Humanity Not Made of Humans
There is a peculiar sleight of hand common among scientists and futurists. They will heap praise on humanity’s achievements and potential if – and only if – humanity is considered as a collective. The accolades for success are diffused onto the abstract group, while the blame for problems is focused onto specific persons. It is exceptionally rare for even modern Nobel Laureates to claim sole responsibility for generating ideas. I find this strange.
Common statements about Moore’s Law are guilty of exactly this sort of sleight. Moore’s law is typically phrased as “the density of transistors in a microchip doubles every two years”, which completely omits any reference to the humans responsible for the change. A more accurate phrasing would be that “incremental improvements made by thousands of engineers have roughly doubled the density of transistors in a microchip every two years”. It’s not magic; it’s hard work. This may appear to be pedantic quibbling about wording, but the extrication of humans from human endeavors is a troubling trend.
Alongside this proclivity to diffuse praise for accomplishments, it is a forgone conclusion in the scientific community that no single person will ever again revolutionize scientific thinking. A common quip directed at any young upstart is “you are not Feynman.” While meant as a clever reminder to be humble, routinely making such statements informs an attitude with pernicious effects. It now borders on pseudoscience apologism to suggest, as Plato once did, that the universe is apprehensible through the rational faculties of a single person. The suggestion that no single person will ever become great enough to radically alter science is equivalent to the suggestion that Feynman, Dirac, Einstein, Newton, Copernicus, and Pythagoras were not living, breathing men.
There is a reason for this thinking. The establishment in physics, despite the list of known issues with the Standard Model, somehow persists in its belief that we are at the end of history for natural philosophy. Physics is thought to be complete, save a few potential minor adjustments. It’s Ptolemy (circles within circles) all over again. This affliction came about because it is so difficult to motivate the tenets of quantum mechanics rationally. In the course of their education, most of my colleagues gave up and accepted some form of radical empiricism. I personally know a theorist that believes humans are only capable of writing down approximate physical laws (known as effective field theories). It is difficult to make the case that physical laws must be ultimately rational in such an atmosphere, especially because formulating any physical theory is genuinely difficult.
It is assumed that all future progress in science will be made by the efforts of teams, not individuals, which weakens the sense that any one scientist should feel excited and responsible for driving research forward. As an undergraduate, I was even told directly by a professor that the only real avenue left for discovery in physics lies in the analysis of the huge datasets generated by the particle collider collaborations at CERN. Such experimental physics collaborations can pen papers crediting hundreds of authors at once. And even in theoretical physics research, single-author papers are rare. Perhaps these observations simply indicate that physics research is moving away from the traditional academic model of basic research and towards an industrialized model of applied science. Perhaps not.
At minimum, understanding this trend is important because we must be able to frame society’s approach to scientific research accurately. When a person must spend an average of ten years post-secondary simply getting an education in the profession, that person should be given an accurate advertisement of the work up-front.
The conceptual framing emphasizing teamwork is shared by many other professions. Many people wish to “join a team” or “find a job” in the sense that they do not want to be the leaders or managers. This is entirely sensible, especially if your motto is “work to live, don’t live to work”. My issue is when this attitude is imposed upon the entrepreneurial.
There is an alternate attitude that I would argue is healthier for the academic scientist. A scientist should not to look to join a team. A scientist should look to find partners. I believe academic research suffers greatly when social hierarchies are introduced as a gatekeeping mechanism for thought. The spirited debate is the soul of the academy, and the overemphasis on teamwork could easily put that soul to rest.
I do not believe that allowing this sleight of hand to persist is healthy. Individuals should be allowed to take pride in their accomplishments. There is a world of difference between recognizing your team’s contributions and deflecting all praise onto them.
We don’t refer to factory workers or engineers when talking about who developed the Model T. We refer to Henry Ford. We refer to Elon Musk when discussing the accomplishments of SpaceX. It is trivial to point out that these men implemented their ideas by depending upon their companies. Of course they did, and of course the men and women in those companies made significant contributions that can be individually recognized.
This conceptual framing in favor of abstract teamwork may explain why many people are skeptical of private sector research such as SpaceX’s rocket development program. Public sector funding of scientific research is inherently amorphous to the outsider, which easily fits into the narrative that all scientific progress is made by some singular group called “scientists”. Handing one big pot of money to one big group is easy to digest. Thinking in terms of many specific people performing many unconnected projects is simply less familiar, but private sector companies are absolutely reliant on public trust in individuals when promoting their efforts as valid and worth funding. Criticism of the cult of Elon is not unfounded, but the benefits of having a singular advocate for a company’s efforts should not be discounted. Note how faceless companies that attempt basic research struggle. They lack a person to consistently make the case to onlookers that the work is important, which can prove disastrous to funding if the research suffers a major failure. The notable exception to this is Boston Dynamics, but their silent demonstration videos speak more loudly to the public than words ever could.
The world is inordinately complicated and we must inevitably make simplifications while using language to describe the world. Attempting to retain references to complexity by diluting the conceptual attachments between words is not helpful. It merely runs language into oblivion and makes it a useless tool for thinking.
Language shapes perception, so we must be vigilant in evaluating how common phrasing is influencing decisions.
Edit: Revisions were made to this essay on Oct. 1, 2019 to more clearly elucidate how the various ideas in the original draft are connected. The paragraph about public vs. private sector research was also added.