Thursday, May 07, 2015

scientific american's predictions from just 10 years ago are all wrong...,

gizmodo |  Recently, we did an experiment: We took an outdated issue of a respected popular science magazine, Scientific American, and researched exactly what happened to the highly-touted breakthroughs of the era that would supposedly change everything. What we discovered is just how terrible we are at predicting the long arc of scientific discovery.

The daily churn of science news tends toward optimism. You know what I’m talking about: New cure! New breakthrough smashing Moore’s law! New revolutionary technology! I write about science, and I am always uncomfortable trying to predict how a new piece of research will change the future. 

That’s because science can be wrong. It can go down dead ends. And even when it doesn’t, almost everything is more complicated and takes longer than we initially think. But just how wrong and how long? 

We can’t very well time travel to the future for those answers, but we can look backward. I recently dig up the 2005 December issue of Scientific American and went entry by entry through the Scientific American 50, a list of the most important trends in science that year. I chose 2005 because 10 years seemed recent enough for continuity between scientific questions then and now but also long enough ago for actual progress. More importantly, I chose Scientific American because the magazine 
publishes sober assessments of science, often by scientists themselves. (Read: It can be a little boring, but it’s generally accurate.) But I also trusted it not to pick obviously frivolous and clickbaity things.
Number one on the list was a stem cell breakthrough that turned out to be one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud ever. (To be fair, it fooled everyone.) But the list held other unfulfilled promises, too: companies now defunct, an FBI raid, and many, many technologies simply still on the verge of finally making it a decade later. By my count, only two of its 16 medical discoveries of 2005 have resulted in a drug or hospital procedures so far. The rosy future is not yet here.

Science is a not a linear march forward, as headlines seem to imply. Science is a long slow slog, and often a twisty one at that. That’s obvious in retrospect, when we can see the dead ends and the roadblocks. It’s less obvious looking ahead, as we’re being bombarded with promising new drugs and wondermaterial breakthroughs. So let’s take a look together.