Why modern science has largely been a disappointment

People seem to be disappointed with many things, including love, religion, spectator sports and movies, but not science. If asked in what pursuit humans have excelled, they may all answer “science.” Even other areas of outstanding human achievement, such as athletics, are attributed to “progress” in science.

At first glance, the science is impressive. It shows us spectacular images of galaxies; he claims to have photographed a black hole, and claims to know the origin of mass, and to have proof that gravity is a wave. And it is very difficult for sick people to die, because there is a magic medicine or a wonderful medical procedure. The word “scientist” continues to evoke respect and gratitude. They just add “quantum” to something and we agree that must be important. And they just need to prefix their profession with “neuro” and they can say anything about the mind like they know what they’re talking about.

Despite all the brilliance, the science has been a disappointment. It has been a disappointment in its contribution to our quality of life, to our understanding of the nature of physical reality and consciousness. The healthier you are, the more disappointing it is.

This is not an easy argument to make. When I say that science is “disappointing”, compared to what? Science has done very well compared to many other professions. Take two of mine: journalism and literary fiction. Both have deteriorated. They have lost in prestige and relevance. Middlebrow fiction has survived thanks to streaming, which is a technological evolution, not an artistic one. Yes, science in 2022 isn’t as exciting as science fiction predicted, but we shouldn’t hold science responsible for writers’ fantasies. In any case, good-natured science fantasy has been more prophetic than political dystopian fiction, like The Handmaid’s Tale, or the works of George Orwell, which got almost everything wrong, driven as it probably was by induced gloom by tuberculosis that generations of depressed intellectuals have misunderstood as political analysis.

So science is disappointing compared to what? Science is disappointing compared to its own reputation.

Consider knee replacement surgery. The knee is a simple joint. When the bones wear out, as they do in old age, some parts are replaced with plastic or metal. Hospitals make people who undergo this procedure look like they are getting new knees. But the fact is that they limp less after replacement. It’s not like older people can suddenly start jogging after “replacing” their knees. Even in repairing a simple joint like the knee, the medical field falls far short of mimicking the power of the natural human body.

Modern medicine is not getting any younger. It does not prolong life; it prolongs death. It may seem that science has helped people live longer; but the fact is that people die later. Most older people have a poor quality of life for decades before they are finally allowed to leave. I don’t know about you, but all this is not enough for me. According to current science, my knees only have three decades of running left. After that, I’m expected to accept an old man’s poor quality of life and a generally pointless existence. You can say that in three decades a wonderful innovation will help me run forever, but science has been so bad at actual rejuvenation that I’m very worried.

Also, science is unable to clearly answer many simple questions. For example, is it good or bad to fast when receiving a viral injection? Science doesn’t know the answer to almost every reasonable fitness question. A quest for clarity would be a journey through camps and cartels, all claiming various conclusions based on “the scientific process”.

Moreover, our understanding of the nature of reality has not changed significantly in the last hundred years since the Copenhagen Interpretation formalized the ideas of quantum mechanics, despite the investment of billions of dollars in large hadron colliders and the apparent discovery of many particles. Many exotic things that have been said in science are more speculative than people realize. Our understanding of the universe, dimensions and time has not changed significantly for decades. There is an allusion to this in popular science.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is about the same cute sexy science that’s mentioned in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which was published in 1980, in Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, published in 1988. There’s been no progress in the last 50 years, and I’m not suggesting it at all. But I say that the progress made has been rather modest. For example, the James Webb Telescope, launched last year, captures clearer images of galaxies than the Hubble, which was launched in 1990, but the Webb Telescope is not the transformative machine that Hubble was despite its arrival three decades later. Nor has commercial air travel got any faster in the past 60 years. In fact, considering the disappearance of the Concorde, air travel has become slower for the wealthy.

You can argue that Concorde’s failure suggests that it’s not that we haven’t made progress in science; it’s just that these breakthroughs don’t yet make business sense. Additionally, the modern tech industry has products it cannot bring to market for ethical reasons, such as certain forms of genetic engineering. But the transformative technologies that are chosen for commercial or ethical reasons are very few. Usually we don’t have certain things because we don’t know how to do those things.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist and creator of the Netflix series “Decoupled”

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