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Technology is outrunning science

It’s a common trope that our technology is outrunning our wisdom: we have great technological power, so the argument goes, but not the wisdom to use it.

Forget wisdom: technology is outrunning science! We have great technological power, but not the science to know what it does. In a recent bizarre  trial in Italy, scientists were found guilty of manslaughter for failing to predict an earthquake in L’Aquila – prompting seismologists all over the world to sign an open letter stating, basically, that science can’t predict earthquakes.

But though we can’t predict earthquakes, we can certainly cause them. Pumping out water from an aquifer, oil and gas wells, rock quarries, even dams, have all been showed to cause earthquakes – though their magnitude and their timing remain unpredictable.

Geoengineering is another example of the phenomena: we have the technological know-how to radically change the planet’s climate at relatively low cost – but lack the science to predict the extent and true impact of this radical change. Soon we may be able to build artificial minds, though whole-brain emulations or other methods,  but we can’t predict when this might happen or even the likely consequences of such a dramatically transformative technology.

The path from pure science to grubby technological implementation is traditionally seen as running in one clear direction: pure science develops ground-breaking ivory tower ideas, that eventually get taken up and transformed into useful technology, year down the line. To do this, science has to stay continually ahead of technology: we have to know more than we do. But now it’s pure science and research that have to play catch-up: we have find a way to know what we’re doing.

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5 Comment on this post

  1. It does not change the problem you hint at, but it might make the trial sound less ludicrous: The scientists you refer not have not been found guilty because they failed to predict the earthquake, but rather because they explicitly told to the population (worried by the seismic wave) that they had not nothing to fear and that they ought not leave their houses, since the seismic wave was about to finish. They should have —so the judges— told the whole truth about seismic waves, that is, that they OFTEN end by themselves, but that a culminating earthquake could not be excluded.

    Tangentially: should not scholars try to get better information before writing an article? Are not we guilty of misinforming other people if we don’t?

    1. I’ve had trouble finding English-language sources that really explained what was going on in the trial. I’ll change “ludicrous” to “bizarre”, since that seems to cover what info I have.

  2. There are fields of science where in principle you cannot predict exact consequences. Thus, parts of science and research by its very nature cannot catch up with technology. So the question becomes in what cases is this goal legitimate?

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