Science in Review: It Ain’t Rocket Science

Photo of space shuttle in flight

As significant an achievement as this photo represents, even harder challenges may still remain here on Earth. (Photo by NASA-Imagery)

Who doesn’t love space? We found out this week that a possibly habitable planet is just next door orbiting the star closest to us, and the Internet erupted with travel plans. People who might otherwise be complaining about an extra 10 minutes added to their commute were suddenly contemplating a journey that would take longer than all of recorded human history. Last year, more than four thousand folks paid actual money just for the chance to be considered for a mission to Mars that almost certainly won’t happen, probably wouldn’t succeed if it were attempted, and can’t possibly take more than a handful of people. The allure of space is strong, even though every single one of us is already an astronaut on a spacecraft traveling 250,000 miles per hour en route to the Andromeda Galaxy. I guess some of us are just really desperate to get away from (a Trump-led America | the European Union | a Clinton-led America | geopolitically topical punchline).

I’ve been thinking about expertise this month — how it is acquired and passed on, what its essential elements are, and how to make decisions on complex issues without it. As we learn more about the world, it seems intuitive that we’d have a greater need for more experts with greater levels of specialization. Once upon a time you might have been able to keep up with all of natural philosophy, then at some point it became necessary to focus exclusively on physics if you wanted to sufficiently master what was already known in order to contribute something new, and then it was all one could do to learn just thermodynamics, and so on. Yet there is some sentiment that we’ve had enough of experts; what’s the point of learning and knowing if we live in a post-factual world?

My boss shared an interesting observation the other week. He thinks about economics more than I do, and so when he hears a desire to make America great again, he understands that as a desire to return the American economy to a 1950s level. While it’s fairly indisputable the American economy was at a peak in the 1950s (at a macro level at least; individual experiences obviously varied), the context was unique in ways that we don’t necessarily want to repeat. As my boss reminded me, many of the other large economies of the era had been devastated by war, leaving America the only player of its size. The United States could hardly help but to succeed in that environment. But to succeed again at that level would require a similar context, and we could hardly justify deliberately recreating comparable conditions. (In fact, we are headed in the opposite direction; while I saw fewer headlines about it than Proxima Centauri b, this past week we reached the remarkable milestone of the end of war in the Western Hemisphere.) In other words, the 1950s were an outlier and we should reasonably expect a regression to the mean afterwards.

That got me wondering if science experienced a similar mid-century boom from which it is now resettling to a more typical status. Space beckoned in the 1950s too, only we didn’t know for sure if we could get there. We put top men and women on the job and they got that job done. We put artificial satellites into orbit, then we put people into orbit, then we put people on the moon. We’ve sent probes to all the other planets and even some places that were planets when the probes left but weren’t by the time they arrived. Unless you object to the entire enterprise of space exploration, it’s hard to consider the program anything but a rousing success for science. Surely science can achieve anything if we put those top minds to it.

Photo by Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson, a computer at NASA who was a key part of several notable missions including the Apollo program. She’ll be the subject of a movie next year, Hidden Figures. (Photo by NASA)

Science has had it share of other successes beyond space travel. No smallpox is good. The internet, so helpful. The local streets of Pittsburgh will soon be navigated by cars that drive themselves. Still, the overall situation might be considered more of a mixed bag. Cancer has thus far eluded our efforts to treat it comprehensively; new pathogens from HIV to Zika virus appear to be emerging faster than we can find ways to treat them. We can’t manage to agree on such seemingly basic topics like what we should eat. Even theoretical physics, the refuge of great minds from Einstein to Noether to Hawking, has drifted so far from what can be observationally verified that some are questioning the viability of its current state, while their colleagues the particle physicists are quietly lamenting that the Large Hadron Collider hasn’t really turned up anything fundamentally new.

Sending people to the moon and bringing them back was by no means trivial, but perhaps it wasn’t the hardest possible problem to tackle. We joke that physicists like to (over)simplify problems by treating every physical object as a frictionless sphere, but for the purposes of orbital calculations that’s exactly what planets and moons are. The popular sci-fi novel and movie The Martian is all about the problem solving of space travel; survival for the hero means “working the problem” and “doing the math”. Certainly math and science save the day more than once in the story, but most of the math is simply a matter of multiplying rates by times. I don’t wish to downplay the ingenuity, skill and hard work needed for success in real (or fictional) space. Still, we know that there are problems requiring even more sophisticated math that doesn’t necessarily yield solutions. Factor in the benefit of operating within an exceptional economic climate and it seems reasonable to suggest that the space program was a high point for science that may not ever be duplicated or even duplicable.

Even as some prominent scientists enjoy fame and influence and feel emboldened to claim that science is the only source of knowledge, one senses that science’s esteem is waning. Hardly a week goes by without some editorial about how science is broken, and skepticism about various scientific assertions has become mainstream. And yes, certain medical and social science results are heavily context-dependent and so difficult to replicate, and yes string theory is more math than empirical observation at this point, but the fundamental principles of science are still as sound as ever. Regressing from an unsustainable peak of success and esteem to a more typical level is not the same thing as a collapse and doesn’t necessarily indicate a fatal flaw.

Still, for experts navigating such a downturn in respect there will be challenges. Trust is a crucial partner to expertise, yet trust is a very scarce resource these days. It’d be only natural to want to return to a time when the value of expertise was at its peak, or failing that, to travel to a space where experts are trusted more. As appealing as it might appear for everyone to shuffle around into homogeneous little enclaves, it sounds a bit like hands and feet trying to strike out on their own and pretend they are a complete body. And you may recall that a self-proclaimed expert among experts, the apostle Paul, warned against that approach. Instead, it looks like we’re just going to have to rebuild trust in expertise by underpromising and overdelivering, by being honest about failures and negative results and their place in the learning process, and by embracing what our statistics experts tell us — that regression to the mean is perfectly normal.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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2 Comments

  • brenda.hey@gmail.com'
    Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink commented on September 8, 2016 Reply

    Your description of how problems can be unexpectedly complicated corresponds well to what I understand to be the concept of a “wicked problem” (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem and http://www.colossianway.org/ – the organization who introduced me to this concept). While figuring out how to get to the moon is a difficult problem, it’s also a solvable one – at least once you punch in enough data and tweak the formulas enough. A wicked problem is one that has no clear solution – it’s like proving climate change (without a doubt) and then proposing clear solutions (while factoring in economic growth, human resistance to change/cost, and the uncertainty of what our actions will actually do).
    And while the “wicked” part of the name has nothing to do with sinfulness, such wicked problems do often remind us of how broken the world is and how challenging it is to live today with integrity in a changing and complicated world.

    • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
      Andy Walsh commented on September 12, 2016 Reply

      Brenda,
      Yes, the “wicked problem” concept seems apt. To my mind, there are several ways a problem can be complicated enough to resist direct solution. In some cases, the problem may actually be well defined, but the mathematics required are beyond our current ability to compute a solution. In other cases, the problem is more like these wicked ones, where even the challenge in need of a solution is not or perhaps even cannot be specified clearly. Perhaps there are problems that are so complicated we can’t even recognize that a problem exists!

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