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?

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Putting Science in its Place

Photo by Noam R

Although I might be described as a dyed-in-the-wool scientist, I’m about to say some things that are critical of science, which may be upsetting to some. It’s like those warnings on a movie or show: strong language, nudity, smoking, badmouthing science. So, before I lay into it, let me express some appreciation for what science does remarkably well.

  1. Science exemplifies careful observation—isolating confounding factors to focus on a particular interaction.
  2. Science follows a method that suppresses personal attachment to an idea: nature becomes the arbiter of truth.
  3. When it comes to elementary particles and fundamental physics, one can hardly do any better; although even an atomic nucleus is complex enough to defy exact treatment.
  4. Science advances by trying to tear itself apart, so that surviving notions are very strong.
  5. Because of science, we have a decent outline of how cosmology, evolution, and biophysical systems work.

It has its place.

But the very thing that makes science powerful is also its biggest weakness. It relentlessly pushes wrinkles aside, smoothing its zone of interest to the least complex system one can obtain for study. This is ideal when wanting to observe a Bose-Einstein condensate in isolation, or the genetic mechanism for producing a certain protein. Science also tends to dissect a problem (or literal critter) into the smallest, disembodied pieces—which then have trouble relating back to the whole integration of relationships between pieces. Other “ways of knowing” attempt to grapple with the whole, accepting it as it is and not applying reductionist tools.

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And Why is That Desirable?

Kid wants to know: why? why? why?

This is ultimately a post about values. More specifically, it presents a technique by which to get at people’s (or your own) values. Values are important, because they drive much of what we do: they form a sort of bedrock foundation for our actions, even if hidden from sight. When it comes to long-term consequences, some values produce better results than others. Modernity tends to have a fairly destructive set of values, in the end. I hesitate to call them bad. It is easy enough to see their innocent origin, but by consistently serving the more-than-human-world so poorly, they no longer serve humans well, either.

The technique explored here is childishly simple: just keep asking the same question over and over. The recipient of this treatment finds it annoying, partly because it forces them to think more deeply than perhaps they are accustomed to doing. How many repetitions of “why?” from a child do we tolerate before we throw up our hands and have no more answers? Embarrassingly few, typically.

In this case, the repeated question is: “And why is that desirable?” Primarily, I use this as a way to examine the values we ascribe to scientific knowledge. Years ago, I regarded science as an absolute “good.” What could be better? What higher achievement could humans point to than a scientific understanding of our world? In fact, the possible loss of this edifice is what disturbed me the most about the prospect of civilization’s collapse.

Some of that admiration will surely stay with me forever, but when I peel back layers of the onion by following the “why is that desirable” line of questioning, I find that scientific pursuit is often based on a core of human supremacy, or anthropocentrism, more politely. To see this, play the game yourself, or follow the examples below.

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The Simple Story of Civilization

[Note: This post inspired a podcast interview that traces a similar path.]

Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

The stories we fashion about ourselves are heavily influenced by our short life spans during an age of unprecedented complexity. We humans, it would seem, are unfathomably complicated creatures who defy simple “just-so” characterizations. Animals, or humans tens of thousands of years ago are fair game for simple stories, but not so for transcendent modern humans.

Two major problems I have with this attitude are that 1) we are animals, and 2) we have exactly the same hardware (albeit with slightly smaller brains) as we had 100,000 years ago.

So allow me to pull back from our present age of baffling complexity to outline a simple story covering the broad sweep of the human saga. The result may be a little startling, and, for a number of readers, sure to be rejected by cultural antibodies as “not applicable” (see also my views of our civilization as a cult).

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My Brainwashing

From Pixabay/Tumisu.

People rarely recognize or admit that they have been brainwashed. Perhaps the term brainwashed is too extreme, in which case manipulated or fooled may be substituted.

An insightful quote from Mark Twain says:

It is easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they have been fooled.

What often happens, in fact, is that people on opposite sides of an issue suspect (or are convinced) that the other side has been brainwashed. Sometimes one side is more justified in the charge than the other, in which case the brainwashed victims effectively assert a sort of projected symmetry that rings false.

Bi-directional allegations of brainwashing show up in the context of COVID: masks provide a clear means of identifying either those (masked individuals) who have been fooled into controlled submission to believe that the pandemic is real and deadly vs. those (unmasked fighters for freedom) who have been sadly misled to think it’s all a hoax and in so doing endanger us all. Each side may feel anger or pity toward the other.  Climate change is similar: its denial has become an article of faith for the brainwashed non-believers, who accuse the gullible believers of being brainwashed by self-serving scientists vying for funding, power, or something (cake, maybe?).

To either side, it seems inconceivable that someone could deny the truths that are so obvious to them. For me, an uptick in total deaths closely matching reports of COVID deaths is pretty convincing, and it is hard for me to make out why anyone in power would want to wreck the economy and could somehow convince countries around the world to overlook a competitive advantage and follow suit. It boggles the mind. Likewise, I can see how climate change threatens powerful interests like the fossil fuel industry and even perhaps capitalism writ large—via the imposition of unwelcome limits on what we can do. But I have a much harder time understanding the bizarre allegations of scientists rolling in dough by hopping on the climate change bandwagon. That’s not how it works, people.

In this post, I will provide an example of how I evaluate the question of whether I have been brainwashed in the case of climate change, contrasting the way my knowledge is “received” to that of the opposition.

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To What End?

Image by naturfreund_pics from Pixabay

Recent reflections on the long-term trajectory of the human enterprise have somewhat transformed the way I look at most activities. Specifically, I refer to the dual realizations that on 10,000 year timescales ultimate success is effectively synonymous with true sustainability, and that the human race stands in blatant breach of contract with evolution and ecosystem parameters—fueled by a mad grab of one-time finite resources. The net effect is that most human activities today promote ultimate failure rather than ultimate success.

As such, when evaluating a proposed or ongoing effort, I ask myself the question:

To what end?

This post will examine some of the activities of current society, and evaluate how much sense they make in the context of a post-party future.

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When Science is a Conveyor of Bad News

Science is a phenomenal institution. Sometimes I can’t believe we created this construct that works so incredibly well. It manages to convert human imperfections into a remarkably robust machine that has aided our growth juggernaut. Yet science seeks truth, and sometimes the truth is not what we want to hear. How will we respond? Will we kill the messenger and penalize the scientific institution for what is bound to be an increasing barrage of bad news this century as Earth fills beyond capacity?

I think for many people in our society, personal contact with science is limited to science classes in school or perhaps the dreaded science fair—or maybe as adults watching shows like Nova or tuning in to Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.

So let me take a moment to explain science as I have come to understand it. (You can skip if you already have a firm grip.)

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