Thursday, February 17, 2005

Keeping the Canaries in the Air

The marked increase in income and wealth disparities in the United States over the last couple of decades makes it appear that we gave grown far more than we actually have. If the enormous paper assets of high-income people were magically redistributed to ordinary people, the value of the dollar would plummet because the economy lacks the productive capacity to back up monies of account with real goods and services. Does anybody think that the U.S. has the medical facilities, equipment, and trained personnel to provide adequate health care to its entire population or enough teachers and schools to educate them all adequately?

I don’t mean to overstate the case. The U.S. is surely a very wealthy country that could probably afford to do better by all of its inhabitants without drastic dislocations. I do think it is likely, however, that those of us who promote more egalitarian tax and income policies should recognize that there is no boundless store of wealth to divvy up. The profits of the corporations are only sky high because they don’t get spent. The very, very wealthy mostly get immunity to risk and social and political power rather than increased consumption out of their privilege. If their share of wealth were diminished, it would hardly increase the prosperity of middling people dollar for dollar. Over a longer period of time, an increase in the spending power of ordinary people would probably tend to increase the real productive capacity of the nation; but in the short run, it might well result in inflation and lower stock prices.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Hills are Dead with Mounds of Fossils

If the Democrats want some advice about how to defeat Bush’s Social Security phaseout, they would be well advised to spend some time over at Panda’s Thumb, a website dedicated to defending biology against the well-funded assaults of Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents. The rhetorical problem is the same in either case. How do you contrive effective arguments in an open and shut case? It turns out to be remarkably disorientating to find yourself searching for yet more reasons why 5 plus 7 does indeed equal 12. Indeed, the very act of coming up with novel things to say in a debate that should have been over long ago creates the impression that there is something left to debate and impressions are all that matters in these cases.

With negligibly small exceptions, people don’t register the logic of arguments and simply follow the lead of whoever flatters them most effectively and doesn’t challenge what they heard as small children. Under the circumstances, nothing is less useful than a cogent argument. Thus the most effective weapon deployed by biologists is the old bit about how evolution is the way that God uses natural selection as his means of creation—an utterly irrelevant sentiment that doesn’t in fact bear thinking through since what occurs in evolution is nothing like a process fit to any purpose, divine or otherwise. That it takes 4.5 billion years to synthesize the likes of me is not much of a recommendation for a chemical engineer. The yield is miniscule, the quality control deplorable. None of which matters since the point of the rhetoric about secondary causes is not to make a point but to pacify the listeners or, in many cases, to pacify the scientists who wish to go on believing themselves. A pacifier doesn’t have to yield milk. The Democrats, cursed with the right side of the Social Security debate, will probably need to contrive similarly invalid appeals in order to prevail.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Is There Such a Thing as Nature?

Every time Star Trek needed a new plot device Spock or one of his successors would discover yet another piece of physics just in the nick of time. You’d think that things would have been pretty well figured out in 200 years and certainly in 300, but the sequels continue to feature novel “I’ve-never-seen anything-like-it!” L rays and M rays and N rays ad infinitum and it’s a good bet they’ll keep on finding ‘em even when the intergalactic Borders is featuring the latest thriller, WC is for Water Closet. That’s OK for television science fiction, which has no more need of plausibility than my recent strenuous but rewarding dream involving Lindsey Davenport and Charlotte Church, In policy discussions, however, it is more problematic to begin with the premise that nature has limitless depths that will make possible a technological fix to any problem. Some economists and others such as Michael Creighton seem to think that the laws of fiction apply to the real world and that some thing will turn up to save the day after we’ve exhausted the oil and fresh water and good soil. Willing to recognize that any material resource is limited, they fail to consider that human ignorance is also a finite good and that we are using it up at a furious pace. Of course, I don’t know for sure that nanobots won’t turn the Arctic Ocean into lemonade. The point is, I don’t know they will either and neither do they.

Science and technology look very different when you view them prospectively instead of retrospectively. It’s easy to make a very long list of amazing discoveries and inventions, many of which were so surprising that it took a long time to figure out something they were good for. But that’s looking backwards. The tract record of predicted technical triumphs is less impressive, even if you discount the business about the gyrocopters. AI was the wave of the future in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, and remains the wave of the future today. In disdain of innumerable announcements to the contrary, some in the New York Times, cancer remains largely incurable except in mice who, by a tragic irony, seldom have adequate health insurance. It’s even remotely possible that hydrogen cars just aren’t going to work. In twenty years of working on technology transfer, I’ve seen far brilliant ideas crash than triumph, which is not, of course, an indictment of brilliant ideas but a consequence of the fact that the sciences really are empirical, i.e. they are a form of wagering. Scientific triumphalists are like moronic statisticians who estimate the odds at the tables by interviewing people who are cashing in their chips. No wonder they’re so optimistic. But in science as the rest of life, it’s much easier to find something you like than to get exactly what you want.

Meanwhile, we are aware of various physical limits that seem to affirmatively rule out some of the fondest dreams of teenagers and libertarians. Perhaps some of these limits are not absolute or can be worked around, but limits like the speed of light sure look serious; and the onus on maintaining that they are defeasible surely ought to fall on those who blithely assume we can escape our ravaged planet and whip off to Alpha Centuri and will, too, as soon as the demand line crosses the supply line at the right price.

Truth told, I resist technological optimism for a personal reason. I find the notion that nature cannot stand before the human will somewhat sickening. My Father, who had a engineering outlook, used to pronounce “Whatever the mind of man can imagine, he can accomplish;” but even as a child this sort of 1930s, Raymond Massey-style Prometheanism repelled me. If nature offers the mind no limit, if it cannot stand before our wishes, it sublimes like dry ice, invisible in its perfect transparency. All that’s left is the likes of us, the little or not so little god of the world. I hadn’t even heard of Martin Heidegger in those days, but I guess even then I recognized that Being-in didn’t quite work without the-World because the content of our humanity is bound up with the things and their opacity. And I kinda like the things.

Of course reality is not really going to go away—the Periodic table and the Balmer series are not fads. Unfortunately a partial and temporary triumph of human will over the traditional limits of human life also presents a great danger, not only because the city in the clouds is going to come tumbling down one of these days but because even before that denouncement, the erstwhile happy citizens of that gated community are doomed to a terminal case of anomie and loneliness. As they used to say in Pravda, it is not accidental that some these folks are dreaming about the end of the world, some as Götterdämmerung, some as the Rapture.