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« Energy Flow, Emergent Complexity, and Collapse | Main | What is a Feasible Living Situation for Future Humans? »

February 09, 2010


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Thankfully science as an institution has managed to resist succumbing to this otherwise universal failure, though.

George Mobus

Hi David.

RE: science as an institution.

I wonder. The process of science certainly still works because it is meta to human foibles in the long run. But the institutionalized science as represented in things like ossified journals with their least publishable units, driven I think by tenure systems in the universities, seems to be stumbling. Every year we publish more and more knowledge, but seem to have less and less understanding as a society. And that is what institutions serve, the culture.

I'm thinking too of 'big' science that is getting mired in paperwork and management complexities. Joe Tainter chalks this up to the marginal return on investment in complexity. Unless, for example, the Large Hadron Collider or Fermilab discover the Higgs boson (or prove its non-existence) some time soon, there will have been a huge expenditure of resources that went for naught! Even if they do find it, it will be years before the significance is felt by society as a whole, if ever.

Don't get me wrong. I personally would love to know if the Higgs particle satisfies the mystery of mass. But what good does that do to the man in the street?

Something similar is going on in medical research, especially with pharmaceutical trials. Large, complex studies produce very little payoff unless they hit on a miracle drug (like Penicillin). Lots of management overhead for very little payoff.

Of course this payoff to investment problem varies across sciences and within pockets of scientific specialties. I don't want to paint with too broad a brush. Nevertheless, as an institution (e.g. government funding agencies, university labs, national labs [don't get me started on fusion research in the latter!], etc.) I have some very disconcerting questions about efficacy. For one thing these institutionalized approaches have failed almost completely to find some of the most pressing issues facing humanity (e.g. peak net energy, found by unfunded independent researchers working overtime!) and they have certainly failed to communicate what they have found to society in an efficacious way (so as to get political will for change).

So, while I agree that science as a process continues to fulfill its purpose, discovering knowledge, I am much less sure about the institutionalized aspects of science.


Robin Datta

I had 4 riceburners starting with a Datsun 280Z in 1996.12 and three Toyota Supras (the last one being a "twin intercooled turbocharged 320 hp V6 which I gave up in 2007.05 for a Bowling Green z06 only because Supras were no longer made. It unfortunately lacks the dependability of those others. Toyota's fall from grace may have been a while in the coming but was swift in its dénouement.

The basic problem with science today is avarice. There was once a time when it was considered unethical to seek more than a modest profit on a new drug - at least that was the case at the time of the discovery of sulfonamides, cortisone and insulin; they could have made their discoverers extremely wealthy in our day and age, where different attitudes are the norm (the patent for insulin was sold to the University of Toronto for one dollar.)

But in other sciences as well, everyone is out to see how they can make a buck. Knowledge can continue to advance in such an environment but it will be molded to those constraints.

Perhaps when we are out of sheep to shear, the shepherds of our social conscience and noesis may revert to those values.


George,you paint a true to life picture.My overall name for much of what you describe is moral corruption and it has a massive presence here in Australia.Moral corruption inevitably leads to incompetence and some times to actual criminal corruption.

As for Toyota,I had a nasty experience with this company a few years back.I had a major and expensive transmission failure in the Landcruiser I owned.It turned out that a vital part was not designed properly and was too weak.The replacement part was much stronger so obviously Toyota knew about the problem but chose not to inform the owners.As these vehicles are commonly used in remote areas there was a significant safety factor as well as honouring their obligations.

I complained to them by letter but I got a smart arse reply.Like any large corporation they are driven by profit and are very secretive.I can't help but enjoy their discomfort in this latest fiasco.

I still have the vehicle and I hope it will be the last 4 wheel vehicle I own.

George Mobus

Well said Robin.

What happened to concepts like usury and other moral/ethical constraints on avarice? Could it have been our getting used to always having massively greater quantities of energy to work with that spoiled us. We've become a throw-away society because its "cheaper" to do so than repair a piece of plastic or a mass produced sock. My wife was a bit amused when I pulled out the thread and needle to repair some undershirts that had holes in the under arm region. Most of them were more than ten years old! But I felt they still had some life in them. In prior times I would have just turned them into dust rags and had done with it.

When we get into the habit of thinking we will always have more wealth in the future, we do forget prudence and thrift. These days I've adopted something more like austerity to break my own habits of thinking along those lines.


George Mobus


Same idea as Robin's. Moral corruption of values that we brought from our late Pleistocene evolution when there really was scarcity. Saving, maintaining what you have, etc. are all the kinds of activities that would keep all of us from wasting energy and other resources. But we have seemed to think that we were freed from the bonds of scarcity when the flood of fossil fuels hit the economy, enabling machine work and a lot of innovation in technology for convenience and easing the work burdens of life. At least we behave as if we think that way.

But with the coming of peak net energy (already passed) and the severity that will be the result of peak oil production (here) it will be obligatory to go back to our careful husbanding of resources ways or suffer great losses. The old morals, borne of necessity, will be back in style one day soon. Try to hold out for it!



In the past, maybe the rigid social hierarchy and powerful institutions provided a structure that brought prosperity, order and sustainability - but at the price of some people being trapped in godawful lives through accident of birth. Perhaps we chose to sweep this away for the most "moral" of reasons but, as it turns out, human nature means that the experiment is doomed to failure.


Even the Vancouver Olympic opening ceremony had a glitch: in the climactic lighting of the indoor flame, the 4th pole failed to operate - how utterly embarassing!

George Mobus

Tom and David,

As Joe Tainter points out, the more complex an institution becomes the less benefit it provides, and in the end the benefits have a way of becoming liabilities.

See my previous blog: re: Tainter.


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