paul_saffo's picture
Technology Forecaster; Consulting Associate Professor, Stanford University
The Illusion of Scientific Progress

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said "Let Newton be" and all was light. 

—Alexander Pope

The breathtaking advance of scientific discovery has the unknown on the run. Not so long ago, the Creation was 8,000 years old and Heaven hovered a few thousand miles above our heads. Now Earth is 4.5 billion years old and the observable Universe spans 92 billion light years. Pick any scientific field and the story is the same, with new discoveries—and new life-touching wonders—arriving almost daily. Like Pope, we marvel at how hidden Nature is revealed in scientific light.

Our growing corpus of scientific knowledge evokes Teilhard de Chardin's arresting metaphor of the noosphere, the growing sphere of human understanding and thought. In our optimism, this sphere is like an expanding bubble of light in the darkness of ignorance.

Our optimism leads us to focus on the contents of this sphere, but its surface is more important for it is where knowledge ends and mystery begins. As our scientific knowledge expands, contact with the unknown grows as well. The result is not merely that we have mastered more knowledge (the sphere's volume), but we have encountered an ever-expanding body of previously unimaginable mysteries. A century ago, astronomers wondered whether our galaxy constituted the entire universe; now they tell us we probably live in an archipelago of universes.

The science establishment justifies its existence with the big idea that it offers answers and ultimately solutions. But privately, every scientist knows that what science really does is discover the profundity of our ignorance. The growing sphere of scientific knowledge is not Pope's night-dispelling light, but a campfire glow in the gloom of vast mystery. Touting discoveries helps secure finding and gain tenure, put perhaps the time has come to retire discovery as the ultimate measure of scientific progress. Let us measure progress not by what is discovered, but rather by the growing list of mysteries that remind us of how little we really know.