop online (vs. retail store staff).

These jobs haven't disappeared (yet) but the number of people employed in doing them has declined as more and more customers choose to do the tasks themselves.

Adrian Skilling said...

A fine essay as usual, giving new insights and parallels.

I don't quite agree that studying organic methods is quite so easy though. The system is very complex which I think is why much understanding hasn't been gained, some good research though, and obviously theres no money in it.

See, and Laverstoke Park (Jody Schekter putting lots of money into Biodynamic research), Garden Organic Charity. And there are people like Emilia Hazelip, Ruth Stout and Masanobu Fukuoka who are individuals working in the field with little money. Have I disproved myself?

Probably so. I feel that the organic system is complex and dependent on climate, soil, etc... so probably is best learnt about for yourself in your place, but don't expect to gain complete understanding on the percieved standard scientific style.

Odin's Raven said...

Adam Smith told us that division of labour is limited by the extent of the market. As markets shrink from global to local and as people become poorer, there well be less scope for specialization, and most people will have to revert to being jacks-of-all-trades.

Your point about more science having to be done by cheap and simple methods is well made; but should also consider, (perhaps as you did last week), that the type of knowledge sought will also change, from abstract and impersonal to more participative and personal. Recently I saw a TV programme about an American biologist who brought up a brood of turkeys in the wild. He had no equipment but a pen and notebook, but he commented on how his close observation and participation in their life gave him an intuitive understanding of their calls and intentions, and how his senses became far more alert to the environment, and how sad it was to lose these birds.

If there's a move from current science to that sort of druidry, I would count that as progress.

Pete Doughty said...

Speaking of H.G. Wells, I just have to share the following remarkable quote. Note the year, a few after the end of the Great War in which the British navy prevailed in part because of a major buildup of new oil-powered ships.
"Coal and oil are our only capital. They are all we have for great important efforts. They are a gift to mankind to use to some supreme end or to waste in trivialities. Coal is the key to metallurgy and oil to transit. When they are done we shall either have built up such a fabric of apparatus, knowledge and social organization that we shall be able to manage without them—or we shall have traveled a long way down the slopes of waste toward extinction." – H.G. Wells, Secret Places of the Heart, 1921

Kieran O'Neill said...

Regarding scientific fraud:

The numbers are concerning, although they're a little out of context. Here's an article which gives more of a per-scientist measurement of rates of fraud (as well as "questionable research practices"). They are, admittedly, fairly high.

But as for fraud going unpunished (the "repeat offender" point from the first paper you've cited); I have read the paper, and their definition of a repeat offender is somebody who had multiple papers retracted for fraud. If I read correctly, you have concluded that this means they were caught for fraud at least once, but let off with a slap on the wrist, then committed it again. To me it seems more likely that, after one case was found out, the rest of the fraudster's work immediately came under greater scrutiny, and the others were found as well. I'm not sure what the best way would be to measure if scientists have been caught for fraud yet not had their careers destroyed, but I've never heard of such a case myself.

And as for the survival of science as a whole in spite of fraud and/or misconduct, there is a principle in science of awaiting independent confirmation of any new results before they are very widely accepted. Where a study is a little shaky on methodological grounds, or even blatantly fabricated, other researchers trying to repeat the study will fail to obtain the same results, and the original study will be discredited at the very least, and most likely ultimately retracted.

John Michael Greer said...

Twylite, thank you! I had a very pleasant holy day, yes. I don't know the article you have in mind, but the famous booklength study When Prophecy Fails made the same point about belief and disconfirmation, and it's wryly amusing to see that being acted out by believers in progress nowadays.

Ozark, bingo. Science is a tool; it's a very good tool for the things it's good at, and very poor at almost anything else. That doesn't make it a less valuable tool, any more than a saw's any less of a saw because it's a very poor screwdriver. As for the risk of people turning against science on account of scientism, it's already happening, and the scientific community by and large is not helping matters any by the shrillness of its reaction.

Lewis, have you considered seeing if the authors or their heirs can be contacted, and bringing out a small edition for local sale? Those sound like books worth saving.

Steve, sounds like a good arrangement for the time being. Be prepared to teach what you know about experimental method after the lab's gone, though, because there aren't many people who have those skills these days.

William, I think that's not a question for we as a people, but for each of us as individuals.

ChemEng, in Wells' time quite a few inventions and scientific discoveries were being made in exactly the way Wells suggested -- look at the Wright brothers, who built the world's first powered airplane in off hours at the bicycle shop. That's still an option now, though the inventions and discoveries will be on the scale of the Wright flyer rather than the Large Hadron Collider!

MCP, health care's a special case, as I'll show next week. It's precisely the attempt to maintain the metastatic growth of the industry that's generated the US "health care crisis." As for the fraud study, er, I don't think you read the article closely. Those people weren't trying to get the same paper through a second time; they'd had other papers pulled for fraud -- and it's worth remembering that these are just the ones that got caught.

Mustard, it says far too much about today's culture that a class on practical ethics isn't part of the science curriculum. I can certainly sympathize with your math troubles -- I have a hard time with anything beyond basic algebra and trig, though I can make a slide rule crunch numbers fairly well.

Phil, thank you for the correction.

Cherokee, yes, it's going to be health care. I'm sorry to hear you're getting the same sort of strongarm tactice from MDs that we've had to put up with here.

Justin, exactly. It's the old story about the four-year-old with a hammer; everything looks like a nail, and gets a good whacking.

Brad K. said...


Reading about salvaging science, two thoughts occurred to me.

First is a song, Billy Boy ("Can she bake a cherry pie?"). Does baking a pie come from craft, from gradual refinements of "I have this instead of 'x', I will try it," and "what will a bit of that do?"

The other thought is about glass making. Again, is it craft or science, when something new is tried, when cheaper, better, or more interesting methods are tried, examined, and either rejected or continued?

Your comment crystallized my question when you mentioned science being an investigation of the local environment and ecology, with an eye to impacts on local gardening and farming.

I figure 'science' is looking for underlying truths, causes, and understanding. Crafts like farming, glassmaking and cooking, and other kinds of technology, look at what is available and how it can be used. When science findings, other craftsman results (like county fairs promoted), or serendipity happen along, they use what seems useful.

As for using science, not just the tools like microscopes and journaling your progress (like Jenny Craig does for dieting -- is that science?), that looks more like craftsmanship when the purpose is to understand how to get the most from my garden or field, this year, for this crop, with this particular mix of pests and desirable flora and fauna. What I learned from my garden, is that the mix of factors varies from time to time, and there is precious little expectation that underlying 'science' will be applicable time after time.

It is possible that what you are saying with "salvaging science" is that we need to incorporate as much of the tools and results of the science we know as possible into enduring crafts, to preserve the knowledge as well as the skills in an enduring context.

We don't after all, want to return to a concept of illness based solely on demons in the body. (Geshundeit!) We want to retain an understanding of clean food preparation, sanitary handling, infection vectors, etc.

And we want to remember "Carrots Love Tomatoes" (which I haven't read yet) in the "New Square Foot Gardening". etc.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Regarding amateur science:

One way for the average person to get a foot in the door is to engage in citizen science. This can be anything from going out and observing ecosystems to identifying astronomical objects or translating Ancient Greek papyri.

Of course, "citizen science" generally means just helping out in a non-expert capacity. To be a true amateur scientist who designs and interprets their own experiments requires a bit more time and prior knowledge. Sadly, much of the knowledge needed is kept locked up by large scientific publishers, available to the general public only at exorbitant prices (although possibly still attainable at a university library). Open access journals are starting to change that, but not quickly enough in my opinion.

Getting your research published as an amateur scientist might be difficult too. While in theory it should be possible, I don't think I've ever seen a published paper from somebody not affiliated with a university or research institute. There's also the problem that journal editors tend to only pick articles that they think will be interesting, or more commonly today, will get citations that will improve their journal's impact factor. So articles about, say, the effectiveness of backyard vegetable gardening methods in a particular region might be difficult to get published. One possibility, however, is PLoS One, a journal which reviews submissions solely on technical soundness, with no regard to perceived importance of the research. It's open access too, so could be a good foundation for amateur science (in the near future at least).

John Michael Greer said...

Georgi, I did distinquish between science and technology in my post, quite explicitly, so I'm not at all sure what you're trying to say here.

Andy, the problem as I see it is that science cuts through one kind of fog but produces another. The attitude that says "If I can't measure it quantitatively, it doesn't exist" is as much a barrier to full understanding as the attitude that says "quantitative measurements don't matter at all." The point of balance between the two, where quantitative factors receive their due but so do the things that can't be measured, is fiendishly difficult to find and maintain -- but who said that the important things would be easy?

Larry, thank you! I'm not sure it's the salary that matters so much as the interface between ordinary primate dominance behavior and the world of ideas; when people begin to defend intellectual turf the way baboons defend their home ranges, clarity of thought goes out the window pretty fast.

GHung, worth having, but I'd be even happier if people were to get the microscope and the notebook and start learning directly from nature!

Les, er, if you'll take a moment to reread my post you'll find that my comments about science doing little to drive technology were specifically about the period before the late 19th century. That said, it adds up to the same thing -- as the oil runs short, so does the possibility of progress.

Bill, of course there are multiple points here. Still, I'm less sanguine about the fraud issue than you are. Both my stints at college brought me into direct contact with serious, ongoing scientific fraud, which was treated as a matter of course by everyone involved. Mind you, ecology is the poster child for the kind of scientific field where there's no money worth speaking of, and therefore very little incentive to fraud; I saw none of it in the botany and environmental studies programs with which I was involved. Still, the fraud issue's important for another reason, which is that it's helping to drive the spreading rejection of science on the part of the general public -- an issue that has to be confronted and understood if science is going to survive the next century or so.

Scodoha, it's not a straw man at all. Breeder reactors are vaporware -- they look great in theory, but not even the richest and most technologically advanced nations on Earth have been able to make the technology work as advertised. It's the same kind of rhetoric that's been used to market nuclear power since day one -- you're probably too young to remember when nukes were going to make electricity too cheap to meter, but I'm not.

Kirk, bingo. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the toolkit of science has become conflated with a particular set of attitudes and ideologies that are proving increasingly unhelpful as we run into the limits to growth. Extracting the toolkit from the ideology is thus one of the major challenges of our time.

Bruce, the only reason I didn't mention Kuhn is that I try to keep my posts below 3000 words! A booklength study would have to revolve around him; the logic he applied to individual sciences, and theories within science, also applies to the entire scientific endeavor as a whole -- and we're well into his crisis phase at this point.

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, this is another of the reasons I keep on advocating for at least one family member to leave the work force and work in the household economy instead. The result is more time for other things, and not just for the person who's working at home.

Hapibeli, we'll be talking about that next week.

Donkey, bingo! That's one of the least noticed and most crucial signs of contraction, and it's among the main forces pushing the US toward a social explosion. As the sign says, "Watch this space."

Adrian, it's not easy if you try to ask big questions with global answers. It's a good deal easier if you're trying to ask and answer specific questions about what happens in your own back yard, which is where ecological study needs to start anyway. The biochar study I suggested is an example; two garden beds, a dozen packets of seeds, some biochar, and decent record keeping will do the trick. Rinse and repeat over several years in a dozen gardens and you have a solid answer.

Raven, funny you should mention Druidry in that context. We're in the process of weaving in that sort of study and practice into the Druid order I head.

Pete, thank you! Wells was no fool, and that's a stunningly good quote.

Kieran, as I mentioned to Bill above, my two passes through the US academic industry both exposed me to systematic scientific fraud as an ordinary part of doing business in two relatively large departments. I've heard the same thing from quite a few other people, especially but not only in psychology and health sciences fields. By the nature of the thing, current statistics almost certainly underestimate the prevalence of scientific fraud -- these are only the ones who were clumsy enough to get caught, remember -- and it's also crucial not to underrate the importance of fraud, studies-for-hire, and the like, in driving the spreading backlash against science.

Brad, it's a bit more complex than that. To some extent, science emerged from craft traditions, as people looking for answers generalized their questions, and there's much to be gained by taking that further step and seeing what you can find out that's applicable outside the boundaries of your own practical needs. Just as logic emerged from the need to prove a point in debate, evolved into a study in its own right, but continued to be used to clarify disputes and figure out who was engaging in empty handwaving, science is worth pursuing in its own right, as well as for the benefits it brings to craft pursuits and the like.

Planner said...

"They’ll probably get the students, though. It’s hardwired into the American psyche these days that a problem for one person is a business opportunity for someone else, and preferably someone else with the right degree."

I appreciate your assessment of the inevitable decline of specialization as energy descent deepens. However, your posts of late seem to insinuate that the pursuit of higher education with the goal of pursuing a specialized career is misguided.

Personally, I doubt I would urge a bright graduating senior to forsake college, even at this late hour in the game of musical chairs. The process of de-specialization will likely be a slow grind over many years, as you represent in your books. I can see benefits to remaining in the secondary economy for as long as possible. Sure, you may be scrambling for fewer and fewer jobs with lower and lower pay, but this will provide you with valuable time and money with which to pursue the skills necessary to transition to a household economy, when it is practical to do so.

Right now, I'm not sure it's practical to completely transition away from specialization. Though it is heading the way of the dinosaur, here and now those specialized jobs command the highest wages, and will likely take many years to disappear.

My point is it's important to live today with an eye to the future rather than to attempt to live in the future today. For kids just growing up now, my gut tells me to urge them to go the specialization route for the foreseeable future with the knowledge that it won't last forever.

scodoha said...

Scodoha, it's not a straw man at all. Breeder reactors are vaporware -- they look great in theory, but not even the richest and most technologically advanced nations on Earth have been able to make the technology work as advertised. It's the same kind of rhetoric that's been used to market nuclear power since day one -- you're probably too young to remember when nukes were going to make electricity too cheap to meter, but I'm not.

I see you grabbed the low hanging fruit and ignored the waste issue.
Well no, its not the same kind of rhetoric and you would know that if you had read the book. Your logic is like a medieval belief that cats needed extermination because they're associated with witches, when all the time the cats were keeping down the plague infested rats and the "witches" were mostly midwives and healers.
You've also fallen into a misappelation trap while you illogically appealed to authority. I was born the year Lewis Strauss made his speech to the National Association of Science Writers. The fact that he was actually referring to hydrogen fusion and not to circa fission reactors
Now that I believe can properly be labeled vaporware.
You really need to do more research and less divagating.

divelly said...

Hapibell and JMG;
I suppose we will hear next week how Polio and Smallpox were eradicated by thimblefuls of tap water!
When my sister-in-law,a practicing herbalist and believer in homeopathy,was diagnosed with a possibly terminal illness,she was off to the nearest University Hospital as fast as her Birkenstocks would propel her.

wvjohn said...

JMG - Many thanks as always for your weekly blog - I look forward to it as I looked forward to the next Sunday episode of Prince Valiant more than a few years ago. I taught part-time at local community colleges for 15 years. I finally left because they had transformed from places where at least some students, with experiential or academic credentials, were actually trying to learn something, to cash factories that would put McDonald's to shame. All entrance standards were dropped, and the main focus became enrolling the highest number of students, paid for by loans and Pell grants. I taught night classes, and it got to the point that half the class left after the first break. As soon as the expense checks were issued to the students about 8 weeks into the semester, half of them disappeared. The institution, which had served some valuable functions in the educational system, became nothing more than a way to make money. Sadly, most first year students never completed their first year, which was largely comprised of remedial classes to bring their skills up to those of an "old fashioned" high school graduate.

Tyler August said...

I laughed a bitter laugh when someone in the comments said that science was no longer the providence of those passionate about their field, but in thrall to the "almighty dollar"
-- at my university, PhD-holding Posdoctoral Research Fellows (not professors) are being offered a contract that pays 3$/hr over minimum wage, with no health or dental benefits, and only 6 days sick leave in a year. This is a win for the Union; it's around 2.25$/hr over the initial offer.

Seriously, if I were chasing the almighty dollar, I'd take the bloody Janitor's job. They get a much better deal at this institution.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- There's a difference between making multiple points and conflation. I have several problems here. First, the health sciences versus most of the rest of the sciences are VERY different animals. Medical science is big business, and is dominated by huge corporate interests. Some other fields have a similar situation, like petroleum geology (and Economics if you are silly enough to count this as a science), but in most sciences this is just not the case. It makes for profoundly different ethical and funding environments. It is really misleading to present the PubMed database as though it represents the environment in Science As A Whole.

Also, there are many reasons why people commit fraud. Sometimes it is for money. But often it is for glory, personal advancement, or purely emotional reasons (e.g. an inability to concede that your convictions are incorrect). I have made the mistake in the past of assuming that people would only commit fraud for rational reasons, and have been proven extremely wrong! For an individual scientists in an underfunded field, tenure is at least as much of a temptation as big corporate kickbacks (probably bigger). Yet still it remains quite rare.

Finally, sure I agree that a perception of rampant fraud is one of the challenges facing those who would try to find a path for science in the future. Accusations of fraud in, say, climate science or environmental data, are accepted quite eagerly by the mass mind in that beloved conspiracy theory fashion. But (A) is that relevant to your main thesis here, which is explaining why Science As We Have Known It is fundamentally not sustainable, and (B) by presenting possibly the worst case as representative, aren't you actually contributing to the problem you say we will have to overcome?

Uncle Doug said...

There is still valid amateur work being done in science by unpaid enthusiats. A good example is the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) which represents a century of contributions to knowledge about those stars that cycle through varying periods of brightness. Tedious and slow work but valuable.

dragonfly said...

@Avery - sorry to pile on, but you left yourself wide open on this one. I suspect the various folks (worldwide) who spent ~$50B last year for new installed PV will be interested to hear more about the "toys" they bought. Those new "toys" are rated to produce over 18GW, bringing the worldwide total installed PV capacity to over 36GW. In my opinion, we need more "toys" and less attitude.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ My donkey - The jobs, or tasks disappearing? It's called "disintermediation." I first ran across it when I worked in Library Land. I was told it means "taking out the middle man." It looks good at the onset, and is perceived to save money. But, as with computers, it doesn't make less work, it just makes different kinds of work.

In Library Land, it initially took the form of self checkout and picking up your holds from open shelves. Now the powers that be are fiddling with patrons initiating their own inter-library loans.

There are always unintended consequences to this kind of thing. In the case of the holds, it apparently never occurred to anyone that our patrons might steal from each other. Any hot new title, book or dvd. Self check-out? Sometimes, for whatever reason or another, an item doesn't get checked out. When it's brought to the attention of "the powers that be" it's glossed over with "Well, the items make it back, eventually." Enough sour grapes.

@ - JMG - On re-issueing local environmental titles. Not going to happen due to many factors that are too long and involved to go into here. But I'll mention one. No one in the area is interested. Myself, I'm closing down the store this fall. I'm moving to the boonies to become a hermit and grow potatoes.

John Michael Greer said...

Planner, I would strongly encourage a bright graduating senior today to do almost anything except go to college. As I mentioned last week, multiple studies have shown that with college costs as high as they are today, most seniors who enroll in college will never recover financially from the cost of paying off the loans. I agree that there's still a place for valid specialization, but these days college is only a good idea if you're aiming for a narrow range of technical careers, or have money to burn.

Scodoha, avoiding the issue I've raised while repeating the same claims with more insults and more attitude is not a useful way of carrying on a discussion. Please take your nuclear propaganda somewhere else.

Divelly, no, next week we'll talk about the annual death toll from drug side effects and interactions, nosocomial infections, surgical misadventures, and the like. (Care to guess how it ranks next to the toll for, oh, heart disease?) I can't speak for your sister; I'd go to a hospital for trauma, but that's about it -- given that I can't afford health insurance, it's not as though I have a lot of choice!

Wvjohn, if I rank up there with Prince Valiant I've made the big time! (Yes, I used to read Hal Foster's epic eagerly every Sunday, too.) Thank you.

Tyler, it varies by field. What I've heard from most of the fields that don't produce anything for business or the military is that they're scrambling for survival, and losing.

Bill, fair enough. The one point I'd make here, though, is that the dubious morality of some branches of science that get a lot of publicity -- and, yes, health sciences are high on that list -- are indeed an important part of the reason why science as now practiced is unsustainable. The approval, or at least passivity, of the general population is crucial for the survival of science, and that's slipping away -- and the unwillingness of a great many scientists to deal with the role of scientific fraud in helping to cause that loss of approval is not helping matters any. Thus my insistence on bringing it up.

Uncle Doug, yes, when I wrote about the corners of science that still welcome amateurs I was thinking of half a dozen branches of astronomy, as well as a fair number of the environmental sciences, and also near space studies -- that's one that fascinates me; I could get seriously into ionosphere studies, with or without high altitude balloons, if time and resources permitted.

Lewis, I'm sorry to hear that!

kayxyz said...

My experience to community college-science-peak oil-30 mile commute-60 round trip. After seeing IT go offshore, I raced into the quickest, closest, two year health science degree I could find ,not nurse or patient-facing but related to allied health. The course was offered online.

However, the two instructors were adamant that students appear on campus (60 mile round-trip commute) so they could get to know us personally before sending us out into four fieldwork research rotations with their own colleagues in the industry. Of course, all science labs were on-campus, when I wondered why i couldn't just go to my local high school chemistry lab for chemistry, physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, pathophysiology.

I guess I'm saying that if you opt for community college science, make certain you do a full scale audit of all expenses and costs, especially hidden ones.

Consider farming and farmers markets, where you are directly facing your clients, you'll cut out a middle step of instructors who need to get to know you. You present your produce, and the transaction has only one layer of complexity.

sealander said...

Just spotted a snippet in our local paper about an apartment dweller in Sweden arrested for illegal possession of nuclear materials. Apparently he just wanted to find out if he could split the atom at home. Nice to see the spirit of inquiry is alive and well :)

sgage said...

@ Bill P.

I very much agree with your assessment. When I was in academia, and a practicing scientist, fraud was virtually unheard of. (I never heard of any fraud).

Big Pharma/Medicine is different, as you point out. It practically isn't even science any more.

One point that I don't recall having been made in this thread is that in many branches of inquiry (e.g., physiological ecology and population genetics, my specialties back in the day), there are competitive teams of researchers at different institutions, who will be all over your sh*t if you try to pull a fast one. When done properly, peer-reviewed science is not really all that prone to fraud. I don't know about JMG's experience, and what sort of department it was in, but that's not my experience at all.

All bets are off, of course, it's about some proprietary drug, and the only people doing the "research" are the employees of the pharmaceutical corporation. That's not science, in my book. That's marketing.

I think the distrust of science has very little to do with fraud. It has to do with science telling people stuff they don't want to hear, including that BAU is off the menu.

Don Mason said...

Mat @ M.P.C. said:

“But I don't think that we will see a reversal in specialization when it comes to things like medicine and health, nor in the science based research that backs them. If we will, we aren't seeing it yet. Don Mason's comment seems to highlight the fact that pharmaceuticals are a type of Service-Commodity hybrid that seats itself in the Health/Medical industry. For all I am concerned, that probably will (and probably should in my opinion) fade away into generalization. However, when it comes to research and specialization for medical understanding, procedures, and development of "experts," everything is splintering right now.”

I agree that increased specialization within the medical field is definitely proceeding apace at the moment, but my hunch is that it’s just running on the momentum of massive amounts of borrowed money that can never be paid back.

Medical professionals are able to specialize because money is available to pay them; for example, a huge factor in the increase of medical specialties has been insurance reimbursement, particularly from Medicare and Medicaid.

If you look only at the dollars alone (and ignore the obvious energy and other implications) then these programs are financially unsustainable. Huge (and hugely unpopular) cutbacks in services are inevitable.

Today’s highly-paid, highly- specialized physicians are largely the top-of-the-pyramid technicians who administer the high-priced, highly-specialized medical technology. As less cash sloshes through the medical/industrial complex, some of these technologies will probably become unaffordable, and the specialties associated with them may dwindle away with the funding.

For example, how can an ophthalmologist treat a patient for diabetic retinopathy without Medicare reimbursement that is adequate to pay for his extremely effective but extremely expensive laser?

Without the money for modern technology, he’s helpless to slow down the inevitable deterioration; he’s reduced to being an old General Practitioner from 1950 who can only grimly advise, “Try to lose some weight, and try to keep your blood sugar under control,” while he watches his patient gradually lose her eyesight.

For a while, the technologies will still be available for the wealthy; I imagine that a few rich people will still be able to get their expensive kidney/liver/lung transplants while thousands of formerly middle-class Americans are dying from easily-preventable outbreaks of cholera.

But eventually, the supply chains will probably become so disrupted that even the wealthy won’t have those technologies available (although they’ll still get better care then the rest of us.)

In a more rational world, we would shift the funding towards measures that can help more people for less money (e.g., from high-tech medicine towards public health measures like maintaining potable drinking water supplies).

But then, if we were living in a more rational world, we wouldn’t be in the mess that we’re in.

wall0159 said...

I think it is important to differentiate between science as an endeavour, and the corruption of science as sometimes occurs.

I think a very useful way of thinking about science is that advocated by Karl Popper, who essentially said that science can never discover truths, but can only reject falsehoods. Many of the scientists I have worked with bring this humility to their work.

I would liken it to previous posts about the merits of democracy. Just because our current system is somewhat corrupt, does not mean it is inherently not good.

As other posts have said, though, Big Science (like Big Everything) can be expected to disappear if resource constraints begin to bite.

This makes the teaching of the null-hyopthesis even more important.

With regard to the idea that science is approaching diminishing returns as a method of knowledge acquisition, I disagree. I think the reason that much science is now big, expensive, specialised and extended is because of the market forces that are driving it (ie. applied science is the order of the day). I think there remain lots of opportunities for small-group, generalist science to explore new frontiers. For example, I suspect that the intersection of information theory and special relativity holds opportunities (that can be worked out on paper as thought-experiments).


Bill Pulliam said...

Thinking more about Amateur Science and Citizen Science, as they are known and exist at the present...

I have been an amateur scientist my whole life, even when I was a professional scientist. It has seemed to me that amateur science has been severely displaced by high tech amongst younger cohorts -- some still do it, but most seem happier interacting with virtual worlds than looking at the real world. Citizen science, a term that has become in vogue in recent decades, is a partnering of amateur scientists with institutions that provide a framework for collecting, sharing, and analyzing the huge amounts of raw observational data that we obsessive amateurs can collect.

Most of this science, though, is observational rather than experimental. It's large amounts of data on phenomena. But at least the mindset still exists among thousands of people to take a quantitative, analytical look at the world. I have also done experimental science on my own little farm. Right now I have a tiny multifactor experiment in my garden comparing the productivity of one strain of field corn where the hills received chicken poop, co-planting with beans, and/or two old eggs buried beneath the hill (plus controls of course). Anyone who actually keeps track of how different varieties and methods perform in their garden and analyzes the results to make conclusions about what to try next year is conducting amateur science.

Tully Reill said...


I should have clarified a bit, I guess. I wasn't referring to individuals, as much, who are driven by money but referring to corporations who aren't interested in the developments and are just into it for a profit. Look at all the trouble with patent trolls these days.

sgage said...

@ Bill P.

" Anyone who actually keeps track of how different varieties and methods perform in their garden and analyzes the results to make conclusions about what to try next year is conducting amateur science."

You would not believe my garden journals :-)

John Michael Greer said...

Kay, that's the kind of story I hear fairly often about educstion as it's practiced. Something with fewer hidden costs is generally better.

Sealander, I saw that! If I remember correctly, around a dozen people have achieved nuclear fusion with variants of the old Farnsworth fusor they've built in their basements -- that's the "Bussard reactor" that gets so much airtime on cornucopian websites. It's not a viable energy source by any stretch of the imagination, despite Bussard's claims, but I have no objection to people who want to make the experiment; it's relatively safe, and who knows, somebody might pull off a miracle. (Not that I'd recommend holding your breath.)

Wall, agreed, there's a crucial difference between science as practiced in contemporary America and science as a method -- that's why I'd like to see the method preserved. Still, I think you're overestimating the territory still open to science on the large scale. Have you read David Lindley's The End of Physics, by any chance? Worth a look.

Bill, that's a useful point. My take, for what it's worth, is that in many cases you need a great deal of observation before experimentation has any real meaning; lacking a good sense of what nature does when left to herself, you risk running experiments that echo your own presuppositions back to you -- this is, for example, the downfall of contemporary economics, which didn't pay enough attention to what actually happens in the real world before it started spinning theories and running very abstract experiments. Still, the experimental method also needs preserving. I took two quarters of experimental design and statistics back in the day, and aced 'em; I've used the concepts ever since, with good results, in some surprising settings.

Kate said...

I'm curious as to how much value to place on mathematics in the future and it's relationship to salvaging science?

I've been a private tutor primarily for algebra and geometry for a decade or so. While I've never made a tremendous amount of money this way, I've viewed it as a way to make those skills more accessible to young people and the math phobic.

Calculus has been around for a few centuries, although it's never been the most popular or best remembered of subjects for most people.

I wonder if science lost its status and home-based schooling became the norm, how relevant would higher level mathematics be to future generations?

wall0159 said...

This is straying a little from the topic, which in broad strokes I agree with, but..

I will check out "the end of physics", but from the summaries I have read, it looks like Lindley is critiquing the idea of a Theory of Everything. I am sympathetic with this.

I think it is worth bearing in mind that at the end of the 19th century, many physicists were proclaiming the end of physics because (they claimed) we knew everything there was to know about the universe...

I suspect that, were the (ecotechnic) society you envisage to form, it would open new scientific opportunities because some of our current preconceptions (such as silver-bullet solutions to complex problems) would no longer exist.

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

Granted, preserving the practice of logic and science is important.

The next stage in the 'real world' seems to be magical thinking.

Do you see another level of thought building on logic and science,(that is of the same magnitude )?


John Michael Greer said...

Kate, several branches of math will be hugely important, especially as computers sunset out. For example, ou can't do hands-on radio technology -- and I'm guessing that that's one technology that will be saved no matter what, because of the massive political and military benefits of long-range communication -- without a good basic grasp of algebra and trigonometry. Another example? Double-entry bookkeeping. That's one I'd recommend to anyone who has a facility with math; again, as computers sunset out, there's going to be a huge need for people who can replace accounting programs, and teach others to do so.

Wall0159, just as logic stayed in regular use long after the hope of using logical analysis to understand the whole universe failed, I expect the scientific method to find plenty of practical uses long after we get over the fantasy that everything can be explained by quantitative tests in which all other variables can be controlled.

John Michael Greer said...

Greg, as I see it, magic is a great deal older than logic or the scientific method, and went through its own life cycle a very long time ago. It's not the next step, any more than Greek logic is; that being said, getting a good working knowledge of magic, sorting out what it can actually do (for example, motivate people) from what it can't (for example, violate the laws of physics), and getting some skill at using it in practice, has a lot to recommend it.

As for the "next step" -- we've got a dark age to get through first, and the long period of reassessment and recovery that such ages involve. After that, our descendants can worry about creating the next useful toolkit for human thought.

Susan said...

Finally, a real consensus on global warming: It's a lie. <a href=" Reports</a>:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of American Adults shows that 69% say it's at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data in order to support their own theories and beliefs, including 40% who say this is Very Likely. Twenty-two percent (22%) don't think it's likely some scientists have falsified global warming data, including just six percent (6%) say it's Not At All Likely. Another 10% are undecided.

The number of adults who say it's likely scientists have falsified data is up 10 points from December 2009 .

Fifty-seven percent (57%) believe there is significant disagreement within the scientific community on global warming, up five points from late 2009. One in four (25%) believes scientists agree on global warming. Another 18% aren't sure.

Republicans and adults not affiliated with either major political party feel stronger than Democrats that some scientists have falsified data to support their global warming theories, but 51% of Democrats also agree.

Even a majority of Democrats!

Rasmussen underestimates the level of doubt.

Remove those with no opinion and you have 76% skeptical and 24% believers. A 3-1 ratio.

I think that it's safe for Mitt Romney to change his position on man-caused global warming now, don't you?

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I think that your reference to fraud in medical papers isn't so much about cheating as it is about a general lack of integrity in the field. Feynman summed it up nicely: Richard Feynman: Cargo Cult Science See here for the full speech.

How exactly integrity is lacking in each field can vary from fraud in medical research to willfully ignoring more accurate methods in economics to simply not having the funding to do the research properly in ecology. The problem, when you get right down to it, is that the incentives aren't lined up the way they aught to be.

At its most basic science is about finding the truth. Granted we are talking about abstract technical truths but it is still a pursuit of truth. That requires integrity, in Feynman's words, "a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards" The problem is that we don't value science for the purity of truth. We value it because it has gotten results in the past, we value the results.

The problem with result driven science is that we want the right results. The conclusion to Limits to Growth, for example, was more or less accurate but unwelcome. Peak oil and climate change are unwelcome because they have the wrong results and that just won't fly in our science produces results culture.

Cherokee Organics said...


Sorry about busting your surprise post for next week - I feel like the kid who took a sneak peak at the Christmas pressies before Christmas and them told everyone! Thanks too for the mention of double entry book keeping - what a beautiful man made system. So few people get double entry nowadays because all they now see is software. Oh well. I'm not old either but there has been a massive shift in the people understanding since I started working!

I reckon one of my neighbours reads this blog too, because over dinner the other night he was trying to stir me about bio char...

I was also wondering whether you get much news over in the US about the current turmoil in the tertiary economy that's going on? Sometimes I think it may be framed as a political issue for you people because this is more palatable? I could be wrong, but the past two weeks has certainly been the begining of a major crisis for the US. Even our press is now openly stating that it's the end of your empire - in those exact terms. China and Russia have been vocally bogging in and they were correct to do so. Given your recent book I find the lack of comments here on the situation to be quite telling. By the way it convinced me to move from the share market into cash beforehand and I must say I now owe you a debt of thanks!

Hey Lewis,

Good luck with the potatoes. They grow very well here too. I was amazed by the return from last seasons 3 experimental potatoes - about a large bucket full. I don't even think I pulled all of them from the beds either... At least you can make vodka - I'm seriously thinking about getting a still! I was remembering Orlov's talk about how good vodka was as a trading commodity in the post Russia collapse.

Good luck!


Les said...

Sorry JMG, clearly I am befuddling rather than enlightening. I was trying to highlight the (to me) important distinction between what I see as Science – “I wonder how *that* works” and technology “I wonder how I can make that work for *me*.”
I see them as fundamentally different world views, the first being enlightening and the second being primarily responsible for the mess we’ve made of the world; the first being as rare as hen’s teeth and the second being the default that most people see as “science”.
Then the corollary is that the actual *world changing insight* that arises out of the first world view is even rarer than hen’s teeth (or rocking horse doo doos).
And the corollary of the corollary is that those who are waiting to be rescued by such an insight may be waiting a while...
I guess I’m just out of step with the rest of the human race on this one.
Hopefully that makes more sense than my first post.

RainbowShadow said...

I hope that period of "reassessment and recovery" during the "dark age" you describe will include Americans learning that maybe preserving public libraries are more important than constantly trying to get rich.

In other words, I hope it fundamentally alters American value systems so that being treated respectfully and with civility and "basic politeness" does not depend exclusively on having lots of money, and that our culture should not be focused on greed and "those virtues that allow you to earn money" to the exclusion of everything ELSE (such as the ability to find beauty in a cool breeze or looking at flowers for example, or the joy of being hugged by someone you love).

I also hope it fundamentally alters American values so they start getting their ideas from Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Darwin, etc., and not get their ideas from Fox News.

What do you think, John Michael Greer? Wishful thinking, or would that be a real possibility?

Mister Roboto said...

{AKA The Commenter Formerly Known As Loveandlight}

It’s a common belief these days that more of the same will yield more of the same—that more scentific research will make it possible to fix the world’s energy problems and, just maybe, its other problems as well. Popular as that view is, there’s good reason to doubt it.

As awareness of the dire predicament of modern society grows, so also does the tendency to expect salvation in some form of metaphoric Santa Claus coming down the chimney. This is comparable IMHO to the "denial" and "bargaining" stages of the grieving process. It's probably going to take some harsh medicine to snap people out of that.

Bill Pulliam said...

Susan -- sad, but hardly surprising considering that 40% of those same people would probably tell you that the earth is 4500 years old, 70% probably can't correctly name 7 of the 8 planets, 75% would probably tell you that WMDs were actually found in Iraq, 85% would say Sadam Hussein masterminded the 9/11/2001 attacks, and 90% would be able to correctly name every American Idol winner going back to the first season.

The fact that in reality about 95% of professional climate scientist agree about the reality of anthropogenic climate change makes no real difference anyway. It has been THOROUGHLY demonstrated that neither governments nor individuals have enough will to do anything significant about it, even most of those who do "believe" in it. Economics will determine the future of fossil fuel consumption, just like they have determined its past and present.

Craig said...

The irony of science is that it always digs bigger holes than it can fill. A ponzy scheme of sorts, but what ideology isn't? It will be interesting to see what further amalgamations of faith and research development evolve into, especially in the United States. Combining Jesus, Einstein, Oppenheimer and the corporation is truly scary.

Brad K. said...

@ Susan,

I stopped believing the "anthropogenic" part of global warming some time ago. And I am not enamored of the description of global warming, as opposed to climate change (despite too many weeks of continuous 100-110 degree unseasonably hot weather here in northern Oklahoma).

I am a doubter.

As much as the ballyhooed claims of carbon-fueled climate debacle have been discredited for being forced, counter claims being suppressed, reports of misconduct and "prettying up" the reports -- I haven't found the counter claims disproving either climate change or man-made contribution to be conclusive.

Several reports came out from 'way back, that the 1950s were the mildest decade on record. It makes sense to me that decades since then will continue to be less mild. So, I am picking and choosing which reports I like, just like everyone responding to any poll.

I also figure that responding to peak oil, and the unavoidable impacts of peak oil, will pretty much overwhelm the argued response to global warming, so I pay even less attention to determining whether or not consuming fossil fuels contributes to global warming as much as it does to political and climate activist (and scientist) careers and fund raising.

I try not to confuse polls with facts or science. Mitt Romney might change his stance, based on that poll; he lives in the world of politics, after all, a world of perceptions (like polls) rather than truth, facts, or reality.

RainbowShadow said...

Also, Susan, if I may interject:

The fact that "a majority of people" believe something doesn't make it true. Majorities have been wrong before, and often.

On principle, I don't trust polls, because not everyone who answers the polls has studied the issue in as much depth as John Michael Greer has.

Tripp said...

@Cathy McGuire et al:

Sorry to pimp my own blog on your site, JMG, but my post this week is about a topic Cathy and I were discussing a couple of weeks ago - namely, the art of bartering and getting your "money's" worth when you're not a typical A-type, hard-nosed trader. I call it "perennializing the trade."


Bert L. said...

I agree with your premise that the scientific method, as currently practiced, may be near the limits of practical usefulness.
However, I do not think that all the low-lying fruit has been picked, nor that billion dollar investments are required for new advancements. New discoveries may just require a different kind of picker. That picker will recognize and utilizes luck, intuition, and possibly what you referred to as reflection, as much as the scientific method. Luck and intuition have always played an important role in scientific discovery.
A fairly recent example is the promising field of carbon nanotube inventions that evolved from the discovery of buckminsterfullerene,
C-60. C-60 is a new form of carbon like diamond and graphite, that is naturally occurring and quite common, but went unobserved until the 1980’s. Chances are good that C-60 and related materials discovered by accident will prove to be far more important, perhaps revolutionary, than short lived new elements added at great expense to the far end of the Periodic Table.

Chris Nelder said...

John, don't judge a book by its title. My book, Profit from the Peak, is a detailed study of peak oil, peak fossil fuels, and the alternatives for energy transition. It was exhaustively researched and footnoted. Colin Campbell called it “the best job I have seen in describing the Peak Oil issue in a sound and very understandable way.” If you want to avoid total collapse in this capitalistic system, you MUST harness the energies of investors and clean technologists. Despite the title (which was, shockingly, designed to appeal to buyers of business books) I endeavored to take a level-headed and factual approach to the challenges ahead. Maybe you should actually read it before waving it off as pointless profiteering.

SophieGale said...

Green Wizardly science:

NYT: "Finding the Potential in Vacant Lots"

(Verification word for today is "stable." Just what I needed this week.)

beneaththesurface said...

Within the culture of science, there is a prevalent belief that the answer to problems (or “predicaments” like peak oil) is to always pursue more and more research, that the reason why certain problems have not yet been solved is because further research has not yet been done. This underlying assumption is hard to shake off in certain segments of our society. The possibility that scientific research may be producing increasingly marginal returns, or in some cases, making problems even worse, is hard for many people to admit.

One of many examples: There has been enough research done on diet and lifestyle for people to at least know generally what is a healthy diet and lifestyle, even if many details are still being sorted out. Eat a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and other whole foods; drink lots of water. Avoid added sugar, white flour, highly processed foods, artifical foods with lots of ingredients, fast food. Maintain a lifestyle where you regularly do physical exercise. Don’t sit on a couch watching TV all day. Don’t smoke. And don’t drink excessively. Avoid stress. Get adequate sleep. Have friends who you can talk to and who listen to you. Pursue your creative passions. Basically: Basic common sense. (And you don’t have to have an advanced scientific degree to understand these things.)

Every day in the news, there are new studies coming out about diet and health. Sometimes conclusions of these studies contradict conclusions of previous studies in the details (enough so that it makes further scientific research yet seem necessary), and sometimes they make new and interesting conclusions in small details. But basically these studies don’t drastically alter the picture about what is good for you and what is not. Eating more broccoli and less McDonald’s meals is still a wise decision.

More and more research about food and health continues to be done, while people’s actions regarding food and lifestyle are not significantly altered, and the majority of the people haven’t even achieved the rudimentary elements of a healthy lifestyle. The reason why people continue to have unhealthful diets is generally not because a lack of scientific knowledge or lack of further research, but because of psychological, cultural, economic, and political reasons. I often wonder if much more of the money and resources spent on scientific research around health were to be spent on practical work actually making a difference in people’s actions in regard to health, whether it would be better spent.

Beyond the area of food and health, this is a similar feeling I have towards the orthodoxy of belief that more scientific research is automatically the primary answer to whatever problem we’re looking at—whether it’s current energy issues, global poverty, the crisis of education, or the high incidence of depression. Certainly, scientific research can be a valuable tool, I’m certainly not discounting it altogether. (I’m the daughter of two scientists, and partly because of my family background, I actually have a lot of appreciation for the scientific method and scientific research of certain kinds, while at the same time I’m highly critical of the larger culture in which science operates). But is it where the majority of money, time, and resources should be put to address to the many problems of contemporary society?

Because of utter complexity, it would probably be impossible to actually design and carry out an adequate scientific study to exactly determine to what extent scientific research has helped address major societal problems (and with historical comparisons), but I think asking the larger questions underlying this fantasy research study is important.

tOM said...

You say, "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"

However, I've yet to hear of a old Roman water turbine, windmill, or nuclear reactor. Perhaps we don't read the same history books?

Yes, making those turbines and windmills and reactors does take energy, but even as oil gets priced out of sight, our abundant coal reserves can still provide the smelting needed for a century or so. Then, of course, we had better have moved to longer term energy sources, whether fission, fusion, or solar cropping(a form of fusion).

As for logic being exhausted by the 4th century BCE, hah! Einstein's relativity breakthru, and indeed, most of quantum theory, came not from experiment, but from logic. Digital computers are based totally on Boolean logic, developed in the 19th century.

Since when is 1833 "recent"? By my count, that's 8 generations ago, and society has been tranformed - as you have complained about.

Have we reached Peak Science? As Niels Bohr said, "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." An analogy often used is that the island of knowledge has an ever expanding shoreline of discovery. We are seeing an exponential growth in scientific papers and inventions. What is more, the shoreline of discovery is more and more under scrutiny by more people. The internet is making the increasing knowledge available to an increasing number of people. More people are also becoming skilled in the procedures of science" postulating, observing, measuring, thinking.

The telephone was discovered almost simultaneously by Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray. Calculus was invented nearly simultaneously by Newton and Leibnitz. When the soil is ready and conditions ripe, many plants will grow!

With information ever more available to more individuals, I expect there to be growing numbers of inventions and discoveries, and of these, a proportion will be significant breakthroughs. The telephone, when invented, was not seen as a breakthrough. Who would you call? And the telephone was very limited in range. Western Union had a chance to buy the invention but passed it by to concentrate on its telegraphy because telegraphy "had a brighter future."

Still, your advice to your readers to start postulating, observing, measuring, thinking (and repeat) - is wise. We didn't know the theories of genetics when we bred plants and animals to continually improve their productivity. The theories just enabled later leaps rather than plodding. As Georgi Marinov delineates, science is understanding, technology is the application of science and experience.

Still, it does pay inventors/scientists to collaborate - see

We are doing more with less. The CPUs of today are many, many orders of magnitude more efficient than when first built. Cars are more efficient, at least to run. We have electric bicycles. Fibre optics carries signals much further with less power than copper wires. As well as conservation reducing power demands, t\science can reduce power demands too.

Will science solve all problems? Who knows? Given enough time... But better to depend on past science than hope in future science. It's clear that JMG's thesis that our fossil fuels are running out and our political masters have their head in the sand and that a severe crisis is inevitable has a significant chance of becoming true.

tOM said...

@JMG, so nuclear power produces some dangerous waste. Alas, coal and oils sands mining (actually, all mining) produces much more waste, many orders of magnitude more, which degrades the environment much more, including poisonous runoff, and can't be kept in a few swimming pools or stuffed down a single mine in Yuca. Better a small problem, easily solved, than a huge problem with no solution

@meg, your reference plays with the numbers - eg, elements discovered more recently are bigger, not smaller, so the declining graph is of the "mean inverse of the atomic weight". You can prove almost anything if you cherrypick and play with the numbers.

@Kevin Anderson K9IUA, most of the amateur scientists JMG referred to were unemployed upper-class brits. They had both time and the resources and freedom of an independent income. We have more unemployed now, but they lack the resources ☹.

@My Donkey, those activities are hardly "professional" or specialised.

@ozark, @jmg, Yes, science is a "tool" for understanding our universe. What else do you need to understand? What other tools are there that are useful for this purpose? Religion is a tool for explaining scary stuff so we don't have to think about it. Science actually tries to make things less scary thru knowledge and control. (Alas, doesn't always work,e,g, nuclear weapons...) Politics is not yet very scientific, yet we depend on it to avoid nuclear war, economic depression, and many other disasters. Another field where science is needed? (Game theory comes to mind)

@Kieran O'Neill, Einstein got his 3 seminal papers published in 1903 while he was a patent clerk. It might be harder these days ☻. However, it's easy enough to put your research online. Self-publishing has never been easier.

@team10tim, Yes, science has its problems, not disbelievers, but people who don't like particular truths. Truths can have some serious impacts on economic interests who, thinking stupidly in the short term, will fight those Truths to make(or keep) a quick buck.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Susan,

Surely you are joking?

If you're not kidding around with everyone here then you've ignored a major issue and that is - peoples opinions are not science.

If I were you, I'd stop worrying about rhetoric and get out and plant a garden.

If the US keeps printing money - and it will - then it will eventually result in hyperinflation - it's been tried before. Forget about economics for a moment and think about how dependent all of your agricultural systems are on oil. Printing money doesn't put food on the table.



curmudgeon said...

might the correlation be made that a profit model economy that creates antagonism only and always leads to scientific fraud? As well as it leads to over use of resources out of the hands of the many and into the hands of the few who propagate their ideas above the common good? As we have in americuh today.

John Michael Greer said...

Susan, this simply makes a point I was trying to make: most Americans think of scientists, not as impartial judges of facts, but as shills for one or another political or economic interest. Scientific fraud is among the things that feeds that perception, though of course it's not the only one.

Tim, that's another part of the issue, of course. Scientists like Ray Kurzweil have insisted for so long that science can ultimately do anything that most people outside the scientific community don't want to hear it when what scientific research actually says is "no."

Cherokee, I have no idea how many Americans know about it. I do, but then I get most of my news from overseas sources.

Les, no argument there. Still, my point was that despite the difference in worldviews, for a period from the late 19th century more or less to the present, scientific research did drive technology -- though it didn't do so before then, and almost certainly won't do so afterwards.

Rainbow, heck of a good question. I wouldn't hold my breath, but it would be nice.

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto! (I couldn't resist.) I think some of that hard medicine is en route, if the mess in global stock markets is anything to judge by.

Craig, true enough -- every ideology makes promises it ultimately can't fulfill. I'd like to see the corporation left out of some of those fusions you mention!

Bert, well, we may differ in our definitions of low hanging fruit. I've already said that I expect science to remain important into the far future, just as logic is important.

Chris, I didn't wave your book aside as "pointless profiteering" -- I used it to indicate a common theme in American culture, on which your publisher very smartly capitalized. I haven't read it, though I'll remedy that. You may be interested to know that the library in the small Appalachian town where I live has a copy of your book, though it doesn't have any of mine!

Sophie, thanks for the link!

Beneath, exactly; if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

John Michael Greer said...

tOm, you need to read more history. The Romans didn't have nuclear reactors, of course, but they did have water turbines -- we'd call them water wheels -- and used wind extensively for seagoing transport and a variety of industrial processes.

You also need to read my posts a little more carefully before trying to slag them. If you had, you might have noticed that I said that the development of logic stopped in the 4th century BCE and remained stopped, ahem, "for the next dozen centuries or so." That might have suggested to you that I was leaving room for Boolean and other non-Aristotelian logic -- though of course that would have interfered with the cheap shot you were trying to make.

Finally, with regard to nuclear waste, I'll make you a deal. I'll put ten pounds of coal ash in my basement, and you put ten pounds of used nuclear fuel rods in your basement. I think you'd notice the difference -- and so would everyone who had the misfortune of living nearby for the next quarter of a million years. All the rhetorical gamesmanship in the world doesn't change the fact that nuclear power is a Faustian bargain that gets electricity now at the cost of poisoning the environment for longer than our species has been around -- and that, as I hope we learn one of these days, is very nearly the definition of ecological stupidity.

John Michael Greer said...

Um, folks -- we are not going to have a debate on the validity of global warming here. That's a topic that has generated a great deal of heat and very little light, and it's also off topic here. If you want to debate it, please do so elsewhere.

sgage said...

"Scientific fraud is among the things that feeds that perception, though of course it's not the only one."

Probably the least important factor. OTOH the perception of fraud is a big factor. But most of the time a big fraud story comes up, it turns out to be, well, fraudulent - bought and paid for by whatever corporation stands to benefit. In the case of climate change, it's often Exxon/Mobil.

The more science tells people what they don[t want to hear - things that might actually call for changes of BAU - the more people will fasten onto fraudulent claims of scientific fraud.

sofistek said...

I think you're right about science's place in our future but I can't agree with some of your thinking and tend to agree with Bill's assessment.

"Claims like these are difficult to defend in the face of numbers of the sort just cited."

Except that you didn't cite any numbers other than the average number of repeat offences. The article you cited mentioned some numbers but not in context. How widespread is this? Does it extend into other fields? What is the percentage of fraud, and how has it changed over time? Is the incidence outside the US significant and, if not, is there a possible explanation for US based fraud? Can anything be said about the period before 2000? And so on.

"the spreading popular distrust of science that is such a significant feature in our public life"

Sorry. You've mentioned this before, with respect to climate science, but is there any supporting data for this more general claim?

"the fraud issue's important for another reason, which is that it's helping to drive the spreading rejection of science on the part of the general public"

This might be true if what fraud there is is widely reported. I don't see that.

I used to have hair said...

You said
"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."
"I’d like to suggest that science, like logic before it, has gotten pretty close to its natural limits as a method of knowledge."

It puzzles me how you're able to draw such sweeping and confident conclusions without having experience in ANY field of professional scientific research.

The LHC experiment you cite is but an exceptional example which is not representative of the prevailing situation. Most researcher groups live on much modest grants.

As a full time researcher in the field of computational condensed matter physics, I find it impossible for me to even speculate whether the sub area which I am working on is in a state of diminishing return relative to other methods in the field.

A serious critique of any sub field will require that you have at least read and understood most of the important literature in the subfield(most likely at least 50 papers). Then can you only synthesize whether the field has reached it limits with respect to some measure X.

My advice, drop the pretense of knowledge in areas which you are clearly out of depth. Your practical articles on organice farming and conservati are much better.

Ventriloquist said...

Today S&P has officially downgraded USA debt.

Bully for them. A major rating agency actually had the cojones to call a spade a spade.

And now, just watch the markets open.

Sunday night: Asia. Bad news.
Monday early: Europe. Worse news.
Monday morning (NY open): denouement

Pull in your money funds, Boys & Girls, we're in for some fun roller-coaster rides here!

Susan said...

Cherokee and everyone else:

I did not post this Rasmussen poll because I don't believe in AGW (although I do have some doubts about the anthropogenic part). The point of my post was that a majority of people polled by a reputable polling company evidently are not convinced that global warming is real. Please note, this has little to do with whether or not global warming IS real.

Lots of otherwise intelligent people can be persuaded to believe that black is white (and vise versa) thanks to indoctrination and propaganda.

On the other hand, just because a bunch of pointy-headed intellectuals (who stand to gain huge research grants from a credulous government) say something is true, doesn't necessarily mean it IS true...

I thought it was serendipitous that Rasmussen published these poll results at about the same time that JMG wrote this week's episode. It sort of reinforces one of the points that JMG was trying to make this week. Due to a variety of factors, including political ideology, a lot of regular folks out there have serious doubts about AGW because Phil Jones and those other idiots at East Anglia and the other so-called institutions of higher learning decided that it was necessary to tweak their results in order to be more convincing.

"Hoist by their own petards" comes to mind...

Susan said...


I have a very nice garden, thank you very much. We have so many tomatoes this year (about 15 different varieties) that we are going to have a tomato tasting party for our friends and neighbors.

John Michael Greer said...

Curmudgeon, I think that's far too simplistic an analysis. As several commenters have pointed out, fraud remains far from general in many branches of science, and it's by no means pervasive even in some of those areas that involve plenty of profit -- just common enough to feed popular distrust of science.

Sgage, I think you're seriously underestimating the social impact of the broader context of scientific dishonesty I mentioned -- the fact that the opinion of a qualified scientist can be had for the price of a grant or two, and the role that some scientists play in public as shills for various interests. That combines with high profile media stories on scientific fraud -- which are far from uncommon -- to create the distrust I've mentioned.

Sofistek, did you read the article itself or just the Science Daily squib? It cited quite a few numbers -- and the crucial one was the number of repeat offenders, which suggests strongly that at least in the health sciences, scientific fakery is not being punished the way the broader scientific community insists it's supposed to be. The broad distrust of science? See Susan's comment for one of many measurements. The media coverage of scientific fraud? I have no idea what media you watch; here in the US, there's about one much-discussed case a year.

Hair, yes, I figured somebody would wade in to insist that I have no business discussing the future of science since I'm not a scientist. Quite the contrary; as an educated layperson with an extensive background in intellectual history, I can stand back far enough from the grindstone to see a perspective that active researchers often can't, or at least don't. I don't claim to be able to tell you how close your specific subfield is to the point of diminishing returns, much less where research dollars ought to be spent; but I look at science as a whole -- as a human phenomenon not unlike certain other phenomena in history -- and see certain patterns repeating themselves.

If you disagree with that assessment, then by all means make a case for a different view. This notion that only scientists have the right to assess the progress of science, though, and that the rest of us simply ought to shut up and sign the checks that pay your salaries, is as arrogant as it is unwise; that sort of attitude is another of the factors that's driving the collapse in the social prestige of science I've been discussing here.

Ventriloquist, I hadn't heard that yet! (I spent today out at junk shops -- scored an Olivetti Lettera 22 manual typewriter in pristine condition, as well as some good sturdy tools and books -- and so haven't checked news websites.) Things are going to get colorful, no question; I'd encourage readers of this blog to put some time this weekend into making sure you can handle a period of financial trouble.

Kevin said...

JMG, about the Olivetti: what do you do about fresh typewriter ribbons? Can you erase on it, and if so with what?

I used to have hair said...


The problem I have with your assessment is that you're making very sweeping and general statements about the state of "science" with very little information.

While your post was long, the only actual example you provided for the costliness to do science is the "LHC collider". (It is not representative)

The sparseness of your evidence coupled with your bold pronouncements strikes me as extremely prejudicial.

Maybe, I'm misjudging you and you are in fact well informed with the inefficiencies prevalent in the various discipline of science. This however is not apparent from your writing.

What is arrogant is the presumption that you know better then everyone else when you haven't even spend time trying to understand it.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yes, Standard and Poors downgraded you guys from AAA to AA+.

Now some people may say, "big deal".

However, it is a big deal because all of your borrowings going forward are going to cost more.

This is not just about the government either, it affects banks and major corporations as well. All of them will pay more for borrowing and they will pass the costs on.

The ability to service the existing debt will diminish too as the debts are eventually rolled over.

Still some may say, "so what?".

Well, in a globalised economy - and we are still in this condition - corporations will ship production and services to lower cost countries resulting in further unemployment for people in the US.

I remember during the 90's that corporations were pushed into reducing their asset bases and increasing their debts - through a management fad of all things - why buy when you can lease as it's a more efficient use of working capital - leveraging or gearing they called it. This really leaves them exposed during these times. Individuals were no different - come borrow against the increased equity in your home - buy a Chevrolet Silverado!

Also the press here is writing that the expected plan is that the US will continue printing money (QE3?) until it's money is valueless and the debts will magically disappear. There will be consequences to this for sure as unlike Japan, a lot of US debt is held outside of the US - it generates a lot of international badwill.

When you get into debt and there is no possibility of full settlement, then in my mind it's kind of like gambling your childrens future (or the farm) away.

Hi Ventriloquist,

I'm heartened that someone else mentioned the current goings on. Do you guys get media coverage of these things? How do they frame it? Because in my mind it's a failure of your system and the fault of both major parties and the entire electorate? There are none to blame but yourselves.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Susan,

"Are they hunting for witches?"

The problem with relying on populist approaches is that eventually it becomes a witch hunt. It always does. I've visited the killing fields in Cambodia and are pretty clear on what people can do.

I hope you are learning how to preserve those tomatoes? The Italians have a great tradition of doing the tomatoe preserving (and sausage, grappa etc.) thing. When times are good - and they are for now, but not for much longer - make sure you put away something for the future. Hunger is a powerful motivator.



Bill Pulliam said...

Looking at the survey Susan cited not as it specifically pertains to climate change but as it reflects in general on attitudes towards science (which I believe is ON topic for this week's post)...

I believe this is an example not of how real fraud has led to distrust of science, but of yet another instance of the rampant conspiracy theory fetish of the american popular mind and the whole "A lie repeated often enough" phenomenon. You do not need any real evidence at all to get the public to believe a juicy conspiracy story, especially when it tells them that It Is Not Their Fault. Skipping over the point of whether or not "climate gate" and other actions constitute bona fide malfeasance and data fabrication, to the second point about the belief that there is no scientific consensus on the issue. Again, not to debate the climate facts but instead the presence of absence of consensus, whichever way it may or may not lie, as a means to examine where public perceptions of science come from (I reiterate, ON-topic)... There is extremely strong consensus (near unanimity) among professional climate scientists on the point. Even the Association of Petroleum Geologists has backed away from their skeptical position and adopted a neutral stand -- one of the very few professional societies to even go that far towards the skeptical side. This mass public perception that there is widespread and serious skepticism within the scientific community is purely, absolutely, 100% manufactured propaganda, with no factual basis whatsoever (please don't anyone bother trotting out individual high-profile media-savvy skeptics; those exist for every issue, especially where there is industry money or religious faith involved. Smoking doesn't cause cancer and dinosaurs coexisted with humans, too). Yet it is believed by a majority of Americans because it feeds their emotional needs. I expect a similar number of people believe that the Mayans predicted the end of the world in December 2012. No facts needed there either, but it sure sells books and movies and helps people believe that The End Of The World Will Not Be Our Fault.

To repeat and summarize -- this survey reveals more about the conspiracy-loving American mind than it does about American science. It is of course true that public opinion surveys do not tell you what science is, but they do help tell you quite a bit about mass psychology.

GHung said...

JMG: "I'd encourage readers of this blog to put some time this weekend into making sure you can handle a period of financial trouble."

A bit of an understatement, IMO, but then again, much of what we discuss here boils down to this. The economic paradigm shift we are witnessing will require most of our time to adjust to. Readers who take this blog seriously should already be in the mode of handling a permanent "period of financial trouble".

Ideas about voluntary poverty and zero reliance on (conventional) credit may seem foreign and scarey, but this picture is already showing at a theater near you.

The line forms to the rear.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

" Olivetti Lettera 22 manual typewriter in pristine condition..."

Nice, but what about the ribbons and optional carbon paper dependency?

Copperplate writing using a nice ink pen could have been a better option? :-).

divelly said...

I sense a hidden agenda or a personal anecdote fueling your anti medicine stance.

John Michael Greer said...

Hair, you know, I hope you use better logic in your scientific work than you've done here. You've taken two data points -- first, the fact that I used one example to make a particular point in a blog post that covered a lot of ground, and second, the fact that I don't work as a research scientist -- and made a whole series of sweeping assumptions on that basis, winding up with the claim that I "haven't taken the time to understand it" -- "it" here presumably being science.

I expressed my view in terms of a personal assessment, and I've already explained to you the basis of that assessment -- a comparison of modern science to similar phenomena in human intellectual history. If you're going to caricature that by claiming that I think I know better than anyone else, or what have you, I don't thik you're paying attention to what I'm actually saying.

Cherokee, yes, I've read up on the news at this point -- and it's not as though this comes as a surprise. The US is never going to be able to pay back its debt, and sooner or later the rest of the world is going to have to deal with that.

Bill, of course you're on topic -- I simply wanted to head off a few hundred posts rehashing the global warming brouhaha. I don't argue for a moment that what's driving the results Susan's cited is the same spiralling distrust in authority figures that also expresses itself in the conspiracy theories I critiqued a week or so ago.

Still, that distrust didn't come out of nowhere, and I don't think it's fair to insist that it's purely a function of people refusing to hear the answers they don't want. There's also the fact that a great many once-respected sources of authority in the US have shown themselves to be all too willing to sell out for wealth and influence. The public face of science has seen enough of that in recent years that a great many people trust scientists no more than they trust, say, reporters, clergypersons, or physicians -- to name just a few examples.

Ghung, well, yes. My concern is that a fair number of readers of this blog may have been putting off crisis preparations on the assumption that crunch time is still a few years off -- and there's at least some reason to think that it's here, right now.

Mustard, I've already got the pens, and know how to use them. This is on the assumption that we may not drop all the way to pen and ink at once. As for the ribbons, they can be re-inked, you know!

Divelly, oh, for heaven's sake. Should I suspect a hidden agenda or a personal anecdote in your discomfort with my mistrust of mainstream medicine as it's currently practiced in the US?

Bill Pulliam said...

I personally would not say I have a "mistrust" of mainstream medicine so much as just not being all that impressed by much of it. There are things it does very well -- repairing injuries, for instance. But even its own triumphs it can tend to destroy, such as the overuse of antibiotics rendering these miracle drugs steadily less useful. But with things more subtle than a broken bone or abscessed tooth, my own experiences have not wowed me. When I used to go to doctors more often, my experience was that they would first misdiagnose the problem, give me some pills for the wrong thing, then eventually arrive at the same diagnosis I had suspected myself before the first visit, and give me some more pills. My wife watched the mainstream establishment spend 2 years and probably $10,000+ of her insurance company's money coming up with absolutely no diagnosis at all for a chronic problem (after stuffing her full of many medications that did not help). Basically they said "you don't have cancer; other than that we have nothing to offer." About hundred dollars worth of visits to an acupuncturist and body worker gave her two independent nearly-identical diagnoses within the eastern school, and after a month of very modest (and extremely inexpensive) ayurvedic modifications to her diet the problem went away. Another problem she had, which her mainstream doctors misdiagnosed and offered nothing put pain killers for, was largely resolved by a chiropracter and massage therapist.

Again, it's not really mistrust, just feeling that they are much less omnipotent than they believe.

Ventriloquist said...

@ Cherokee Organics

I'm heartened that someone else mentioned the current goings on. Do you guys get media coverage of these things? How do they frame it? Because in my mind it's a failure of your system and the fault of both major parties and the entire electorate? There are none to blame but yourselves.


The first thing to understand about US media coverage is that the overwhelming majority (probably 98+%) of the population get thier news from the MSM (mainstream media), and less than 2% get their news from non-MSM sources (primarily the internet blogosphere).

Realize that at this point, the MSM is 100% corporate-owned -- nothing is put out to the public that is not coincident with their agenda. As a result, all news is "spin", and serves to keep the American populace sedated by well-crafted disinformation.

The MSM has long since abandoned their role of watchdog and muckraker, formerly intent on exposing all manner of skuklduggery by big government and big business. Now, unless you are focussed on digging through internet news sources you trust, you can abandon any hope of getting the true story behind any major event.

This S&P downgrade is being used by the MSM as yet one more opportunity to broadcast the vitriolic posturing by political blowhards of various allegiances. All super-hot air and absolutely no real reporting and analysis. To paraphrase another well-known quote: "A country gets the kind of media it deserves."


Cherokee Organics said...


The dialogue between yourself and Hair / Divelly is quite interesting. Specialisation is a good thing, but it's also a corrupting thing.

One of the themes you're seeing is, "if it's not your area - don't speak about it". This is clearly untrue and also a little bit elitist. Most professions could use a bit of prodding. Good debate keeps them honest and it also keeps their heads out of the clouds. You can see professional capture at work across the board in our society and it's purely done with the members self interest at heart. Still it is nothing more than a moment in time.



DIYer said...

Bill, excellent summation of the AGW public "scientific debate". Reminds me of Douglas Adams' SEP cloaking field. (Someone Else's Problem)

So there's that danger to scientific inquiry, but there's the bigger problem JMG describes in the essay. For the most part, science requires an absolute excess of energy. Perhaps the LHC is an extreme example. But at the very least, the scientist must be able to engage in his pursuit without needing to spend 80% of his waking time tending a farm.

M.C.P. said...


The fact that it was different research makes it all the more supportive of the idea that the scientific method eventually weeds out what doesn't work because it weeded out two things that were fraud, not just one. And I did read your post carefully... You just misunderstood what I was attempting to say in my response, and I can see why as I wasn't clear on that line. My bad.

I am interested to read your next week post. I disagree with you that there is a Healthcare Crisis at all. There is a fiscal crisis affecting healthcare (i.e. people aren't able to get healthcare coverage because of conservative foot dragging not allowing for adequate funding to public interests), so your post has already peaked my interest.

@ Don Mason,

"Medical professionals are able to specialize because money is available to pay them; for example, a huge factor in the increase of medical specialties has been insurance reimbursement, particularly from Medicare and Medicaid. "

Right, and if the cholera outbreak that you went on to imagine becomes realty, specialists will be reimbursed for addressing that instead of less pressing diseases. Unless disease and death begins only happening to the poor, healthcare professionals will always be fed money as long as there is money to feed. There may be periods where the money does not flow where it is needed in the healthcare industry, but because everyone dies at an equal ratio across all demographics, you can be certain (as certain as death itself) that the imbalance in payments will correct itself, and specialization in new areas will continue.

Shining Hector said...

I'll be curious to see next week's post. "Salvaging Health?" I actually am a physician, and am really looking forward what you have to say.

Tying in with the conspiracy theory theme, I've been thinking we sometimes get a bad rap for the same reasons. I can tell you it's a rather sobering experience when you realize that the reason you're not getting through to someone you're really trying your best to help is because to them you represent The Man, with all the associated baggage that entails. Gives you a bit of perspective on authority figures you remember railing against in the past (and present).

I don't know your individual circumstances, but you're probably not as out in the cold as you'd think. As an experiment, go to your local ER complaining of chest pain, say you're uninsured, and see if that makes a difference, really. Actually, don't, but I can tell you if anyone has the slightest whiff you might be telling the truth, you've got a workup that costs more than many people make in a year coming your way. Not that that's always a good thing, but you really can't say we don't try or look at nothing but the bottom line.

For all the railing about how we're money-grubbing scoundrels, a great many of us end up providing our services for free to some of our patients, in one way or another. Whether you call prefer to call that genuine compassion or presumptuous noblesse oblige depends on your attitude, truthfully it's probably a bit of both. Power is a funny thing, it really is, and honestly it's extremely difficult to have very good understanding it until you've actually had it.

SophieGale said...

JMG: Congratulations on your "new" Olivetti Lettera. I've been thinking for a couple of weeks that it's time to pull out my manual Olympia (circa 1969)and look for ribbons. I am seeing new ribbons for both of us on Google and carbon paper, too!

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin (from a while back), your comment somehow ended up in the spam bin -- my apologies! There are currently ribbons for sale for the Olivetti Lettera 22, and they can be reinked. As for erasing, that's what white-out was originally invented to do, and there are some other tricks as well.

Bill, well, I'll be discussing my experiences in next week's post. They're not too far from yours, though there's a body count involved.

Cherokee, that's exactly the point I'd hope to make. When a specialization is healthy, there's always a dialogue between people in the specialization and people outside it, and the differing perspectives help keep both sides on track. When that breaks down, very often the specialization runs off the rails in one way or another.

MCP, there's a health care crisis, and then there's an economic crisis that's impacting health care. I'll be talking about both of those. We have the most expensive health care in the world here in the US, and we also have very poor public health -- are you aware, for example, that our rates of infant mortality are on a par with Indonesia's? -- and a stunningly high level of morbidity and mortality directly caused by health care procedures. The money crisis and the health crisis weave together in complex ways, and the impact of peak oil on both is going to be a massive challenge. More on this shortly.

Hector, I'll be interested to hear your response to the upcoming post. I've had some good experiences with physicians, as well as some ghastly ones, but the core issues in the US health care crisis have much more to do with the institutional framework of health care than with individual doctors and other professionals. I'll be addressing that. For what it's worth, by the way, I do have some experience of power, and of course you're quite right; the question that needs to be asked is whether you use your power to empower others, or to reinforce the barriers that set you apart from them. It's the old question: do you serve the love of power or the power of love?

Sophie, sounds like a plan! Yes, I've already located an online source for spare ribbons.

John Michael Greer said...

Divelly (offlist), yes, I thought it was tolerably likely you'd turn next to schoolyard insults. If that's the best you can do, do it somewhere else.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

@Bill Pulliam

I had an experience similar to your wife's.

A few years ago, I slipped on some wet tiles in a shopping area, and badly hurt my Achilles tendon. A friend took me to Accident & Emergency where, after a wait, I was x-rayed. Despite being in tears because of the pain, and not being able to put any weight on the injured leg, I was told that the x-ray showed nothing broken, so I could leave. When I mentioned the pain, the two doctors who were dealing with me suggested I get some aspirin.

For the next few weeks, I carried on with life in great pain, trying to get around with a walking stick.

A friend introduced me to a TCM doctor. After some acupuncture and herbal medicine, I took a course of tui na therapeutic massage over a couple of months, and was soon walking comfortably again. Taijiquan strengthened the tendon so that now I don't even have any twinges.

Now,I would almost always go to a TCM doctor as first choice for most things, up to, and including, a broken bone (there's good reason for that; I'll save it for next week, though).

In my story here, Western medical technology gave us the x-ray. The Western medical system also gave us the tick-box mentality that saw me back out on the street even though I was still in great pain and unable to walk.

I'll also add that I studied the pharma industry during my MBA, and have some sense of the way the medical industry works...

Mean Mr Mustard said...

A nasty controversy over the origins of autism has broken out here in the UK. A scientist has been criticised but sadly, appears overly concerned for her media career, rather than arriving at an improved understanding of the issue.

Reading that article led to finding this - some readers here will doubtless enjoy this most instructive archive - Bad Science

Ozark Chinquapin said...

To use the same metaphor you use about economics in "The Wealth of Nations" (Just finished reading it, it's a great book), I would consider mainstream medicine to be in a similar situation as Ptolemy's astronomy, in that the system is based on the wrong presumptions. It is good at some things, just like Ptolemy's astronomy is, but no matter how much money on research and fancy machines, it has a major flaw. That is its mechanistic view of humans. I prefer and have had better luck with systems that work with the body's natural healing processes instead, rather than treating health problems like your a broken machine.

My personal experience with mainstream doctors is pretty negative as well, not to say all the doctors were bad people. One was particularly rude but others have been very nice people who meant very well but still weren't helpful because of the mindset of the whole profession. Many of the diagnoses are not helpful at all either, for instance one I received was "Irritable bowel syndrome" which really means you have some digestive issue that they have no clue why, and they won't even mention basic things like to watch what foods aggravate it, let alone try to get to the bottom of the whole situation. I have had more favorable results with alternatives to mainstream medicine, although not all of them. I may write more lengthily about that in a comment to the next post if it ends up being on topic.

idiotgrrl said...

And let me note one other distorting factor. My oldest daughter and both my sons-in-law are MDs, and they came out of med school carrying such a load of student debt that they had to go for the big bucks (to the best of their ability) in order to pay them off. Though my daughter does research in psychiatric genetics as well as some clinical practice (which is going to save her in the times ahead). Her sister's husband chose his field, anesthesiology, because it allowed him more daddy time than ER work, his other choice.

Actually, another thing that will help my oldest is that her research has taken her to Costa Rica enough that she's actually soaking up a feel for a more sustainable way of living (outside of the big city) and liking it.

siddrudge said...

Regarding specialization . . .

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, solve equations, pitch manure, program a computer, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." Robert A. Heinlein-- The Notebooks of Lazarus Long

Ric said...

Interesting video talk that touches on recent essays as well as next week's topic:

Barry Schwartz: Practical Wisdom and the Choices that Matter

DaShui said...

Greetings A.D. Greer!

While were discussing paradigms that have outlived their usefulness I want to add the "Rule of Law." I'm sure most readers are aware of the recent instances of Johnny Law coming down on people with gardens. In the West it has gotten to the point one can not do anything without breaking a law or employing an army of lawyers to protect oneself.

John Michael Greer said...

Mustard, thanks for the links. It's a source of wry amusement to me that autism so often seems to spark the sort of quarrel where everybody seems to lose any capacity to empathize with or understand everyone else!

Ozark, it's partly that, I think, and partly the catastrophic impact of wholly profit-centered management, which has produced a medical system that produces high profits and poor health. As von Neumann pointed out in his book on game theory, you can only maximize one variable at a time.

Grrl, and of course that's also a problem -- we were talking about the absurd cost of education last week, and medical school is about as absurd as they get.

Siddrudge, no argument there.

Ric, thanks for the link.

DaShui, the fact that laws are abused in the interests of a clueless majority doesn't make the concept of the rule of law outdated. It means that laws need tune-ups at least as often as bicycles. If the rule of law gives way -- and that's likely enough sooner or later; it's a common event in the decline and fall of civilizations -- what's left is violence and chaos, and the closing off of an entire galaxy of human possibility until the survivors remember why laws and customs that limit the human propensity for brutality are a good idea.

Robert said...

@ DaShui

Here's how my Danish-American father explained it to me when I was a boy, some 60 years ago.

You can break any law, he said, if the stakes are high enough and you are willing to pay the penalty if you are caught. But be sure the stakes are really high enough to make the penalty worth your while to pay.

Also, he said, you owe it to society to admit what you have done if you are caught, and to take your punishment like a citizen. Don't waste the common wealth by denying what you did and making them prove it at great expense.

(This came from a man whose own mother, a young widow disowned by her family and all alone, could only find work on the wrong side of the law for about two decades to insure her own three children's survival . . . "A woman does what she must so her children can live, and there can be no reproach to her for that.")

From grandmother's stories about that stage in her life, it became clear to me at an early age that even the professional law-breakers need to uphold the rule of law *in general*, if they are to survive and prosper.

"By law shall the land be built up" [Med lov skal Land bygges] are the opening words of the Jutland Law Code, promulgated by King Valdemar in 1241, now carved over the main doors of the Copenhagen District Courthouse. To be sure, the Jutland Law Code goes on to say: "but no Law is as good as Truth."

Shining Hector said...


Well, if you're really curious what the doctors were probably thinking about your ankle...

You went to the ED to get a good soaking of Western medicine. You got an x-ray. They said no fracture, take aspirin, go home. You feel dismissed and go somewhere else, fair enough. Well, here's the other side of the story...

Your patient comes in, limping. First thing you think of is I need to rule out a fracture. Sprains/strains heal themselves just fine without intervention, fractures don't, therefore what's important is to make sure there's no fracture. X-ray comes back, boom, no fracture. Take some anti-inflammatory (aspirin) to ease the pain. If I give the patient opiates, there's the possibility of addiction, diversion of medications, etc., best to just say take aspirin since this is an
ED and I can't really follow-up with the patient. Nor is the ED really the setting to make outpatient referrals for longer-term, non-emergent things, hence the name Emergency Department. I've determined you'll heal fine on your own, my job is done.

Had you gone to a primary care doctor afterwards, you very likely would have been referred to physical therapy and given a brace to help with your mobility, maybe maybe not opiates, depends on the doc. Anyway...

You went to the TCM guy, he made you feel welcome and validated, and you got better in two months. Guess how long it would have taken you to get better on your own without any intervention? That's right, about two months. That's what the ED doc thought all along when he nudged you out of the door. There really wasn't any need from his perspective to drag it out any longer. Not very touchy-feely, but then again, that's what an ED doc's job is, figure out quickly what needs his direct intervention and what doesn't, treat appropriately, and then move on to the next patient. That's just how it is. Had you had a life-threatening condition or even something like a dislocation or laceration requiring his intervention, you probably would have left with a somewhat different impression about how much he cares about your well-being, but what can I say, you didn't. Should you ever find yourself with crushing chest pain, the worst headache of your life, a gunshot wound, etc., don't let that stop you from going back to the ED first as opposed to the TCM guy, though.

Richard Larson said...

I like this article.

Although this has been practiced widely, it is amazing how the row of tomatoes planted above the skeletons of the Lake Suckers I caught last spring, are 50% taller than those 2 rows removed.

How is that for a scientific soil test? Ha!

Sith Master Sean said...

Sorry if this is a bit off-topic, but you seem like a wise person so I wanted to ask you: why do you care about any of this? Life is very short, the universe is incomprehensibly vast, civilizations rise and fall, species come and go, so it’s difficult to see how any of this could possibly matter. Have you found something in Druidry or another philosophy that has given you an alternative to nihilism?

Robert said...

@ Shining Hector

What is obvious to a physician is hardly obvious to a patient.

Did the ED doctor tell him to consult his primary care physician for further advice and treatment? I think it's not at all obvious to most laymen that one should do that.

My own PCP is a very good physician, and we have an excellent relationship. Even so, if I were in carp's position, but did think to call for an appointment, I would have to wait much longer than those two months to actually see him.

By now I know enough to kno gthat can ask for an appointment with a nurse practitioner, which can sometimes happen the same week. But it's not obvious to anyone that this option is available. It's certainly not publicized by the practice to which he belongs.

In fact, once you connect with that practice's front desk, the very first words you hear, before the phone tree starts, are along the lines of "if this is an urgent problem, don't tell us about it. Instead, hang up right now and take it to the emergency room or call 911."

I'm a retired university professor (in the humanities). I have what it takes to figure out how to get the care I need from this practice.

Very many people don't have what it takes to figure this out, and never will. There is a problem here, and it is one of communication, not of medicine per se.

Robert (mageprof)

John Michael Greer said...

Hector, I think that's fine advice -- and if Carp doesn't have one of the rare and serious conditions you've described -- heart attack, stroke, major trauma -- I trust you'd be glad to see him go to his TCM guy, who can spare the time to listen to him, relate to him as a human being, and provide the kind of symptomatic relief and gentle but effective treatments that make all the difference in the 99.9% of health conditions that don't require heroic treatment. Agreed?

Larson, next year put the fish under a different row. Rinse and repeat, record your results, and yes, it's science.

Sean, from my perspective nihilism is simply self-indulgent. The universe may be vast, but I don't live in "the universe" or any other abstraction; I live right here, right now, in the flurry of challenges and possibilities that we might as well simply call "life." I can run away from that reality into nihilism or some other escapist ideology, but that's an evasion that doesn't interest me -- as you say, life is short, and when it's winding down I'd much rather look back on a life of passionate participation than on one spent sitting on my hands and brooding about how meaningless it all is.

The words Stan Lee put into the mouth of The Mighty Thor come to mind: "‘Tis not by dropping out – but by plunging in – into the maelstrom of life itself – that thou shalt find thy wisdom! There be causes to espouse! There be battles to be won! There be glory and grandeur all about thee – if thou wilt but see!" Corny, but it makes for a more interesting existence than the alternative.

tOM said...

Science - there are still mysteries...

Sith Master Sean said...

That's a little spooky because I know that exact scene and am a *huge* Thor/Lee/Kirby fan, so good one.

I guess my question is relevant to your post, because the biggest impact science has had is on our worldviews -- it has shown us just how big and alien the universe is and taken a sledgehammer to our old myths. Unfortunately, it hasn't given us a good myth in return, which is probably the biggest reason people are turning against it. But if you try to explain this to a scientist you will probably get a blank stare, so I won't be too sorry if the current breed of scientist fades away.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

@ Shining Hector: sounds like you're a doctor! Thanks for backing me up. Just to give a little bit of extra information, I wasn't in my own country at the time, although the doctors who dealt with me were British-trained.

Still, your comment precisely demonstrates the point I was making. As you said, from those doctors' POV, all boxes had been checked. "I've determined you'll heal fine on your own, my job is done." As @Robert/mageprof has already pointed out, from the patient's perspective things looked different. How hard would it have been for those doctors to explain that I needed to see a general practitioner, get physiotherapy etc? Bear in mind that I was still in great pain, still very stressed and confused after a sudden accident. Just that little bit of support and guidance would have made a big difference.

That perhaps helps to clarify the distinction I was trying to make towards the end of my original comment.

Let's put it this way: my parents' GP for many, many years was the General Practitioner of legend, a genial, whisky-drinking Scotsman who knew all of his patients personally, and gave advice according to what the individual needed.

By the time I reached adulthood, things had changed. My experience is of doctors who don't really know their patients and frankly don't take much interest. The incident with my ankle was only an extreme example.

Note that we still haven't reached any discussion of Western medical science vs other systems yet. My point is that the Western medical system, which these days seems more about box-checking and budgets than about patient well-being. (I'll also note that my entire family, and friends, would do almost anything to avoid going into a Western hospital, after a family member who was admitted for something minor came back in a far, far worse condition).

TCM doctors, in my experience, actually do take an interest in the wellbeing of their patients.

I'm not going to get into an argument about this. Of course, we could throw example and counter-example about, and it will get us nowhere. This is my personal experience, and that's what I make my decisions on.

To briefly add more on other points I made previously:

- during my MBA, I studied the pharma industry. We looked at how reps from pharma companies will visit doctors on a regular basis is champion new drugs, often with incentives. I am unconvinced that greater patient wellbeing is the outcome or purpose of these relationships.

- on a separate occasion, I broke my wrist when I was knocked off my bicycle. It was put into a cast for months. When the bones had knitted, the cast was taken off and I was left to my own devices; I still couldn't use the hand, because of damage to the soft tissues. Once again, I was given no guidance as to who I should see next, or what I needed to follow up. A friend, who is a TCM doctor, told me that had I come to see him after I was injured, he would have splinted the arm, wrapped it in herbs to help the soft tissue mend, and given regular massage. I would have healed much more quickly. Here we see a difference in approach between the two systems very clearly: the compartmentalized Western system which looks at the patient as 'parts-based' (eg "I'm an osteopath; soft tissue is nothing to do with me") vs a TCM approach based on the whole person...

There's much more to be discussed on this topic. Let's wait and see what JMG has to say later this week.

And now I'm going into the garden to practice my qigong....

Shining Hector said...

Yes, you're correct. It actually was the ED doc's responsibility to explain all that, and most doctors if you posed the question in a reasonable manner would agree. In action a lot don't, for one reason or another.

Honestly I don't know enough about TCM to know. It would stand to reason, though, I have sufficient intellectual honesty to admit there are a great deal of health or health-ish problems our approach isn't particularly good at treating, yet we still keep trying the same thing over and over again and complain mightily when it doesn't work. I would only hope TCM practitioners would likewise know their limits enough to not sit on something requiring immediate medical attention.

idiotgrrl said...

The TCM practitioner treated the patient, which is what you needed after the immediate problem was fixed. The ED doctor fixed the emergency problem and moved on. He didn't treat the patient, which understandably left you unsatisfied. But that's not the nature of emergency work. Emergency work means you have to treat the problem and move on to the next because these are - *emergencies*.

A person needs both. But you only get both from a primary care physician - if indeed under the conditions prevailing today, the primary care physician can do both. And if not, that's another, deeper, systematic problem.

Bill Pulliam said...

Sith -- I'd say science has only "taken a sledgehammer to our old myths" if you are silly enough to take your old myths literally rather than symbolically; i.e. if you think Thor (the original) actually is a big man with a big hammer and a red beard, rather than a symbolic embodiment of both an aspect of the forces of nature and an aspect of the human psyche. I like working with the classical Elements -- Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. As a scientist I know that the biosphere (ecosphere, really), comes into existence where the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere come together and interact with the energy from solar radiation. Let's see, that is air+water+earth+energy = life. So they are symbols of major realms of the physical world. And they are used metaphorically as aspects of the human psyche and body. No sledgehammering there.

Jason said...

Glad to see the medicine topic is generating interest!

@Carp: My point is that the Western medical system, which these days seems more about box-checking and budgets than about patient well-being.

Yes, and there is another side-effect of that, which is that the practitioners no longer have any instincts. They can no longer feel their way.

I should save some other links for the medicine post itself. See here though for someone who knows all about healing instinct, Matthew Wood. Here also again is the link to the comprehensive review of qigong and taiji benefits.

Kate said...

Ric, thanks for sharing the video. It resonated and reminded me of all the lessons my grandfather used to give us on the perils of becoming "educated fools." He believed understanding human nature was often more valuable than "book learning."

His approach to teaching was to take a young person with him when he went out into the world. After an interaction he considered valuable, he would ask "What just happened? Tell me what you learned from this."

I remember, as a child, wanting to respond as I would in the classroom; with a desire to please, to be correct and to be viewed as smart.

At that point, he would usually bemoan the loss of a common understanding of human nature.

For instance, he often pointed out that most people are more motivated by a desire to be thought of as a good person rather than purely for personal advantage. He also warned us to steer clear in our dealings of those who didn't fit into that category because they tended to be con artists no matter what position they held in society.

While these ideas didn't always make a whole lot of sense at the time, they did have staying power. Over the years, I learned he was right more often than he was wrong. I've also learned that I gain more in the long term from being wrong than I do from getting good grades.

John Michael Greer said...

tOm, thank you for the link! It's particularly good to see somebody in the scientific community recognizing that science is simply a method of generating mental models of experience -- that's an awareness not often found in recent publications. (On the other hand, your comment rehashing the usual round of pro-nuclear talking points was off topic and went where off topic comments go.)

Sean, ah, I see the problem. Science hasn't done anything of the kind; science -- as the link in tOm's comment points out -- is simply a good way of generating mental models of certain parts of human experience. For reasons rooted in history, that method has become tangled up in a set of very powerful and dysfunctional myths. The most important of those latter is the one you've termed nihilism -- the notion that the only things that exist are bits of dead matter bobbing about in infinite empty space.

That's not something that can be proved or disproved by the scientific method; all the scientific method can show is that a model of the universe consisting of bits of dead matter bobbing about in infinite empty space isn't contradicted by the phenomena we can easily quantify, but that's it -- and since a great deal of human experience can't be quantified, it's by definition a partial explanation at best.

What gives the myths of science their power is that they feed the human ego with daydreams of omnipotence and irresponsibility -- read Ray Kurzweil's books for the latest iteration of those daydreams, or simply think about the delusional hubris woven into the usual-until-recently scientific rhetoric about "the conquest of nature." It's all very intoxicating, but when you come right down to it, it's every bit as mythical as any Norse tale about the gods, and arguably has less of value to teach us.

Hector, excellent! No argument there -- and you'll find that most alternative health practitioners are very quick to refer people to MDs when there's evidence of one of the conditions MDs can treat well, as they tend to get crucified in the media and the courts if they don't. If MDs were quicker to refer patients to alternative health practitioners when the health condition in question is something that MDs don't handle well, I suspect we'd have a much saner allocation of health care in this country.

Grrl, true enough -- and yes, the main issue is systemic.

Jason, Matt Wood's a wizard -- and I use that term advisedly, and with great respect. He's one of the herbalists I read most carefully. Thanks for the links! I'll be using one of them in the upcoming post.

Houyhnhnm said...

JMG said, "With much scientific research in America moving in what looks uncomfortably like a death spiral, the only way those skills are likely to make it across the crisis ahead of us is if individuals and local groups pick them up and pass them on to others."

I agree, but most of the "others" I'm finding aren't young. Only rarely do I see high school and college age "others" who want to disengage from the mainstream. As someone who grew up in the 60s, I find this difficult to understand, but perhaps this article explains a bit of what happened.

“8 Reasons Young Americans Don't Fight Back: How the US Crushed Youth Resistance."


Bill Pulliam said...

JMG: "If MDs were quicker to refer patients to alternative health practitioners when the health condition in question is something that MDs don't handle well, I suspect we'd have a much saner allocation of health care in this country."

Or for problems where both approaches have effective, non-exclusive approaches. There are many chronic conditions where mainstream medicine has some things to offer that can be helpful, and "alternative" medicine has some other things to offer that can also be helpful. These include widespread issues like high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, prostate health (and that *other* extremely widely discussed and frequently medicated "men's health issue"), myriad aspects of pregnancy, etc. etc. I just found an article today about a study finding that yoga was about equally as effective as pills at reducing moderate hypertension:

But try to get your insurer to cover your yoga classes, books, and mats, even when they are cheaper than the pills!

Of course many people would not comply with a prescription for yoga even if it were free. But many would, and would prefer it to pharmaceuticals.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey JMG,

It's one thing to discuss an impending crisis in theoretical terms. It's another thing entirely to watch it play out firsthand.

One of the things I'm noticing is that people across the board are projecting their belief systems onto the question as to where it's all going. Their belief systems also tend to follow their age and how desperately they need a return to business as usual. Over here, most people are exposed to the share market through compulsory retirement savings (superannuation) whereby 9% of your gross salary is regularly contributed on behalf of your employer (it also applies to the self employed - if they pay themselves a wage).

If you want another website that provides a fairly indpendent economic analysis have a look at:

It's quite good and fairly honest.

Hey Ventriloquist,

Yeah, it seems to me that it may well be framed as a political issue over your way. Beware of this analysis though because it's a structural shift which is something else again. The downgrade actually sends a signal that the ratings agencies have strong doubts that the debt in question can be repaid. It's a statement on the toxic political environment - they have no answers for the current predicament except whats been tried in the past and failed miserably.

The reason that this has come to a head is because Greece has defaulted in all but name. The other PIIGS (note the extra I for Italy) countries are expected to follow at some stage in the future. Who'd have thought that sovereign debt could be a problem (said facecitously)?

It seems as if we are fated to repeat history.



JacGolf said...

JMG & Sean, I think your conversation has sparked a realization in my head. Science is nothing but a language. Much like any language, it is a means of helping us understand and communicate. No more, no less.

That is what I like about the comments here. There are many ideas and you never know what each may spark. So much better than the usual banter of daily life about weather and politics.


JacGolf said...

By the way, I am still chewing on resilience. Sometimes things take a while.

John Michael Greer said...

Houyhnhnm, thanks for the link. It's a complex issue -- there are actually a noticeable number of young people leaving the mainstream, but the media, which spent most of the Sixties playing up the youth revolt, is mum about it these days.

Bill, true enough!

Cherokee, no kidding. The splat you just heard was the US economy -- and now London's aflame in what might just turn into the first round of a European Summer to rival the much-ballyhooed Arab Spring. It should be colorful to watch. Thanks for the link!

JacGolf, exactly. Just as a language is not the same thing as the things it describes, and the map is not the territory, science isn't reality -- it's simply a very useful way of talking about certain facets of reality.

Robert said...

Houynhnhnm wrote:

"I agree, but most of the "others" I'm finding aren't young. Only rarely do I see high school and college age "others" who want to disengage from the mainstream. As someone who grew up in the 60s, I find this difficult to understand, but perhaps this article explains a bit of what happened."

From my own years of teaching at Brown University from 1967 to 2005, I think something else is going on than what the article conjectures. There has indeed been a noticeable change, even at a very free-form and liberal university like Brown.

I noticed the change from about 1995 onward. Many students began to "run scared," to act as though there was no room whatsoever in their lives for intellectual experimentation. And there were more of them every year.

It wasn't the college debt hanging over their heads. A large fraction of the students at Brown come from very rich families, and they were running just as scared as the others.

Rather, it seemed to be a huge lack of confidence in their own ability to cope with the incomprehensible world of grown-ups, a real terror of having to function as a grown-up on one's own.

There was also a sense that the world their parents had made was like a castle built on sand and was about to be washed away by the waves -- but if you asked them, they couldn't say just what those waves might consist of. So they just hunkered down and gritted their teeth against the impending blows.

Of course there were exceptions, many brave and wonderful exceptions eager to get on with the challenges of life. But they had bcome the exceptions, not the rule, among students.

It seems to me to be some sort of generational shift, perhaps vaguely along the lines mapped out by theorists like, e.g., Strauss and Howe. I have lived through one of these generational shifts before, since I was born in the middle of WW II and am therefore not a "Baby Boomer," but a card-carrying member of the Silent Generation. The '60s -- the free speech movement, the Beatles, etc. -- were not part of my world or my wife's, but very much a part of our younger siblings' worlds. That generational shift happened rapidly, and caught us old fogies (in our mid twenties) quite by surprise!

But of course smaller changes and new inventions can feed into a generational shift. I think one of the things that fed into the current shift was the increasing fear of any risk-taking in general, so well pilloried by Lenore Skenazy on her blog "Free Range Kids."

Another was the growing presence of TV in younger children's lives, and the decline of conversation within many families as everyone had his or her own TV set to watch. The rhythms of light and sound that a TV makes, quite apart from the content of any show, induce a light trance in which suggestibility and passivity are increased. This has to be a factor in the growing sense of fear and helpless isolation.

No doubt there are other factors as well, but some of it is -- I think -- a result of the simple, natural processes that produce generational shifts at regular intervals in the history of any country or culture.

Don Mason said...

@ Honyhnhnm:

Thanks for the link about the possible reasons why young people today are reluctant to disengage from the mainstream.

I particularly liked the part about how if Saul Alinsky were still alive, he would be diagnosed with “oppositional defiant disorder”. He certainly met the definition: “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,” “often argues with adults,” and “often deliberately does things to annoy other people.”

We were both born in Chicago, and he’s my sort of fiesty Chicago guy.

Maybe these kids will wise up once they realize that they’ve been conned into taking on huge student loans that they will never be able to pay back, and that it’s almost impossible to discharge the loans in bankruptcy. Even if they end up disabled, the courts are now deducting a percentage of their Social Security Disability checks to make payments on their student loans – and with the interest compounding, the principal balance just keeps getting larger.

Talk about cruel and inhuman punishment. Didn’t we have a Constitution at one point? I guess it became financially unprofitable, and so it had to be suspended…

Robert said...

JMG wrote:

". . . there are actually a noticeable number of young people leaving the mainstream . . ."

My own observations support JMG here. It is precisely the exceptional students at Brown (whom I mentioned in my earlier post) who are actively learning how to garden; how to cook and can and sew; how to spin and weave, even how to shear and card and comb wool; how to work as a blacksmith; how to repair machinery; how to build furniture; even how to slaughter a pig and preserve its meat; and so forth. It is definitely a movement these days, and a very welcome one.

Again, these students often come from very wealthy families, but even so, they are moved by a feeling that they might need these skills down the road.

Also, it is a lot of fun to become competent at many unusual things. They are all having enormous fun as they develop these skills.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, that matches my experience exactly. For the majority, young as well as old, what C.P. Snow described a long time ago as "the state of siege" -- the inchoate but inescapable feeling that everything was about to come unglued -- squashes all innovation and adventurousness; for the few, it's a challenge, and the stuff we've been discussing in this blog is one of the ways a lot of people are responding to it.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yes London is in strife. There are a lot of social tensions there - high youth unemployment and the middle class with negative equity in their households... I suspect there is a sense that they have been sold out. It can't be a good recipe. It's a situation which breeds unpleasantness.

Now today, perhaps QE3? - this must be the greatest heist of public funds in history! It's selling off your kids so that you can enjoy another year of respite from reality. It can only end in hyperinflation, there can't possibly be another ending to it all? I'm hoping by some miracle that there is a less damaging end game though.

Hi all,

Some of the recent comments have touched upon the lack of political engagement of gen x and gen y. Well as a member of gen x, I can state that the baby boomer generation had it comparitively pretty easy.

Whilst they may have enjoyed secure employment for many years with loyal employers, my experience was that I was made redundant during the first few years of employment during the recession in the very early 90's. It is always at the back of my mind that employers lack loyalty and will stick it to you without a moments hesitation if it suits their needs, regardless of past performance.

Higher education began to be a debt laden proposition just as I entered it. It can't be argued around, it was a societal decision to charge students once the majority (ie. tax payers) no longer wished to burden themselves with the cost of providing it. This was despite baby boomers enjoying the benefits of free education for about two decades.

Oh yeah, households could exist as a single income household during the baby boomer period too, because it was a lot cheaper to buy houses in the first place and building standards weren't so draconian. Now with double income households all that we've achieved is more expensive housing - well done everyone.

Baby boomers are a political force too as the taxation system here is geared towards them. Retirement savings (superannuation) is tax free for now. Imagine that. By the time I get to retire I can't imagine that there will be a health or welfare net at all, let alone superannuation funds to draw on. No wonder I spend time learning about medicinal herbs.

So what did the baby boomers achieve during the protests and uprisings of the late 60's and early 70's? I keep seeing reminiscences but very little else. The Vietnam war had run it's course by the time that US and it's allies (of which we were also part of) withdrew from? I watched the movie "The Big Chill" and all it did was annoy me - good soundtrack though.

What are we left with now: a divided, uncommunicative, isolated, consumerist society that worries about where it's next cheque is going to come from and what trinket they're going to buy with it.

For all of your talk people, I don't see you guys marching on the streets either and if you are what are you achieving?



Don Mason said...

Chris @ Cherokee Organics

“So what did the baby boomers achieve during the protests and uprisings of the late 60's and early 70's? I keep seeing reminiscences but very little else. The Vietnam war had run it's course by the time that US and it's allies (of which we were also part of) withdrew from? I watched the movie "The Big Chill" and all it did was annoy me - good soundtrack though.”

I was on a college campus from ’68 through ’72 (University of Illinois in Champaign, IL).

What were we trying to do? Reduce consumption. Try to live a more reasonable life.

What did we accomplish?

Not much. But look at the forces arrayed against us who wanted to keep the hyper-consumption economy going:

The labor unions hated us.
The farmers hated us.
The retirees hated us.
The police, firefighters, etc. hated us.
The small business owners hated us.
The corporate CEO’s hated us.

And then when Nixon invaded Cambodia in 1970, the National Guard troops started shooting us.

At some point, you begin to get the feeling that “Hey, guys. I don’t think that they like the idea of reducing consumption.”

But now it’s a different story. Reducing consumption isn’t going to be an option. You can either do it now, with some grace. Or you can do it later, in a frantic rush for the exits as it crashes down on people’s heads.

Agreed: “The Big Chill” was annoying – particularly since I’m a member of that generation. Whining Boomers. Ugh.

But you can’t argue with the drum intro to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” And maybe the Temptations were singing about the Consumer Society: “I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go…”

Brad K. said...

@ Bill,

I guess the exception proves the rule. In Florissant, MO, my chiropractor and MD were brothers, and shared a clinic. My treatment occasionally wandered back and forth between their efforts.

When I signed up for Hatha Yoga class through the Parks and Rec department in Colorado Springs, CO, maybe a third of the 50 or more in the class claimed their doctor recommended Yoga. One gentleman had a hip replacement, and after the third week reported sleeping better, and more range of motion. the class was held at a Senior Center, and some large minority of the students were, ahem, older than I am now.

On the other hand, I cannot remember a physician, other than at the Missouri clinic I mentioned, referring me to a Chiropractor or other practitioner. Several of my Chiropractors have referred my to MD's for various reasons.

I also recall an article from 1989 about how court rulings barring the AMA from discrediting and disparaging Chiropractic practice was making slow gains in being implemented by members of the AMA. The institutional deprecation by doctors may have been shown to be illegal, but you cannot legislate morality. *sigh*


Kieran O'Neill said...

In terms of integrating conventional and alternative medicine, it's not all bad. The cancer agency where I'm doing my PhD puts out a pretty good free magazine advocating all kinds of non-medicinal measures people can take to reduce their risk. They even have a research programme into complementary medicine. Note that they refer to it as complementary medicine, the idea being that it works with the conventional therapies to fill in gaps.

In fact, it turns out there are pretty good databases reviewing research into complementary therapies, so that, as for mainstream medicine, a patient can find out more than a practitioner would be able to tell them immediately, and perhaps catch a bad judgement call on the part of the practitioner. (That one I just linked is mind-bogglingly detailed.)

LewisLucanBooks said...

Re: The younger generation. Well, as a survivor of the 60s, I'd say to you, you haven't LIVED until you've been tear gassed.

I'm afraid I'm overly amused by a fellow in another part of the forest (The Internet) who judging by his posts is rather conservative. I imagine him looking something like Sen. Mitch McConnell. Wattles shaking in indignation, pursed thin blue lips. A constant aura of disapproval. I'm tickled, because his son has "thrown away his education" and become an urban foraging, dumpster diving, Freegan.

Then there's The Urban Scout. He wrote a book called "Rewild or Die; Revolution and Renaissance at the End of Civilization." Check out his website at . Yup. He's pretty over the top, almost performance art. He's pretty self-aware and if you read what he has to say, the attention getting stunts are to attract attention to some pretty important topics.

Then there's the 10 year old young man who comes marching into my store, wondering if I have anything illustrated by Edward Gorey.

They're out there. Seek them out. Or be open and let them seek you out. They're valuable and must be nurtured.

SophieGale said...

More Green Wizardly science: By accident I stumbled on the Illinois Department of Resources Education page and was blown away by the educational resources available:

For you folks in the U.S. Google "[your state]DNR". Then go to the site and search on "education." Have fun!

Bill Pulliam said...

A late comment about a small point I skimmed over earlier...

Kieran wrote "Of course, 'citizen science' generally means just helping out in a non-expert capacity. "

Actually in my experience, the "citizen scientists" are often among the top experts in the things they are doing. In the case of birds, for example, the data being collected by programs such as the Breeding Bird Survey are being collected by some of the absolute top experts in the world on the identification of wild birds in the field on the fly (as it were). If you want a bird identified, don't ask the ornithologist at your local university. Ask your local amateur bird nut. Amateur astronomers are likewise some of the best-trained and most experienced observers on the planet. Storm spotters and participants in weather monitoring programs (like CoCoRaHAS) receive official training and many are keen and detailed observers. I'm sure it really depends on the field, but programs that engage amateurs to collect basic essential monitoring data about the ever-changing natural world are generally engaging highly skilled and extremely dedicated experts. I personally plan to keep surveying my Breeding Bird Survey routes for as long as my ears and eyes last, even if I wind up doing them by bicycle or on horseback!

Houyhnhnm said...

Cherokee Organics/Chris said, "For all of your talk people, I don't see you guys marching on the streets either and if you are what are you achieving?"

Having just spent the last two days bent over pulling weeds now pullable because of two days of flood irrigation, your comment made me wistful for the good old days when I could just pick up a sign and march down a street.


Unknown said...

Sorry to post this so late in the discussion, but as I washed my hair this morning, I realized what was missing from the post and comments on Science this week.

In "saving science" there has been no discussion of what fields fall in the range of science. I would first distinguish between hard and soft sciences. Some things just lend themselves more easily to a hard science approach especially those that are consistently measurable like in physics and biology.

Then there are the "soft" sciences like psychology. Statistics are often used in lieu of consistent measurement. Here is where we start to run into trouble. As we all know statistics are usually "massaged" to make it more "manageable". Naturally we need to be careful to not make assumptions about what causes what, like poor eating habits causing lung cancer when the underlying cause is smoking that promotes both cancer and poor eating habits.

One important field often dresses itself up as a science - Economics. Now we all know that science with its hypotheses etc. is used in predicting results in an experiment.

But.... do we want to or can we "experiment" with economics? All we can really do with economics is come up with hypotheses (note: not theories which are proven hypothesis).

JMG said: "Bill, that's a useful point. My take, for what it's worth, is that in many cases you need a great deal of observation before experimentation has any real meaning; lacking a good sense of what nature does when left to herself, you risk running experiments that echo your own presuppositions back to you -- this is, for example, the downfall of contemporary economics, which didn't pay enough attention to what actually happens in the real world before it started spinning theories and running very abstract experiments. Still, the experimental method also needs preserving;"

JMG in "The Wealth of Nature", p. 187 - "Like any other science, economics is a set of hypothetical models that reflect, with more or less exactness, the observed behavior of the world. Too often, though, the models get confused with the reality, and understanding suffers."

I can't see economics as a science. Maybe a Social Science, but it really doesn't lend itself to experimentation. Yes, you can use statistics on it, but you are more likely to get a reflection of your own biases than a hard result, as JMG pointed out.

[BTW I enjoyed "The Wealth of Nature" so much that I've given a couple of copies of it to friends for us all to discuss. The sales of it are pretty good at my shop, Ancient Ways, and I plan to plug it in my up-coming newsletter.]

sgage said...

@Bill P.

I should have known you would have a BBS Route :-) My partner (she's a Senior Wildlife Biologist with New Hampshire Audubon) and I have been doing ours for over 15 years now, sort of "inherited" it from the previous surveyor.

It's a beautiful route in the northern White Mountains of New Hampshire, up through a high pass and into the more level North Country beyond. One of the highlights of my year! Almost a ritual...

Houyhnhnm said...

Unknown said, "One important field often dresses itself up as a science - Economics."

Yuppers. Econ is indeed a field of Hypotheses, not Theories.

I've long called economics an interpretive art--more like litcrit than science. For example, litcrit has been quite bad in recent years, but I love the criticism that's like high level, analytical gossip. It can provide striking observations and comparisons, insights and revelations, all enlightening perhaps but hardly provable.

When I read Wealth of Nations, I enjoyed it as I do the most perceptive litcrit. Smith analyzed people as well as markets, extrapolating like a good literary critic. Having just read The Worldly Philosophers strengthened my view. One can stuff events into an economic "theory," but it's still interpretation. (So was Hamlet crazy? Or was he faking it?)

More significantly, it's past tense analysis. When economists take themselves and their "science" too seriously, nasty things can happen. Back in the 1990s, the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management collapsed when its econ Nobel Prize winners and its fancy mathematical models failed to account for an East Asian butterfly.

And today--

Off to The Automatic Earth. Ilargi and Stoneleigh offer good criticism.


Bill Pulliam said...

sgage -- actually, I have FOUR BBS routes! Three are in the peaceful woodsy rural hills-n-hollers near here, the 4th skirts the shores of Reelfoot Lake in far NW Tennessee, as close as we get to being "coastal" around here -- herons, egrets, eagles, ospreys. The southeast has lots of square miles and not so many observers as New England, many of us have to double (triple, quadruple.. septuple... etc.) up. Makes for a busy but exciting early summer!

Re: Yoga... I just turned 50, and as I enter the core of middle age I can see how differentially the men in my cohort are aging. I've noticed a bunch of consistent trends among the ones who are faring better -- for the most part obvious things like not smoking, staying active, eating well, not being obese. And another consistent trend is yoga or some other spiritual-physical-mind-body practice. So I have added it to my daily routine. I have been astounded at some of the effects in just about 5-6 weeks. My blood pressure was already fine (about 120/75); still it has dropped substantially! Today sitting in the middle of the Mall*Wart doing a simple breathing practice, it tested out at 87/70!!! Readings of about 98/65 are common for me now (on the same machine that routinely registered 120/75 in June). My sleeping has improved, and I get the sense that my prostate is happier as well. And so far it has cost me not one single penny.

a6a22cbe-c434-11e0-93ef-000bcdca4d7a said...

Speaking of profiting from the peak -

Greg Voth said...

The idea that science is in a period of diminishing returns is an important one to discuss. It gets very little consideration because those competent to discuss it often have a vested interest in ignoring it. In my 17 years work as a professional scientist I have concluded that a part of science is not only in a period of diminishing returns, but is essentially irrelevant to practical concerns. The search for ever more fundamental principles of how nature works is over as a practical matter. There is simply nothing useful that anyone is going to do with dark matter or the Higgs particle or super-strings in the next few centuries. Or stated another way, we already have fundamental theories that are good enough approximations that improving on them will not be technologically useful in the next few centuries. These subjects should continue to be studied for the same reason we should continue to create great art...because it is part of what is good about humanity. But we should not expect practical benefits, and the resources devoted to these subjects will have to decrease.

However, fundamental physics is a pretty small part of science (despite what the pop-sci programs might imply). Most scientists work on understanding materials or cells or planet earth... all things with much more useful potential. Now JMG is arguing that these also are luxuries that will not be affordable with declining energy available. Maybe. There has been some diminishing returns when the simple parts of some systems are worked out revealing that the entire system is very much more complicated than our current tools can deal with. Think of a cell...some have thought that once we knew the sequence of the protein coding sections of DNA, we would have it mostly figured out, but there are vast networks controlling protein expression and now we find a vast range of microRNA that also contribute. But discovering something is more complex than you hoped is not the same as diminishing returns. It more reflects overly-optimistic hopes, which as JMG points out seems to be a widespread human failing.

As other commenters have posted, I think the original post overestimates the importance of explicit fraud. There are more cases of borderline fraud...things like presenting data without mentioning problems with the measurements in hope that it will slip through the reviewers. The real problem is pursuit of personal advancement over substantial progress. If one just churns out papers and grant proposals you will often get more recognition and money than if you systematically advance the field.

I think you are wrong in thinking that science will return to primarily an amateur pursuit. The world is too complicated for serious progress to be made without dedicated focus on understanding it. It will take experts in experimental studies of crop yields or experts in organic soil biology and chemistry to address your biochar issue, not amateur gardeners. The benefits of understanding are too valuable for communities not to figure out ways to pay some of their best minds to pursue science. I expect a major change in the kinds of problems that scientists work on. And there will likely be a decrease in the fraction of society that can be employed as pure scientists. But the end of cheap energy will increase the emphasis that humans place on applied science and engineering, and societies that find ways to maintain specialization in these areas will out-compete societies that return to a system without specialized scientists.

DeAnander said...

I'm dropping by late, but this brief essay by Ugo Bardi suggests a decline in the quality of science similar to the decline in the quality of manufactured goods JMG commented on earlier, as a shortage of resources forces a commitment to "efficiency" at the expense of authenticity. Same root cause, structurally similar result.

hydroxide said...

A belated historical remark to this statement

"but it wasn’t until the Second World War that science had matured enough to become the engine of discovery it then became. It was then that government and business investment in basic research took off, creating the institutionalized science of the present day. "

The Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the propagation of science was already founded in 1911, thus before even WWI. Associated with it are names such as Planck, Hahn, Meitner, Warburg.... So institutionalized science existed already much earlier than WW2

Josh Jacobs said...

I love this work and the perspectives within! However, there are some interesting developments in BioChar that may be worth considering! Especially a quip from the video ("...3% of all landmass used for biomass to biochar and fuel could bring us back to 180 ppm (CO2) in 40 years...". Maybe hyperbole, yet intriguing.