Science at the DOD

Science at the DOD September 16, 2016

Daniel Sarewitz argues in New Atlantis that science is sick, and that the disease is systemic and terminal. When science is detached from technology, it is loosened from real-world effects. Research exists only for the sake of further research, and science loses the ability to judge whether or not it is making progress. Contemporary science doesn’t observe limits, but intrudes into “trans-science,” attempting to explain phenomena too complex, with too many variables, for controlled examination. Trans-science keeps the research grants coming, though, since every excursion into trans-science inevitably raises more questions than it answers.

Science’s self-destruction, he argues, “can be traced back to a bald-faced but beautiful lie upon which rests the political and cultural power of science. . . . It goes like this: Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.

It is a lie in the old-fashioned sense: It doesn’t fit the facts. As Sarewitz points out, much of the scientific progress of the past century has been achieved not by free intellects pursuing questions of their own choosing. It’s been achieved by the Department of Defense: “DOD’s needs provided not just investments in but also a powerful focus for advances in basic research in fields ranging from high-energy physics to materials science to fluid dynamics to molecular biology.” To take but one specific example: ”In the late 1950s and well into the 1960s, as the role for computers in military affairs was growing but the science wasn’t keeping up, DOD’s Advanced Research Projects Agency essentially created computer science as an academic discipline by funding work at M.I.T., Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and other institutions.”

One might find DOD involvement in scientific research unsettlingly Strangelovean. One might, more cheerily, think it’s nearly biblical: Dollars devoted to the military complex get diverted to technologies that make possible enough cat videos to last us from now til the end of time.

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