(This is an essay I wrote last year, but hadn't published. I'm posting it here because some friends liked it and there's no particular reason to keep it private.)

The World Values Survey is a very comprehensive set of social science data that asks people, broadly, what they care about and how they think about life. It goes back forty years to 1981, and covers dozens of different countries.

The survey includes hundreds of questions, but the data analysts break responses down along two main axes, "traditional vs. secular/rational values" and "survival vs. self-expression values":

"Societies that emphasize survival values have relatively low levels of subjective well-being, report relatively poor health, and are low on interpersonal trust, relatively intolerant of outgroups, and low on support for gender equality. They emphasize materialist values, have relatively high levels of faith in science and technology, and are relatively low on environmental activism and relatively favorable to authoritarian government. Societies that rank high on self-expression values tend to have the opposite preferences on all of these topics. Overall, self-expression values reflect an emancipative and humanistic ethos, emphasizing human autonomy and choice." (source)

Broadly speaking, the first category seems like "the past" and the second category seems like "the present/future"... but "high levels of faith in science and technology"? Aren't science and technology supposed to be futuristic?

There's been a lot of discussion about whether innovation has slowed down or become less efficient, from Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation, to Robert Gordon's The Rise and Fall of American Growth, to Jason Crawford's ongoing blog The Roots of Progress. Particular causes might include things like Goodhart's Law, where any metric that is optimized ceases to be a good metric; governments, companies and universities getting larger, which makes them more bureaucratic and less focused; "institutional decay", where an organization like NASA is most effective right after its creation, and declines afterwards; and Nash equilibrium traps building up over time, where, eg., everyone knows that p < 0.05 is a lousy standard for publication, but everyone has to use it because everyone else does.

The least-cynical theory is just that discoveries have gradually "run out" - where there's a certain amount of discovering to do, and as new ideas are found, remaining ones become harder to see. Outside of some niche areas like high-energy physics, I really doubt this is true directly. Eg., aging is obviously a big problem, and a lot more progress has been made recently since people started taking it more seriously.

But it might be true indirectly! In, say, 1900, almost every part of the economy faced hard physical constraints, and everything was very expensive. Ships could only move so fast, manufacturing required a ton of labor and cleverness, feeding a growing population strained agriculture, and countries had to either keep up in military efficiency or get conquered. This meant that a lot of people - not just top scientists or startup founders, but military officers, factory managers, city councils, shop owners, and relatively "ordinary" folks - had a strong incentive to care about physical stuff and how they could make it work better. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes covers some of this, though it touches on plenty of other interesting topics too.

Nowadays, grain costs less than ten cents a pound, developed-world populations are shrinking, most of the cost of the house in top cities is the land, and the main limit on the ability of COVID vaccines to end the pandemic is just the willingness of people to take them. There are still areas of difficulty and innovation, of course. But if problems like "how to feed everyone" and "how to go anywhere quickly" and "how to avoid plane/construction/manufacturing accidents" and (increasingly) "how to replace fossil fuels" are, essentially, solved on a technological level, then fewer people have a reason to really care.

(looking back on this from 2022: now that we do have significant food and energy shortages, and a major war, have people gotten saner and more interested in technological progress? I'd say tentatively yes, though of course more than one thing is happening.)

It wouldn't be that hard to find ways to eg. improve the FDA, but this is much more of a niche interest than "values" issues like immigration or gender equality; there is no big reform-the-FDA lobby. Lots of nominal problems with science and progress, like "clinical trials are too small" or "journals accept bad papers" might, on some level, just be proxies for not enough people caring. You can mandate better statistics, but it's hard to mandate that something be done well when people are indifferent to the outcome; see also eg. Crony Beliefs on "irrational beliefs" that are really proxies for social forces.

There's an age-old trope of whether richer, "decadent" societies become militarily weak; in the historical context, this doesn't make much sense. But it would make perfect sense if, having invented nuclear weapons that made war unthinkable, countries let their conventional militaries become less effective. Why build up something you mostly aren't going to use anyway? War kind of sucks, after all. And so on down the line. 

New Comment
1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Nowadays, grain costs less than ten cents a pound, developed-world populations are shrinking, most of the cost of the house in top cities is the land, and the main limit on the ability of COVID vaccines to end the pandemic is just the willingness of people to take them.

That seems to be a pretty wrong claim about COVID vaccines. Even in the countries with the most substantial vaccination rates COVID didn't stop.

While the vaccines reduce COVID side effects, they are not very effective at preventing people from being infected. They don't produce mucosal immunity. They are also produced in a way that makes it easy for the virus to mutate and escape the vaccine.