Confessions of a Disillusioned Scientist

AI-generated stranger; I’m not so young/attractive

After a rocket ride through science, I am hanging up the gloves, feeling a little ashamed and embarrassed to have devoted so much of my life to what I now see as a misguided cause that has done more harm than good in this world.

The previous post details my views about the limits of science. In this post, I will focus more on my own reaction as a human participant in the enterprise.

As is so often the case, my trajectory, in hindsight, looks straightforward and linear. Halley’s comet introduced me to the sky in 1985–1986 at age 15–16, quickly leading to my building a 10-inch Newtonian telescope on a German equatorial mount (using plumbing parts from my plumber neighbor). Through this telescope, I saw all nine planets in one night (when there were nine), an individual star (supernova) 36 million light years away, and a quasar 2 billion light years away. I was a physics major at Georgia Tech and spent every-other-quarter at the Naval Research Lab working on optical communications for space. I had my pick of graduate schools, and chose Caltech for its idyllic setting, its relaxed, collaborative atmosphere, and access to “big glass.” Within a few months of starting, I had gone on observing runs to the venerable Palomar 200-inch telescope and the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on Mauna Kea. What a dream I was living! Meanwhile, I enjoyed many outdoor adventures with fellow grad students, some of whom have become life-long friends.

I did not expect to stay in academia (the statistics were not encouraging to a middling student), and interviewed at a few “industry” jobs while also dipping a toe into “prize” postdoc fellowships and create-your-own postdoc adventures. I picked one from the “adventure” bucket, to start a lunar laser ranging project as a test of general relativity at the University of Washington. Abandoning my graduate expertise in infrared astronomical instrumentation was risky, but I saw this postdoc as a last hurrah in academia, deciding that I might as well have fun. I loved the people I worked with, and savored my time in Seattle. Unintentionally, this gutsy move looked very attractive to faculty search committees, two of which tracked me down based on the reputation of my graduate work and then put me on their short lists after learning of my new direction. One of these led to a tenure-track job at UCSD starting in 2003, where I kept the pedal to the metal on the lunar ranging project. During a 20 year career there, I was never turned down for funding my project, hit all the usual promotion steps at the expected times (tenure then full professor), and felt that I had “made it” by all traditional measures. Having written and reviewed a large number of peer-reviewed papers and served as panel reviewer for NASA and the NSF for far more proposals than I ever wrote, I knew the “game” quite well. I had a versatile set of powerful tools that I could bring to bear on what seemed like almost any problem. Science was, in some ways, the essence of my being, and I found plenty of reward in it—both intrinsically and societally.

So, what happened?

A Gradual Exit

My path away from science involved a number of key elements.

  1. I became aware that some of the pillars on which modern life is based were necessarily temporary. Growth on a finite planet would have to stop—both in physical terms like energy, but also in economic terms.
  2. Fossil fuels, upon which we are utterly dependent, would soon taper off, being a finite resource.
  3. Fertilizer and agriculture critically depend on fossil fuels, so human population could experience a large correction later this century.
  4. The Limits to Growth work from 1972—which I found to be insightful and credible—reinforced the plausibility of a mid-century major “adjustment.”
  5. The turbulence of a transition this momentous could be so disruptive (resource wars, economies in ruins) that all my work testing general relativity might be lost and rendered meaningless (as well as all the things my colleagues work on).
  6. Renewable technologies are not as easy as they sound: fossil fuels do things that the electricity from renewables has a hard time replicating, and the materials demands ramp up extraction and its associated ills.
  7. Biodiversity loss (extinctions, tragic population declines) spell an ultimate dire fate if we do not heed the warnings: we are obviously now powerful enough to destroy large swaths of the ecosphere and community of life.
  8. Technology facilitated the predicament, and constitutes an inappropriate response, as we will never master all knowledge and will inevitably create unintended consequences.
  9. An energy substitute for fossil fuels is the last thing we need, as energy is what powers our expanding terminal encroachment on the living world.
  10. Science is a narrow tool: powerful and tenacious like a pit bull, but having no intrinsic wisdom or context. It concerns itself with what we can do, not what we should do.

I now think a significant portion of my adult life has been mis-spent. Scientific institutions (and university STEM departments) are, to me, a sort of day camp for smart people. Our society approves of these institutions and rewards its practitioners, in part based on the misguided notion that this is where solutions to our problems will originate. Instead, science/technology is far more likely to produce the seed corn for another generation of ecological destruction.

For one thing, most people are working on efforts that either do not relate at all to our pressing concerns, or when they are, it tends to be more of a doubling-down on the kinds of hair-brained things that got us into this predicament in the first place.

Even so, almost nothing substantive happens. More papers get published each year, lots of press releases go out, and TED talks get made. These things are great for cluttering the front of the refrigerator, like purple horses in fingerpaint.  Yet in my 20 years in academia, the halls never rang with triumph of a new major breakthrough. Okay, some people in my institution were part of the cast of thousands working to find the Higgs boson, which was completely expected and did nothing to rattle the cage—leaving an aftertaste of disappointment. The other big news during my astrophysics career was the first observation of gravitational waves from black hole mergers. The main surprise here was in the size of the black holes. But the merger sequence followed general relativity expectations perfectly: no seismic change to our understanding of the universe. It seems like a lot of (expensive) bustle for little gain, and what gains we do see often translate to a net loss to the community of life—so maybe I should not complain about the lack of furious progress.

Writing and reviewing countless grant proposals for many millions of dollars taught me that each (successful) proposal is a well-crafted fiction. I’m not saying that scientists are charlatans, but that the budgets, timelines, and promises are incommensurate with actual results. To some extent, this is okay: science is an exploration into the unknown, and it is silly to pretend that anyone can predict exactly the three year course a funded effort will take. But I know full well from my own grant history that the projected accomplishments were aspirational, and seldom are fully achieved. This is normal, and expected.

As I drifted away from a belief in science as the ultimate practice, I had a hard time seeing how I would continue to satisfy the expectations of my department and university. At the highest levels of academic review on campus, what matters is impact, and I felt I could probably manage to maintain some measure of impact in connection with concerns over planetary limits. But few of my departmental colleagues would understand the value of something so far from standard physics research, and most of the courses I taught would seem empty, or worse: propagating tools that appear to do more harm than good.

In short, I came to realize I was one of the bad guys. I like the saying that everyone is the hero of their own story. Part of me would certainly like to believe so, but no—I’m still a villain, if unwittingly so. The projects I worked on demanded copious energy, resources, and travel far out of line with care for the natural world. The result in no way helped the more-than-human world. I can say the same about virtually all science. It’s extremely focused on short-term, narrow-boundary benefits for humans at the ultimately-unaffordable expense of ecological health. I lament our society’s squandering of talent that presently pushes on the very things that make our situation more precarious.

I now find myself to be in an odd position: possessing well-honed skills in reductive, logical, quantitative analysis while recognizing the narrowness of those mental modes. I can “robot” with the best of them, but no longer see the appeal of always thinking like a bot, even though this form of thinking is revered in scientific circles. As one indicator, blog posts of mine that crunch the numbers—robot style—tend to get a lot more attention than ones that say to forget the numbers and take in the wider picture.

What’s It All For?

As a scientist at a university, I found myself asking: what is it we’re doing, here? Once we look past the self-important huffiness so common among my cohort, is science helping or hurting US? By US, I mean the entire community of life. We are nothing without the collective WE.  Clever scientists might be able to spin a tale of how one day in the future their work might benefit the more-than-human world. But set against the harms we know come from the work today, the more likely case is more of the same: terminal damage.

I suppose an item I could append to the above list of factors contributing to my exit (thus dialing it up to eleven) is: Science, as it is practiced in our society, is a nearly perfect expression of human supremacy. It’s all for us (humans); it’s all about us. Most science is, therefore, in service to the Human Reich. I’m tired of being associated with that team.

Science is a fantastic tool: nothing better for ferreting out some kernel of truth in a narrow context. I would not want to see us abandon that capability. However, I would want to see science in service of improving—not destroying—the community of life: the more-than-human world. Unless we start prioritizing the whole, failure is practically baked in, given our tremendous capabilities at perpetrating harm.

Imagine what would happen if the National Science Foundation (NSF) were headed by people who have spent a lifetime embracing and practicing Indigenous ways and wisdoms. They could oversee scientific efforts to supplement our understanding of this complex world as one important and reliable input, but always with an eye to the guiding question: is this research likely to be a net help to the community of life, or a net harm? If in doubt, then maybe: don’t. Efforts aimed just at human concerns seldom do us any long-term favors, as the associated collateral damage to the ecosphere takes our living collective backwards.

Under such a scheme, science would assume a subservient role, and likely would be much smaller in scope. The squirrels and newts would applaud our efforts.

As I find myself more on the outside of “team science” these days (I would like to be accepted on “team life,” despite a steady record of crushing losses), I am reminded of a moving song by Dar Williams called The Great Unknown. I recommend listening to it or looking over the lyrics. It’s not a perfect fit, but it hits on some key themes.

[Note: the few scientists working to promote biodiversity over human concerns get a pass.  Also, after publication, I changed “Technology is what created” to “Technology facilitated” as technology is simply the tool with which we enact modernity’s flawed (anthropocentric) worldview.]

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