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Scientific regress: When science goes backward


To celebrate the ends of years, decades and other milestones, science publications often churn out "Whither science?" predictions. Just last week, The New York Times Science Times section celebrated its, um, 32nd birthday with a special issue on "What's next in science". What I found fascinating was the issue's overall tone of caution rather than the traditional boosterish enthusiasm.

Gina Kolata recalled a job interview 25 years ago with U.S. News and World Report, an editor of which asked her, "What will be important medical news next year?" Kolata replied that "next year gene therapy will be shown to work." Gene therapy, of course, has been a big bust. Kolata goes on to say that the best answer to "Whither science?" is to expect the unexpected. (Fortunately for her, Kolata didn't get the job with what a mean friend of mine liked to call "U.S. Snooze and World Distort," the print version of which just died after years of terminal illness.)

My favorite answer to the Science Times "What's next?" query was James Gorman's list of things that scientists won't accomplish. They won't find ET or the ivory-billed woodpecker, clone Neandertals, download our psyches into computers, and so on.

If the Times had asked me to chime in, I would have pointed out areas of science, technology and medicine that are regressing. I don't mean what the philosopher Imre Lakatos referred to as a "degenerating research program," which produces diminishing returns. That's merely declining progress. I mean fields of research that actually go backward, as measured by some specific benchmark. Some examples:

*The end of infectious disease: Decades ago antibiotics, vaccines, pesticides, water chlorination and other public health measures were vanquishing diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, polio, whooping cough, tuberculosis and smallpox, particularly in First World nations. In The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance (Penguin, 1995), the journalist Laurie Garrett noted that in 1967 U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart said that it was "time to close the books on infectious diseases" (Garrett's words) and shift resources toward non-infectious killers such as cancer and heart disease. The global eradication of smallpox in 1979 seemed to fulfill Stewart's vision. Hopes for the end of infectious disease were soon crushed, however, by the emergence of AIDS, mutant flu viruses and antibiotic-resistant forms of old killers such as tuberculosis.

*Space colonization: While I was still in journalism school in 1983 I wrote a story about the L5 Society, a group of space enthusiasts, and their guru, the Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill. O'Neill and his supporters proposed building factories, solar-energy generators and huge, cylindrical, rotating (to create artificial gravity) habitats in the L5 region of space, where the gravity of Earth and the moon cancel each other. The first blow to these space-colonization fantasies occurred in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger blew up. Then the Cold War ended, and the U.S. and Russia scaled back their space programs, which had always really been more about saber rattling than exploration. Only Trekkies and other sci-fi geeks take space colonization seriously any more.

*Supersonic transport (SST): Fifty years ago, supersonic commercial flight seemed poised for takeoff. The Anglo-French Concorde began regular transatlantic flights in the 1960s. The Soviet Union produced a viable SST called the Tupolev Tu-144 (or as it was dubbed in the West, "Concordski"), and U.S. aerospace firms scrambled to produce SSTs as well. But from the beginning supersonic flight was plagued by problems, especially huge fuel costs, noisy takeoffs and sonic booms. The last commercial SST flight took place in 2003. At the moment, prospects for revival of commercial SSTs are slim to none.

*Commercial fusion power: In 1983 I visited Princeton University to ogle its tokamak machine, an experimental magnetic-confinement fusion reactor the size of a small house, covered in cables, gauges, transformers and other gear. I was awestruck, and when the physicists working on it told us that fusion reactors could be generating electricity within 20 years, naturally I believed them. As George Johnson and I discussed in a recent chat on the dream of fusion energy has become vanishingly faint.

*The origin of life: In 1953 Harold Urey of the University of Chicago and his graduate student Stanley Miller simulated the "primordial soup" in which life supposedly began on Earth some four billion years ago. They filled a flask with methane, ammonia and hydrogen (representing the primordial atmosphere) and water (the oceans) and zapped it with a spark-discharge device (lightning). The flask was soon coated with a reddish goo containing amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. This famous experiment raised the hopes of many scientists that one of nature's deepest mysteries—genesis, the origin of life on Earth—would soon be replicated in the laboratory and hence solved. It hasn't worked out that way. Scientists have failed to show how mere chemicals can become animate, and the origin of life now appears more improbable and mysterious than ever. As Francis Crick once wrote, "the origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have to be satisfied to get it going." Crick, by the way, was an agnostic leaning toward atheism.

I could go on, but I'd rather hear your example of scientific regress.

P.S.: Fans of Scientific American blogger Jesse Bering should check out my recent chat with him on

Image of the Concorde courtesy Wiki Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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