Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Did the Human Race Reach its Peak in the 1970's?

From Bruce Charlton,

Human capability peaked before 1975 and has since declined

I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since.

This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.

Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer *wanted* to go to the moon, or could not afford to, or something…– but I am suggesting that all this is BS, merely excuses for not doing something which we *cannot* do.

It is as if an eighty year old ex-professional-cyclist was to claim that the reason he had stopped competing in the Tour de France was that he had now had found better ways to spend his time and money. It may be true; but does not disguise the fact that an 80 year old could not compete in international cycling races even if he wanted to.

It isn't just space travel. Think about airline travel. In the 1970's not only was the supersonic Concorde coming on line, we had jumbo jets (L-1011, 747, DC-10, 767) coming on line and used for domestic as well as international flights. There was a time when United, American and USAir all flew jumbo jets from Philadelphia to Chicago, a relatively short distance. The airlines bragged about speed and comfort.
This was onboard a Continental Airlines DC-10!
Earlier this year, I flew a crummy, cramped regional jet from O'Hare to LaGuardia on United with a flight crew that was obviously unhappy in their jobs.

We don't have to put up with the TSA (airports can "opt out"), we don't have to have rude airline employees, and we don't have to have a completely outdated air traffic control system. These things are all in our control.

But, the problem is hardly confined to the airlines.

It was around the 1970s that the human spirit began to be overwhelmed by bureaucracy (although the trend had been growing for many decades). 

Since the mid-1970s the rate of progress has declined in physics, biology and the medical sciences – and some of these have arguably gone into reverse, so that the practice of science in some areas has overall gone backwards, valid knowledge has been lost and replaced with phony fashionable triviality and dishonest hype. Some of the biggest areas of science – medical research, molecular biology, neuroscience, epidemiology, climate research – are almost wholly trivial or bogus. This is not compensated by a few islands of progress, eg in computerization and the invention of the internet. Capability must cover all the bases, and depends not on a single advanced area but all-round advancement. 

The fact is that human no longer do - *can* no longer do many things we used to be able to do: land on the moon, swiftly win wars against weak opposition and then control the defeated nation, secure national borders, discover ‘breakthrough’ medical treatments, prevent crime, design and build to a tight deadline, educate people so they are ready to work before the age of 22, block an undersea oil leak... 

50 years ago we would have the smartest, best trained, most experienced and most creative people we could find (given human imperfections) in position to take responsibility, make decisions and act upon them in pursuit of a positive goal. 

Before you say, "What, medical research (to take one example) isn't going backward," think about it: To take just one example, how many contradictory studies have been published about caffeine? The number of retractions in scientific journals is at an all-time high.

Read Mr. Carlton's whole essay. There are a few points about which I do not entirely agree with but his overall point is valid.

I was at a professional scientific meeting this summer that, at times, was more about political correctness than getting to the scientific challenges at issue.

In addition to overall societal trends, I blame the U.S. National Science Foundation. Instead of encouraging creative thinking, at least in the atmospheric sciences they are a bastion of political correctness. I know atmospheric scientists that don't at all agree with the catastrophic global warming hypothesis but who are afraid to speak out because they are afraid they will lose their funding.

Throughout history, science has progressed because a bright person had a bright idea. Today, those ideas are often squelched or never even expressed because of political correctness.

Our nation cannot afford to allow this to continue.


  1. Did Professor Charlton miss the part where we have robots exploring the surface of Mars (and finding riverbeds!), a space telescope taking pictures of the deepest, oldest parts of the universe, and technology that links people from nearly every civilization in ways that would have been unimaginable in the 1970s?

    Heck, in 1975, would your weather alerts have been able to reach the audience that they do?

    Scrolling through a few of this gentleman's posts, he seems like an extraordinarily well-spoken version of Andy Rooney—lots of complaints about totalitarian lefties, people who aren't Christians, and anything resembling modernity. I realize that's kind of the way you lean as well, Mike—and I have no admiration for the TSA either—but this guy's kind of a crank.

  2. We've had breakthroughs in cancer treatments - the cancer that killed my grandfather (with a 99% mortality rate back in the 80's) now is a 90% survival rate.

    We've made progress in weather forecasting (as you point out on this very blog) and that's just two areas... heck cars are many times safer now than they were back then.

    But I've seen this type of thought before - and while history tell us that the Einstein's of the world had breakthrough's and made revolutionary leaps - they leave out the 200+ years of mathematics and physics that progressed up to that point.

    While I won't claim that we have an Einstein in this generation (although that has yet to be certain!) - it is very natural for humans throughout history to believe that progress has halted after a huge leap forward has happened. If you were to look back in the history books however and really count the years between the giants - you would see that progress has always been a long steady windup to the leaps that come.

    And this very tool that we use to communicate here - is revolutionary (as we've seen in the middle east) - and I don't think we've yet to see how this kind of a communication tool will change the world. My children will be the first generation to grow up where they could at a whim talk to people across the world - and those lines of communication and friendship are the seeds upon which real change will occur - perhaps not in our time - but if this type of thing is allowed to continue - perhaps the mistrust that distance once created might wear down.

    I have great hope for what we might do tomorrow - as long as we continue to keep ourselves from blowing each other up :)

  3. After reading this person's complete post, I understand his point, but disagree somewhat with the premise. At this point in time we cannot place a person on the moon. We also cannot build a Cathedral of Notre Dame either. The experience required to build the stone blocks does not exist in enough people to be able to affect the construction. That being said, this is not a static situation, through learning and development we could construct an edifice. It is just at this point that we can't.

    The moon landing was not done by any one person or group, but by thousands of contractors, government specifications and project management. If a moon landing was attempted today, the available materials, computers, systems, and project planning tools would make it significantly safer and easier than what was done in the 1960's. Just think of the safety enhancement carbon fiber technology would bring just to the LEM.

    Mr Carlton's analogy of an 80 year old is not a valid one. For as most of his piece it assumes a stasis within society that has never existed. Society changing innovations such as the printing press, transistor, integrated circuit, the internet, photography both digital and film have all caused significant shifts in how we live. In the late 1960's it was science fiction to have a communication device that was wireless and was held in your hand. Now these items are a commodity. With my phone I can personally (if I wanted to) contact over 1 billion people. Never in the history of Homo Sapiens has this been possible, and many other advancements like this cannot be ignored.

    One point I also would like to touch on is commoditization. This effect has happened across much of the goods and services today. When I was a kid I had no chance of flying in a jet anywhere. It was too expensive and only those who were on a business trip or had the funds could afford it. Now almost any person can fly no matter their personal budget. Even though those of us who do fly feel like steerage in the Titanic. Such is the way of things, be it books, cars, cell phones, travel, and many more examples. We may not like it at times, but it beats the other option.

    So to sum it up, I say this. Yes, we could put a person on the moon, utilizing more advanced materials and higher levels of safety. No we are no 80 y.o. geezers that cannot run a race, for we are not static, and time linear. As an engineer I still have books of component data sheets from the 90's. I look at them with nostalgia, but not with envy. For I would never g back to using them for information on parts. not only do I have them at my finger tips in electronic form, I have the latest revisions without waiting for the rep, or the mail. We are not on the moon because at this point there is no reason to be there. It simply costs too much for no economic gain. Will we go there in the future? Who knows, but when there is an economic reason to do it, it will happen.

  4. Thanks for the great comments and I welcome more from our readers. As I said in my post, I do not agree with everything Mr. Charlton says in his piece but I thought his point of view was worth our consideration.

    That said, having been misrouted by United Airlines -- again -- Sunday evening, I do have a fair amount of nostalgia for 70's-era airline travel.

  5. Thanks for covering this MS. If you e-mail me at hklaxness@yahoo.com, I wuld be happy to send you a draft PDF of my forthcoming book 'Not even trying' about the corruption of science (and where this matter is discussed further).

    Bruce G Charlton


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