Friday 20 May 2016

On Edge again

A palomino sent me and El Asturiano a link to the 2016 Edge Question. I started having rant to myself about The Edge without really knowing what was shaking my equanimity. The contributors attempting to answer the 2016 question are the Usual Suspects: friends of John Brockman, the Great Facilitator.  Many of them were asked their opinion in 2015, 2014 and back to beginning of Edge time BET. Then I started to sound oddly and grumpily familiar and it dawned on me that I'd written a whole critique of the 2016 Question and the Cult of the Celebrity-Pundit back in January. Before that realisation, however, I'd followed the link and read what Freeman Dyson [prev] and Matt Ridley had to say on the matter-in-2016-Question.

Matt Ridley wrote about the connexion between lack of intestinal worms and the rise-and-rise of allergies in the Western World.  I found myself nodding about that, not least because I've recently recognised that others have recognised the association myself.  Nina Jablonski says something similar although her piece is about the relationship between the intestinal flora and obesity and other health issues. The microbiome is the new black.

Dyson, who is always good copy and full of sense [chekkitout youtube], had a rather interesting comment about the Dragonfly telescopic array which is super-efficient, because intrinsically cheap, at finding dim objects in the depths of space.  They are better at this mundane task than fat (foundation and government supported) super-big telescopes and cost a fraction of the price.  It is a great example of appropriate technology producing a neat solution rather than getting suckered into the idea that, as more is better, so more money is better. One of the criteria of success in science, as defined by bean-counters who believe all that matters must be measured, is the amount of external funding acquired by your researchers, departments or institutes.  As with American elections, there is a frighteningly good connexion between investment and result. Nevertheless it is a crude surrogate for actual scientific progress - difficult as that is to a) define and b) quantify. Dyson recommends that a third of all money allocated to funding research should be ear-marked for modest mom-and-pop research projects by comparative unknowns. As Aled Edwards has identified, much [far too much] of scientific research follows safe well trodden paths rather than veering sharp left into jungle to make radically new discoveries. If most of these cheap left-field research ideas come to nothing, then not much is lost. Most Big Science projects come to not-very-much themselves and they beggar the tax-payer. Back in my Jan EdgeQ critique, I cited Judith Rich Harris's essay for pointing out that most published research is useless, boring, or wrong.

Dyson's suggestion made me think about the whole goddam, smug edifice - The Edge; it's 2016 Question, and indeed science itself. Scientific, medical and agricultural 'progress' has been instrumental in creating 5 billion more people than can be sustained on our small blue dot. That's the excess since 1916 when there were less than 2 billion living people on the planet. Their demand for:
  • bright plastic buckets; 
  • throw-away containers with barcodes
  • huge homes in absurdly inclement regions like winter New England;
  • a helluva lot of uncomfortable shoes in closets 
  • a private automobile and dirt-cheap fuel to make it go; 
  • a server in Finland next to a hydro-electric plant to store 100,000 crap photos of kittens doing antic things in bathtubs
has buggered the planet.  The creators of the small grey cinder we won't be able to inhabit don't seem to be mobilising 'science' to sort out the ramified problems engendered by technology.  Let us, accordingly, not ask, the undoubted;y brilliant, Steven Pinker, Martin Rees, Paul Bloom et al. what they think again. Let us rather ask an articulate teenager what she thinks we should do and give that a go.  We can't finish up in a worse place.

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