Saturday, July 9, 2011

Open thread about the Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the economics of science

- What does Tyson get wrong in these two videos - what does he misunderstand about investment in and the production of science?

- What does he get right?


  1. (a) There's the boneheaded assumption that only the creator of an idea, etc. reaps the benefit of it. As long as you've got smart people who can understand whatever is published you're fine (this is kind of why science isn't a public good - but that is another issue entirely). I'd say that is the primary problem with the first video.

    (b) A space station looking down on us? Yeah, there was an effort to create space spies, and the Soviets actually sent some guys up, but that was really expensive and was basically made obsolete by unmanned spy satellites. As for the whole geo-political thing, that's pretty laughable - trade and commerce is what brings countries together, not grand, emotional projects that people forget in six months.

    Let's that what I see.

  2. I would have liked to see him do that map thing but with number of patents issued in addition to number of peer reviewed science publications. That has the potential to show a more mixed story than the one he is selling.

    As far as the second video is concerned I think his point is pretty legitimate. To pull out some canned examples you cant separate the development of the computer or interchangeable parts from geopolitics.

  3. Andrew Bossie,

    What does the development of interchangeable parts at Harper's Ferry have to do with geopolitics specifically? Was that it was a sign that the U.S. was overtaking Britain via the so-called "American system" of manufacturing? I can honestly draw all kinds of tenuous and vague geopolitical influences to all manner of science and technology, but that still doesn't make it a good reason to explore a technology. Indeed, such a way of thinking I would say leads to a heck a lot of wasted money and dead ends - like our missions to the moon.

  4. The American system was actually developed by the French military in the mid 18th century*. I think more basically Whitney had a military contract and the military is basically nothing but a geopolitical actor.

    I feel like Tysons point in the second video is that "science" is often a by-product of political considerations and that we should have a more realistic outlook about what that means. For instance the "waste" of the moon landing was political waste, not science waste. Not that I think the moon landing was a waste anymore than building the Statue of Liberty was a waste or climbing Mount Everest just to walk back down is a waste. I just think of it as a human achievement for it's own sake.

    Anyway, if geopolitics is going to drive a willingness to risk "waste" to achieve particular ends or generate new knowledge and technology then I'm all for a device that gets us to look past the ends of our own noses.

    Though I do think it's complicated and I do think it's a bit of a Faustian bargain. For instance, what if the military launches a program to develop super durable and efficient solar panels so that they can extend the range of predator drones or so they could power our new robot overlords (for the coming singularity!)?

    *Smith, Merritt Roe (1987) _Military Enterprise and Technological Change_

  5. If by invention you mean that Blanc created a few long guns which had interchangeable parts, you're right. The fact of the matter though is that Simon and North developed the system of interchangeable parts for long guns and made the primary practical contribution regarding such; not Blanc and not Whitney. In other words, making a half-dozen long guns with interchangeable parts is all good and great, but the mass production of such is another matter and that's why the development of the "American System" happened long after Whitney gave it a whack. Mass production is as important as the parts being interchangeable in other words.

    And yeah, I've read Smith's books (including his most famous - that on Harper's Ferry - the one he won all the awards for); as I recall he was working at the Smithsonian when he discovered that Whitney's locks, etc. weren't really interchangeable - which set him off to discover who actually developed interchangeable parts - without that sort of detective work we'd never know who North, etc. were and of their importance in the development of the "American System."

  6. "I feel like Tysons point in the second video is that 'science' is often a by-product of political considerations..."

    No doubt, and that leads to all manner of problems. We'd all agree that the science of botany in the 18th century was in fact the step-child of empire - British, French, etc. imperialists wanted to promote and enhance the study and application of botany as a means to promote certain imperial ends (consider the case of bread fruit as an example - there are plenty of others). This lead to the advancement of the science of botany (think of what Kew gardens would be without it), but the geopolitics sucked and the fact that botany was a handmaiden of empire I would argue tainted much of the science associated with these efforts.

    Anyway, the primary difference between the Statue of Liberty and climbing Mt. Everest (I'm a mountain climber BTW - though I've never been to the Himalayas) is that they were/are largely privately funded (the French state to my knowledge had no involvement in the construction of the statue itself - the American government did get itself involved in setting up the platform it sits on, etc.). In other words, I find Tyson's comments to be rather odd. It seems to me that he is saying that geopolitics brings merit to a dumb idea; in fact, to me geopolitical concerns (which are so often overhyped and the subject of hyperbole - think here of the "missile gap" or WMDs in Iraq) make for a poor substitute for other ways of measuring the merit of human action.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.