The point I'm trying to make is not that there are particular topics where the respectable opinion is so mendacious and delusional that they're impossible to discuss rationally in public, or even in any respectable company. (Although that is clearly true.) I am actually making a stronger claim.

Namely, some such topics exist in every human society, but their scope does vary a lot -- and if their scope is sufficiently wide, an upfront and rational public discussion of some very general and fundamental questions about government, society, and human affairs becomes impossible, since such a discussion would necessarily involve countering some of these established delusions and mendacity. My claim is that at some point during the last few generations, the English-speaking societies have in fact gone past that point. (This also applies to other Western societies, since there are no other ones whose intellectual institutions and traditions have maintained independent continuity through the 1914-1945 cataclysm.)

Again to use the Soviet analogy, imagine having a discussion about general and fundamental trends in modern history in which it would be an unimaginable heresy to open the question of whether the Russian Revolution in 1917 was perhaps not such a great and fortunate event after all, or that maybe Soviet socialism in fact wasn't such a great and liberating improvement on the Czarist government, or that (gasp!) workers are actually better off under capitalism. Clearly, it would be impossible to have a sensible discussion that maintains a solid grip on reality under such constraints, and the result would be a mere rehearsal in ideological cant. What I find is that the effective constraints on respectable public discourse nowadays are, for all practical purposes, equally suffocating -- although of course they are enforced by much less crude, explicit, and violent means, which rarely go beyond shunning and marginalization of dissenters.

(Also, here I don't have in mind just topics that are so incendiary that dissenting opinions are likely to raise firestorms of outrage and condemnation, but also other ones where the uniformity of respectable opinion is so well-entrenched and secure that someone opposing it will be affectionately and self-assuredly laughed off as an annoying but harmless crackpot, with comparably small repercussions.)

Peter Thiel warns of upcoming (and current) stagnation

by SilasBarta 1 min read4th Oct 2011121 comments


SIAI benefactor and VC Peter Thiel has an excellent article at National Review about the stagnating progress of science and technology, which he attributes to poorly-grounded political opposition, widespread scientific illiteracy, and overspecialized, insular scientific fields.  He warns that this stagnation will undermine the growth that past policies have relied on.

Noteworthy excerpts (bold added by me):

In relation to concerns expressed here about evaluating scientific field soundness:

When any given field takes half a lifetime of study to master, who can compare and contrast and properly weight the rate of progress in nanotechnology and cryptography and superstring theory and 610 other disciplines? Indeed, how do we even know whether the so-called scientists are not just lawmakers and politicians in disguise, as some conservatives suspect in fields as disparate as climate change, evolutionary biology, and embryonic-stem-cell research, and as I have come to suspect in almost all fields? [!!! -- SB]

Grave indictors:

Looking forward, we see far fewer blockbuster drugs in the pipeline — perhaps because of the intransigence of the FDA, perhaps because of the fecklessness of today’s biological scientists, and perhaps because of the incredible complexity of human biology. In the next three years, the large pharmaceutical companies will lose approximately one-third of their current revenue stream as patents expire, so, in a perverse yet understandable response, they have begun the wholesale liquidation of the research departments that have borne so little fruit in the last decade and a half. [...]

The single most important economic development in recent times has been the broad stagnation of real wages and incomes since 1973, the year when oil prices quadrupled. To a first approximation, the progress in computers and the failure in energy appear to have roughly canceled each other out. Like Alice in the Red Queen’s race, we (and our computers) have been forced to run faster and faster to stay in the same place.

Taken at face value, the economic numbers suggest that the notion of breathtaking and across-the-board progress is far from the mark. If one believes the economic data, then one must reject the optimism of the scientific establishment. Indeed, if one shares the widely held view that the U.S. government may have understated the true rate of inflation — perhaps by ignoring the runaway inflation in government itself, notably in education and health care (where much higher spending has yielded no improvement in the former and only modest improvement in the latter) — then one may be inclined to take gold prices seriously and conclude that real incomes have fared even worse than the official data indicate. [...]

College graduates did better, and high-school graduates did worse. But both became worse off in the years after 2000, especially when one includes the rapidly escalating costs of college.[...]

The current crisis of housing and financial leverage contains many hidden links to broader questions concerning long-term progress in science and technology. On one hand, the lack of easy progress makes leverage more dangerous, because when something goes wrong, macroeconomic growth cannot offer a salve; time will not cure liquidity or solvency problems in a world where little grows or improves with time.

HT: MarginalRevolution