Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why modern science has largely been a disappointment

People appear to be disappointed with many things, including love, religion, spectator sports and cinema, but not science. If they are asked what pursuit humans have excelled in, they may all say, ‘science’. Even other areas of exceptional human performance, like athletics, are attributed to ‘advances’ in science.

At first glance, science is impressive. It shows us spectacular images of galaxies; it claims to have photographed a black hole, and claims to know the origin of mass, and to have proof that gravity is a wave. And it is very hard for sick people to die anymore, because there is some magic medicine or a marvellous medical procedure. The word ‘scientist’ continues to evoke reverence, and gratitude. They just add ‘quantum’ to something and we grant that it must be important. And they just need to prefix their profession with ‘neuro’ and they can say anything about the mind as though they know what they’re talking about.

Despite all this shine, science has been a disappointment. It has been a disappointment in its contribution to our quality of life, in our understanding of the nature of physical reality, and of consciousness. The healthier you are, the more disappointing it is.

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This is not an easy argument to make. When I say science is ‘disappointing’, what is it in relation to? Science has done exceeding well compared to many other professions. Take two of mine—journalism and literary fiction. Both have deteriorated. They have lost prestige and relevance. Middlebrow fiction has survived because of streaming, which is technological evolution, not artistic. Yes, science in 2022 is not as exciting as science fiction had predicted, but we should not hold science accountable to the fantasies of writers. In any case, good-natured science fantasy have been more prophetic than political dystopic fiction, like The Handmaid’s Tale, or the works of George Orwell, who got almost everything wrong, driven as he probably was by tuberculosis-induced gloom that generations of depressed intellectuals have misunderstood as political analysis.

So, science is disappointing as compared to what? Science is disappointing in comparison to its own reputation.

Consider a knee-replacement surgery. The knee is a simple joint. When the bones wear out, as it happens with old people, some parts are replaced with plastic or metal. Hospitals give the impression that the people who undergo this procedure acquire new knees. But the fact is that they just hobble less after the replacement. It is not as though the old can suddenly start jogging after they “replace" their knees. Even in fixing a simple joint like the knee, the medical field is far from imitating the power of the natural human body.

Modern medicine does not rejuvenate. It does not prolong life; it prolongs death. It may appear that science has helped people live longer; but the fact is that people are just dying later. Most old people have a poor quality of life for decades before they are finally allowed to go. I don’t know about you, but all this is not good enough for me. According to current science, my knees have only another three decades of running left. After that, I am expected to accept the poor quality life of an old man and a generally pointless existence. You may argue that within three decades a marvellous innovation will help me run forever, but science has been so bad at actual rejuvenation that I am very worried.

Also, science is unable to answer many simple questions clearly. For instance, is it good or bad to fast when you have a viral injection? Science does not know the answer to just about any reasonable question about fitness. A quest for clarity would be a journey through camps and cartels, all of them claiming various conclusions based on “the scientific process".

Also, our understanding of the nature of reality has not changed significantly over the past hundred years since the Copenhagen Interpretation formalized the ideas of quantum mechanics, despite the investment of billions of dollars in large hadron colliders and the seeming discovery of many particles. Many exotic things that have been said in science are more speculative than people imagine. Our understanding of the universe, dimensions and time, too, has not changed significantly in decades. There is a hint of this in popular science.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar talks of the same cute sexy science that is mentioned in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which was published in 1980, in Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, published in 1988. It would be absurd to say that there has been no progress in the past 50 years, and I do not suggest that at all. But I do say that the progress made has been rather modest. For instance, the James Webb telescope, launched last year, captures clearer images of galaxies than the Hubble, which was launched in 1990, but the Webb telescope is not the transformative machine Hubble was despite coming three decades later. Commercial air travel, too, has not become faster over the past 60 years. In fact, if we consider the demise of the Concorde, air travel has got slower for the rich.

You can argue that the Concorde’s failure suggests that it is not that we have not made advancements in science; it is just that those breakthroughs are yet to make commercial sense. Also, the modern tech industry has products that it cannot bring to the market for ethical reasons—like some forms of genetic engineering. But transformative technologies that are withheld for commercial or ethical reasons are very few. In general, we don’t have some things because we don’t know how to make those things.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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