As World War I wound down, the gloomy German scholar (is there any other kind?) Oswald Spengler argued in The Decline of the West that civilizations, like organisms, pass through a natural life cycle. After an era of vigorous growth, they ossify and die. Each civilization’s science follows this same trajectory. An initial spurt of creativity and discovery gives way to decadence, when truth-seekers become so arrogant and intolerant of other belief systems that they sow the seeds of their own demise. Spengler prophesied that western science would enter this phase toward the end of the 20th century. [1]

I’ve been brooding over Spengler’s prophecy lately, because science, I fear, has entered its decadent phase. [2] Signs of decline abound. First, as I have pointed out, the productivity of applied science has slumped over the past few decades. In “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, economists from Stanford and MIT claim that “a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms show[s] that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” This conclusion corroborates analyses by economists Robert Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation.

Then there is the replication crisis, the finding by statistician John Ioannidis and others that many peer-reviewed claims cannot be reproduced. Science has become less reliable, Ioannidis asserts, because competition among researchers for publications, grants, tenure and other rewards has intensified. As researchers have a harder time generating useful results, they become increasingly desperate and prone to confirmation bias and fraud. “Much research is conducted for reasons other than the pursuit of truth,” Ioannidis writes in “An Epidemic of False Claims.”

The health-care industry may be especially prone to corruption, because the financial incentives are so enormous. As I reported last summer, supposedly new-and-improved tests and treatments generate huge profits for health-care providers but do not substantially improve patient outcomes. This holds true for cancer carepsychiatry and medicine as a whole

As genuine progress has stalled, hype has surged. A 2015 study of biomedical papers found that between 1974 and 2014 the frequency of terms such as “novel,” “innovative” and “unprecedented” increased 15-fold. In the current Issues in Science and Technology, technology scholar Jeffrey Funk contends that technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain, driverless vehicles and robotics are “seriously over-hyped, a phenomenon driven by online news and the professional incentives of those involved in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.”

The so-called pure sciences aren’t so pure either. Prominent physicists persist in promoting glitzy but unconfirmable ideas like string theoryinflationmultiverse theories and the anthropic principle (which holds that the universe must be as we observe it to be because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to observe it). In mind-science, theorists advocate models--based on quantum mechanics and information theory--that make consciousness a fundamental component of reality. Like the anthropic principle, these mind-body theories reflect our narcissistic insistence that we are central to the cosmos.

As warnings about global warming become more dire, scientists retreat into escapist fantasies. They envision establishing colonies on Mars. They preach the imminence of the Singularity, in which we become superhuman cyborgs or download our psyches into cyberspace, where we can live forever. Some pundits propose that we are already living in cyberspace, a computer simulation constructed by God-like aliens. A few decades ago, these science fictions were fun. But now, as temperatures and sea levels climb, they strike me as, well, decadent. There is a whiff of end times in the air.

The rotten cherry atop this mess is the scandal involving Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and sexual predator, who took his own life in jail last August. Epstein cozied up to leading universities and scientists, who welcomed his attention. They took his cash, rode on his jet and flocked to his parties and conferences, even after his 2008 conviction for having sex with underage girls. [3]

The Epstein scandal is just a symptom of a deeper ethical sickness. Is accepting gifts from a sex offender really worse than taking money from the Pentagon? Or the Koch brothers, who thwarted efforts to combat climate change? Or the Sacklers, whose firm, Purdue Pharma, catalyzed the opioid epidemic? In our hyper-capitalist world, careerism, ambition and greed trump ethics and the idealistic pursuit of truth for its own sake—or for the benefit of others.

Perhaps even more than Spengler, an earlier German prophet foresaw these dismal trends. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx (and Engels) acknowledged that capitalism had brought about extraordinary advances in the arts and sciences. But Marx prophesied that capitalism, by devaluing everything except profits, would inevitably self-destruct, dragging the rest of bourgeois culture down with it.

But unlike Marx and Spengler, I don’t think we’re doomed. In fact, science, in spite of its troubles, can help save us. Ioannidis and other critics have proposed reforms that might rouse science from its malaise. These include making research more transparent and accountable, boosting support for young investigators and eradicating sexual harassment.

My students also keep me from despairing. This semester, they have produced upbeat reports on climate change, inequality, mental illness and war. They and other up-and-coming researchers will surely bring about an idealistic new era, in which science is dedicated to truth and human welfare. Anyway, that's my obligatory hopeful ending, and I'm sticking to it.


1. My description of Decline of the West is drawn from the 1993 book Science and Anti-Science by physicist/historian Gerald Holton.

2. When I told another veteran science journalist that I was writing about the decadence of science, he replied, Didn’t you already do that? He was referring to The End of Science, in which I asserted that pure science, the quest to understand nature, is coming to an end, and that theorists are increasingly indulging in unconfirmable “ironic science.” But The End of Science didn’t address applied science, as this column does. Also, things have gotten much worse than I anticipated back in the 1990s, and some messages bear repeating.

3. As news reports have noted, literary agent John Brockman, who specializes in science books, introduced many of his clients to Jeffrey Epstein. Brockman was my agent from 1997 until 2009, when we parted ways. Our divorce was amicable, and I continued contributing to Brockman’s online forum, Brockman never introduced me to Epstein, probably because I wasn’t an A-list client. If I had been invited to one of Epstein’s shindigs, I might have gone, out of sheer curiosity, but then I would have felt compelled to write something mean about him. That was how I dealt with my ethical qualms about taking money from the National Counterterrorism Center, the Templeton Foundation and Deepak Chopra. I guess that makes me pretty decadent, too.

Further Reading:

Dark Days

Is Science Hitting a Wall?

Is Science Hitting a Wall? Part 2

Was I Wrong about “The End of Science”?

Is Medicine Overrated?

Dear "Skeptics," Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More

Advice to Young Science Writers: Ask “What Would Chomsky Think?

Noam Chomsky Calls Trump and Republican Allies "Criminally Insane"

A Dig Through Old Files Reminds Me Why I’m So Critical of Science

The Delusion of Scientific Omniscience

The Twilight of Science's High Priests

Meta-Post: Horgan Posts on Physics

Meta-Post: Posts on Cancer

Meta-Post: Posts on Brain Implants

Meta-Post: Posts on Mental Illness

See also my free, online book Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are.