Author, The Roots of Progress (rootsofprogress.org). Part-time tech consultant, Our World in Data. Former software engineering manager and tech startup founder.


Progress: Fluke or trend?

Maybe, what would that mean exactly? Or what's an example of how that could be the case?

Progress: Fluke or trend?

Good point. Maybe I should have said, we have to believe that there is at least a chance that it wasn't a fluke.

If you are pretty sure it's a fluke, then what is there to study, and why bother?

On the other hand, if you're certain it's a trend, there is still a lot to study: What caused the trend? How much control do we have over the causes? Etc.

I agree that, if progress was somehow a fluke, then progress studies would ideally find that out. We should follow reason wherever it leads, and be open to the truth whatever it is.

But I think the motivation for the field is the idea that it's not a fluke, and empirically it seems to me that most people interested in the field see it as a trend.

Were vaccines relevant to 20th century US mortality improvements?

I've done more research since I wrote this. I'm not sure if this is true “for almost every viral disease with a vaccine”, but it might be true for many or most of them.

The big ones I know of where it's not true are smallpox and polio. Smallpox we don't have great data on because its vaccine was invented so early (1700s), but there's no reason to believe that its mortality rate was dropping significantly; in general big mortality rate drops didn't occur until later.

Polio we do have good data on, and it's clear that the epidemics continued, and indeed got worse, until the introduction of the vaccine in 1955. Polio is something of a special case in that it was not improved by sanitation.

Other diseases seem to have been ameliorated through sanitation, hygiene, and perhaps nutrition. I go into more detail on this in “Draining the swamp: How sanitation fought disease long before vaccines or antibiotics”.

Why haven't we celebrated any major achievements lately?

I disagree, there are plenty of problems left to solve: https://rootsofprogress.org/the-plight-of-the-poor

Study Group for Progress – 50% off for LessWrongers

Yes, we'll offer a full refund if you drop out before the third session (that is, you get to try to first two) with no risk. Thanks!

Rereading Atlas Shrugged

Very thoughtful and insightful post, thanks. I'm a big fan of Atlas Shrugged and have read it a few times, although the latest was many years ago. I agree with a lot of what you say here, especially about metaphysics and epistemology being fundamental.

However, I see the notion of the strike as a fantasy idea. Rand herself actually called it a “fantastic premise”. It was meant to dramatize the role of scientists, inventors and industrialists as heroes that society depends on. And it was conceived in the 1940s, when labor strikes were prominent in the news. Basically, instead of a labor strike, Rand asked, what if the thinkers went on strike?

In reality, the strike would never work, because the actual leaders of industrial society aren't all implicit Objectivists, and can't be convinced even in one of John Galt's three-hour conversations. And worse, if it did work, I think it would be an utter disaster—society would collapse, and it would not be easy for the strikers to come back and pick up the pieces.

But none of that matters to me, because the novel isn't meant as a practical plan for revolution, any more than Batman is meant as a realistic model for fighting crime. The value of the book, to me, is the depiction of scientific/industrial achievement as a romantic, noble quest, and (as you note) the relationship of that to a certain way of facing reality and truth.

Why haven't we celebrated any major achievements lately?

I love this, and I actually think it's a very relevant comment! A poem like this is a type of celebration.

It reminds me that at the Golden Gate Bridge, there is a statue of the chief engineer, Joseph Strauss, with an inscription that reads:

Here at the Golden Gate is the eternal rainbow that he conceived and set to form a promise indeed that the race of man shall endure unto the ages.

Why haven't we celebrated any major achievements lately?

If you want to see “creativity”, here is a book apparently by a US doctor and printed by a major US publisher that argues against the germ theory, claims Pasteur renounced it on his deathbed, and suggests that covid is due to “electromagnetic pollution” (including of course 5G): https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Contagion-Myth/Thomas-S-Cowan/9781510764620

How to analyze progress, stagnation, and low-hanging fruit

Oh that's weird. I thought they hadn't gotten pasted in properly, so I did them again. Must be an editor bug. Will fix, thanks

Why anything that can be for-profit, should be

All of these examples apply differently:

  • Lack of patent protection does not stop a nonprofit from sponsoring research to run a clinical trial for a repurposed drug
  • Regulation on insurance offerings doesn't stop a nonprofit from paying for people's health care as a charity
  • Free public schools don't stop a charity from offering an alternative free school

In each case, if a nonprofit wants to offer a product/service, they can do so, but the corresponding opportunities to offer the same product/service on a for-profit basis are prevented by the structural barriers.

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