Slow science

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Scientists have to keep their distance from the growing impatience of the modern world, says Douglas Rushkoff.

If you get run over by a car or crack the containment shell around a nuclear reactor, you would most definitely want to avail yourself of the best that science has to offer. When your child gets a staph infection, it’s time for an antibiotic. When an oil tanker hits an iceberg and starts hemorrhaging, it’s time to call in the petroleum engineers.

That’s because scientists, as well as most of the technologies that arise from their research, are optimised for crisis. But is science as well positioned to prevent such calamities in the first place? Not with its current biases, I’m afraid.

Rather, I believe our scientific community is suffering from a symptom of what I have been calling “present shock” – the understandable but often self-defeating impulse to focus on what is happening right now, at the expense of everything else.

In finance, it takes the form of ultra-fast trading, which favours short-term extraction over long-term investment – ultimately robbing markets of their vitality. In digital media, it’s smartphones that interrupt us with trivial news, distracting us from our real work and relationships.

And for science, it’s an emphasis on obvious fixes to calamity, rather than long-term approaches to prevention. So in medicine, for example, we have developed some terrific chemotherapies for cancer, while refusing to grant serious attention to the role of nutrition, herbs or, dare I even mention them, chiropractic and homeopathy on a patient’s wellness. The real abhorrence of such modalities may have less to do with unscientific foundations than with their paucity of dramatic results. A patient population that is less likely to contract cancer or diabetes may be a statistical victory, but it’s hardly as dramatic as a cure.

It’s also less business friendly, which may be a contributing factor to this focus on crisis management. Sciences of prevention are often more time-consuming but less expensive or even unpatentable. Who is going to profit from the discovery that increasing one’s exposure to daylight reduces depression, or that limiting weeks doing “shift” work can reduce rates of cancer? SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) are a more lucrative form of depression management than probiotics, and recombinant DNA therapy costs far more than writing up a new work schedule.

It’s just that the expensive approaches tend to work only after the fact. After all, only those already in a major crisis are willing to spend that sort of money. Thus, science comes to the rescue of a global topsoil depletion crisis, itself created by short-sighted application of science to agriculture. Ancient practices such as crop rotation, biodynamics or permaculture farming were deemed unscientific – even though they were developed over centuries of real world testing. Supposedly scientific synthetic fertilisers and mechanical soil management had no long-term studies before they were implemented.

Even when mainstream science takes the long view, as it has almost unanimously done over climate change, this only happens when there is a glaring crisis on the horizon. Dependence on apocalyptic thinking is one of the most destructive forms of present shock, and it’s the result of an intolerance for situations with no clear outcome, no winner or loser, no final “result”. It makes people and institutions almost constitutionally incapable of contending with chronic problems, adopting sustainable approaches, or even seeing sustenance as a victory in itself.

Unlike businesses and politicians, who have been forced by an always-on media to react to every bump in the road, science must take the long view. By engaging this discipline, science – as well as the technologies it inspires – stands a chance of reclaiming its place as a deliberate inquiry, capable of helping us avoid crises instead of just fixing them.

By Douglas Rushkoff

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