Thursday, October 11, 2012

Drunk On Gadgets

This article takes on the idea put forward by politicians that throwing money at scientists will make all our problems disappear:
In thinking of technology as capable of magic, Obama echoed Richard Nixon, who declared a “War on Cancer” in December 1971, saying “[T]his year of preparation for an all-out assault on cancer comes to a climax with the signing of the National Cancer Act. The new organizational structure which this legislation establishes will enable us to mobilize far more effectively both our human and our financial resources against this dread disease.” But more than 40 years later, cancer, of course, continues to kill many. The limiting factor in tackling cancer is not “organizational structure” but rather the fundamental difficulty in understanding how cells divide. Just as curing cancer couldn’t be achieved by changing bureaucratic structures, health care costs cannot be reined in through the wielding of technological wonders.

As C.P. Snow, a novelist who had a Ph.D. in physics, wrote in his essay Science and Government, “[A]nyone who is drunk with gadgets is a menace. Any choice he makes—particularly if it involves comparison with other countries—is much more likely to be wrong than right.” The mesmerizing power of gadgets is perhaps best illustrated by claptrap missile defense technologies, as Lawrence Krauss recently wrote in Slate.

But the reality of technology, and of science, is that though both have great capacity to be harnessed in the betterment of mankind, the yoke does not rest easy on them—they are fickle and plow in the direction that they, not politicians, choose. Nixon’s War on Cancer set in motion a dramatic rise in the budget of the National Institutes of Health, which climbed from $6.8 billion in 1971 to just over $30 billion in 2012 (in constant 2012 dollars). But cancer death rates hardly budged—except for lung cancer, which declined dramatically not because of any scientific breakthrough but because everyone quit smoking.
Drunk on Gadgets. Politicians don’t understand science and technology, so they expect it to do too much. (Slate)

Stop and ponder that last sentence for a moment. After millions of tax dollars thrown at trying to find some sort of techno-cure for cancer, rates went down because people simply stopped smoking tobacco as often. How many other problems are we throwing money at hoping for a techno-fix when just a simple behavioral change will fix it more effectively? Consider:

Maybe if we didn’t have systemic fallout from coal burning power plants we’d have less cancer. But we can’t give that up. The national institute of health says that we have 52 synthetic chemicals coursing through our bloodstream. The President’s Cancer Report says that 90 percent of cancers are caused by environmental factors. The EPA says that human breast milk would be too toxic to be sold over the counter relative to cow’s milk (since humans eat higher up the food chain). We know what these chemicals are, we know what’s toxic and carcinogenic in the environment, yet we are not allowed to address it. We will, however, spend billions on health care and the latest high-tech interventional allopathic medicine to keep people alive and sick as long as possible inside of the health care temples sprouting up like daisies after the rain.

Maybe obesity rates would decline if giant corporations weren’t able to control the nation’s food supply and use every technique in the book to get us to eat processed sugar-laden junk food, from putting them out in the front shelves of supermarkets, to wall-to-wall advertising, to vending machines in schools, to subsidies for corn and wheat, to fast-food shacks on every streetcorner. Do we really need all these scientific studies to tell us that this is a bad idea? (the average person consumes 20 times their body weight in sugar a year).

Maybe if people didn’t have to be chained to their desks for eight hours a day, five days a week, people could move around more and get more exercise. It might also do a good job of easing traffic congestion.

Maybe if we built communities where people could take short trips to get what they need (or, God forbid, walk) it would reduce wasteful energy consumption and possibly obesity rates.

Maybe if we didn’t institutionalize children from practically the moment they are born there would be less mental illness among adults and youth.

Maybe if we stopped allowing the mass psychological manipulation on a societal scale we call advertising, we would find levels of happiness and satisfaction increasing.

Maybe if we didn’t treat workers as disposable commodities there would less anxiety, drug abuse, child abuse, divorce, suicide, etc.

Maybe if we didn’t insist that the population constantly has to grow and that we need “more immigration”, it might be easier to solve things like unemployment.

See also the insanity constantly spouted in the media about “more education” and “technological innovation” as the magic creators of jobs, and the drive for more computers in the classroom, as if that will make any sort of difference to the quality of education (rather than computer companies’ bottom line). I ask you, do we really even want to ‘solve’ anything?

In fact, it’s difficult to find any problem that modern science is trying to solve (by declaring another ‘war’ of course) that wasn’t caused by the arrangements of modern society in the first place. Let’s not forget Eric Sevareid's Law – the major cause of problems is solutions.

On a final note, what always amazes me is how even the “winners” are losers in this system. Even the richest and most successful people get cancer (e.g. Steve Jobs). Even the wealthy and powerful are popping pills and suffering drug abuse and mental illness (and getting the best available help while condemning the poor who succumb to the same vices). Even the rich are working such long hours that they never see their children and their health and marriages are failing. Even celebrities are having children with autism. Whom does this system benefit? From the lowest to the highest, it seems like everyone is a loser in the end.

NOTE: info taken from this lecture – from about 30:00 to 46:00. I have not independently confirmed the data, but it seems consistent with what I've heard from other sources. The whole thing is well worth listening to.


  1. "The average person consumes 20 times their body weight in sugar a year)."

    Think about it: the average person's about 150 pounds. Twenty times is 3,000 pounds. What's that, about 250 pounts a month or slightly less than 10 pounds a day.

    Know anyone who eats ten pounds of sugar a day?

    I googled around and found 100 pounds, 66 pounds and 146 pounds per person per year.

  2. Good catch - quick math says a pound of sugar a day is 365 pounds a year. The average person probably weighs about half that, so twice their body weight might be more believable. Thus the danger of believing every trope out there. I suspect this factoid probably got caught up in "Chinese whispers."

    Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to eat my plate of muffins :-)

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