The slowdown of meaningful discovery

Jonah Lehrer has again written a provacative piece, arguing that growing collaboration and teamwork among scientists is a response to “all the low-hanging facts [having] been found.” Today’s science is simply much too hard and complex to tackle alone. Lehrer quotes Samuel Arbesman

If you look back on history, you get the sense that scientific discovery used to be easy. Galileo rolled objects down slopes. Robert Hooke played with a spring to learn about elasticity; Isaac Newton poked around his own eye with a darning needle to understand color perception. It took creativity and knowledge to ask the right questions, but the experiments themselves could be almost trivial.

Today, if you want to make a discovery in physics, it helps to be part of a 10,000 member team that runs a multibillion dollar atom smasher. It takes ever more money, more effort, and more people to find out new things.

Given that I wrote something similar just a month ago, I of course liked this passage. A few responders at Andrew Sullivan do critique the notions that science was ever easy or that we’ve reached the “end of disovery.” On the latter point, I agree that the meme is a bit overwrought. Over 1 million papers get published every year, and presumably most of them make a discovery of some form. Some might later be proven wrong, and some may be meaningless (Lehrer claims one-third of papers never get cited), but they are discoveries nonetheless. 

Perhaps a better phrase is the slowdown of meaningful discovery. The fact that all the low-hanging fruit have been found doesn’t end the pursuit of knowledge. It just means we have to focus on smaller, more specialized problems that have less payoff (hence all those uncited papers), or focus on really, really hard problems that can’t be solved (hence all those corrections in medical research). The productivity slowdown in pharmaceutical R&D is one notable example of the former phenomenon. The graph is particularly striking (h/t Roger Pielke Jr.).

The rate of discovery ultimately matters because we think it affects our standard of living, a point Lehrer addresses towards the end of his post. Unfortunately, he really muddles the relationship between discovery and innovation. I’ll try to address this in my next post.

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