Most of the time, in writing these essays, I try to treat the decline of industrial society with the seriousness that it deserves. Sometimes, though, the plain raw absurdity of our current situation rises to a point that only raucous laughter can address. I ran into another of those points a few days back, while reading an article on Yahoo News sent to me by a longtime reader and commenter—tip of the hat to David By The Lake. The article is by Hasan Chowdhury, and its title is “Humanity is on the brink of major scientific breakthroughs, but nobody seems to care.” You can read it here.
Chowdhury’s article points out that recent news stories about the latest heavily promoted claims of a breakthrough in nuclear fusion research, and the much-hyped announcement by two South Korean researchers that a room-temperature superconductor had been discovered, didn’t get the response the media expected. By and large, people yawned. To Chowdhury, this is appalling, and he argues that two factors are responsible. The first is that people in the hard sciences need to be better at publicity. The second is that too many people out there suffer from an irrational fear of progress, and simply need to be convinced that the latest gosh-wow technologies will surely benefit them sometime very soon.
Yeah, that was when I started laughing too.
Let’s start by talking about the two supposed breakthroughs Chowdhury talks about. The first is the claim that yet another team of fusion researchers has achieved net energy gain—the point at which the energy coming out of a fusion reaction is more than the energy put into it. This was first achieved in 2014, and a handful of other research teams have managed it in the years since then. Is it a step in the direction of commercial fusion power? Sure, in exactly the same sense that bouncing high on a trampoline is a step in the direction of landing on the moon.
The net energy gain in question, to begin with, is only a gain if you compare the output of the laser beams used to kindle the fusion reaction with the energy released by the reaction itself. It takes far more energy to fire up those lasers than you get out the business end, and so far fusion reactions have not even achieved the energy output they need to power their own lasers. And the other energy inputs needed to build, run, and maintain an experimental fusion reactor? Those aren’t included in the net energy figures either.
Nor, of course, does any of this affect the astonishingly dismal economics of fusion power. The reason that commercial fission, the other kind of nuclear power, is dead in the water these days is not that it doesn’t work—it’s that it’s so expensive that nuclear reactors can’t pay for themselves without gargantuan ongoing government subsidies. Fusion reactors are several orders of magnitude more complex and expensive than fission reactors. This means that even if some future fusion reactor can get positive net energy compared to all its energy inputs, it’s still an expensive stunt, not a source of grid electricity that any country anywhere in the world can afford. Of course Chowdhury doesn’t mention this; nobody pushing fusion hype ever breathes a word about the economics of what promises to be, even if it works someday, the world’s most hopelessly unaffordable power source.
The second breakthrough Chowdhury wants us to get excited about is the claim that a room temperature superconductor has been invented. A superconductor, for those of my readers who went to American public schools and therefore got no scientific education worth mentioning, is a material that conducts electricity with effectively no resistance. Existing superconductors have to be cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero and subjected to various other complex conditions, which limit their usefulness. (Superconductors are heavily used in experimental fusion reactors, for example. Is the energy needed to cool them to working temperatures factored into those net energy figures? Surely you jest.)
So why hasn’t this announcement been met with gladsome cries? Because for decades now the media has been full of exciting new scientific breakthroughs that turned out to be bogus. We’re constantly being told that this or that or the other wonderful technological revolution is about to happen. It’s the follow-through that deserves attention here, because the vast majority of these announcements are pure hype, meant to separate fools from their investment money in the time-honored fashion. As it turns out, the room temperature superconductor seems to be another example of this kind; repeated attempts by other labs to get the same results have failed, and so it’s pretty clear that the research team that made that claim was either mistaken or lying.
This sort of thing is far more common than the cheerleaders of science like to admit. Retraction Watch, the most widely respected organization tracking scientific fakery these days, estimates that more than 100,000 papers should be retracted each year; the actual number in 2022 was less than 5500. Of retracted papers, four-fifths on average are withdrawn due to scientific fraud. You know those claims that scientists can be trusted to police themselves, and will drive fraudulent researchers out of the business? Think again. Retraction Watch lists some researchers who have had more than a hundred papers retracted, and are still happily employed in their laboratories turning out junk science.
Until relatively recently this was treated as an internal problem within the scientific community. The difficulty scientists face is that now it’s a public scandal. A very large number of people outside the sciences are well aware that scientific opinions are for sale to the highest bidder, that a great many scientific studies are fraudulent or simply wrong, and that in a great many cases, scientists simply don’t know what they’re talking about. They know this, in turn, because their noses have been rubbed in it over and over again by public policies promoted by scientists the failed abjectly to live up to the hype.
It’s ironic that Chowdhury should have chosen fusion power as one of his examples, because it’s also one of the biggest offenders here. You can get a belly laugh quite reliably in many parts of today’s America by saying in an earnest voice, “Fusion power is just twenty years in the future!” The reason, of course, is that experts have been saying these words in exactly that tone since the 1950s. Most people realize at this point that it’s never going to happen; most people figured out a long time ago that the fusion researchers who say this are simply angling for another round of government money to flush down their high-tech ratholes.
The fact that scientists, politicians, and the media still pretend that commercial fusion power is possible is thus an important factor in the collapse of public confidence in expert opinion of all kinds. The narrative that scientists, politicians, and the media are pushing—“fusion researchers are closing in rapidly on a wonderful new power source for everyone”—has drifted much too far away from the narrative that the facts are telling—“fusion researchers are spinning their wheels uselessly, but they don’t want to admit it since their income depends on claiming otherwise”—and more and more people are coming to believe the second narrative.
It’s far from the only offender along these lines. At least as much credit has to be given to the scientific rhetoric around climate change. Before we go on, I want to point out that yes, the global climate is changing; yes, there are serious problems caused by the current pace and direction of climate change; and yes, greenhouse gases produced by human activity play a role in the shift in climate we’re experiencing. Those three points are important, and in an upcoming post I’ll be discussing them in considerably more detail, but they don’t begin to justify the shrill claims that have been made by climate scientists in recent decades.
The parade of failed doomsday predictions by climate scientists has become so embarrassing that you can find entire chronologies online listing inaccurate claims made by experts, and comparing them to what actually happened. Somehow, despite those claims claims splashed around by Al Gore et al., the Arctic Ocean is not yet ice-free in summer—that was supposed to happen years ago, according to the hype—and polar bear populations are rebounding as the bears do what Darwin predicted and adapt to changing environments. Again, this does not mean that global climate change isn’t happening. It means that the experts know a lot less about climate change (not to mention polar bear ecology) than they think they do. What that means, in turn, is that a growing number of people are responding to the latest dire pronouncements of climate activists by rolling their eyes and walking away.
Hasan Chowdhury also has his equivalents in this field. I’m thinking here especially of a recent article by Rebecca Solnit titled “We can’t afford to be climate doomers,” which you can read here. She insists that it’s wrong for people to assume that nothing can be done about climate change—why, if we all clap our hands in unison and believe, surely Tinkerbell can be saved! It’s interesting to compare Solnit’s earnestness with the equally earnest claim by Greta Thunberg in 2018 that if we didn’t give up all fossil fuels within five years, humanity would be doomed to certain extinction. If the scientists Thunberg cited were right, it’s already too late; if they were wrong, why should we believe the rest of what they’re claiming?
Solnit is incensed that “the comfortable in the global north”—that is to say, the privileged classes to which she herself belongs—are increasingly discouraged about climate change. She insists that all we have to do is embrace the same remedies she and her fellow activists have been pushing all along: political action, allegedly green technologies, and the demonization of fossil fuel companies. The difficulty, of course, is that those supposed remedies have not just failed to achieve their goals, they’ve failed to have any effect on climate at all.
After all, despite climate treaties, green technologies, activists throwing public temper tantrums about climate, and the rest of it, fossil fuel use and the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere both continue to climb steadily. All those wind turbines and solar PV farms haven’t even slowed the global increase in fossil fuel consumption, much less replaced any noticeable amount of fossil fuels with green energy—in point of fact, world consumption of coal, the dirtiest fuel of all, hit an all-time record last year, up 3.3% from the year before. The narrative Solnit is pushing amounts to “climate protesters are heroes saving the earth from evil fossil fuel companies,” but the narrative that the facts are telling is “climate protesters are a pampered subculture engaging in meaningless virtue signaling while ignoring their own carbon-laced lifestyles.” Once again, it’s the latter narrative that’s become more convincing to people these days.
What exactly have the last three decades of climate protest accomplished, after all? That’s a question you’re not supposed to ask. Of course, mutatis mutandis, that’s the question you’re not supposed to ask about fusion—what have all those billions of dollars of investment in fusion reactors accomplished so far?—or about a long, long list of supposed breakthroughs and dangers the media is still pretending to take seriously. No matter how many times the same hype has been disproven by events, no matter how many supposed experts have tripped over their own predictions and bloodied their noses on the hard pavement of reality, the rest of us are supposed to place blind faith in whatever they happen to say this time around.
There, in turn, is where it’s possible to glimpse the chasm opening beneath the feet of today’s corporate-managerial aristocracy.
Every society depends for social cohesion on the widespread acceptance of a shared narrative about authority. In the European Middle Ages, the narrative held that kings were anointed by God to do the work of leading God’s people, and that divine sanction cascaded down the feudal hierarchy through dukes and barons and knights and peasants all the way to the swineherd leading his pigs. Everyone knew that plenty of kings, and for that matter plenty of swineherds, didn’t live up to the image the narrative assigned them. As long as the narrative remained in place, even the political radicals of the time thought in terms of getting each person to fill their assigned roles, rather than tearing down the feudal structure itself.
The medieval narrative was durable precisely because it wasn’t vulnerable to objective disproof. If the king was a brute or a nitwit, as of course he was tolerably often, that just showed that God was irate and had sent the people a bad ruler as punishment for their sins. The early Protestant-capitalist narrative that replaced it was equally immune to disproof. God (or his faux-secular equivalent, the almighty market) had assigned the rich their riches and the poor their poverty as a sign that the former were pleasing in his sight and the latter were not, and the remarkably arbitrary nature of divine favor was hardwired into Protestant ideology from the early days of the Reformation onward.
But the Protestant-capitalist narrative gave way in the wake of the Great Depression to a new narrative of expertise. According to that new narrative, bureaucratic and corporate meritocracies had received the secular equivalent of divine favor because they were the smart kids in the room. Their university degrees and their successful ascent of organizational hierarchies proved that they were better suited to run the world than anyone else, and they were expected to demonstrate that in practice by pursuing policies that worked.
At first, that wasn’t much of a problem, because the kleptocratic investment class that ran the country before the Depression had made such a mess of things that almost anything would have been an improvement. Later on it became more difficult, when real world problems—cough, cough, Vietnam, the War on Poverty, etc.—turned out to be much more recalcitrant than anyone in the managerial class thought. There was a trap hidden within their rhetoric, however, and it turned out to be a trap from which they could not escape.
Central to the core narrative of the entire industrial world during the managerial era was the insistence that sometime soon everything would change. The world we all knew would be replaced by something else—by a shiny Utopian Tomorrowland, if we all gave the experts everything they wanted, and by a smoking postapocalyptic wasteland if we didn’t. That was the message that scientists, politicians, and the media rehashed endlessly: tomorrow may be wonderful or it may be terrible, but it will not be the same as today.
The fact of the matter is that both the promise and the threat turned out to be bogus. As Peter Thiel famously said, we were promised flying cars, and what we got instead was 140 characters and an easy way to circulate cat pictures around the world. Chowdhury himself, in the article cited above, quoted a venture capitalist complaining that no matter how wonderful and exciting and cutting-edge the imaginary world of computer imagery looks, as soon as you return to everyday life things change utterly: “The minute you get into a car, the minute you plug something into a wall, the minute you eat food, you’re still living in the 1950s.”
Except, of course, you’re not—not unless you’re a wealthy venture capitalist, or for that matter a comfortable media flack, and in either case you can afford to ignore the explosive crapification of modern life. In the 1950s an ordinary unskilled laborer could count on earning enough money to stay fed, clothed, housed, and supplied with the other necessities of life. In the 2020s even skilled workers have to struggle to do these things. Compared to that unchanging reality, all those promises of a shiny new future about to dawn any day now look like vicious jokes. Even the thought of a sudden apocalyptic end to the system has begun to lose its appeal—and yes, it has considerable appeal to those who have been assigned the short end of the stick by the current system. The apocalypse has pulled so many no-shows at this point that the disaffected are no longer counting on it to free them from the dead weight of an unbearable situation.
What we see around us is a society caught in the throes of futurus interruptus, denied both the orgasmic release of the Tomorrowland future and the even juicier equivalent of its apocalyptic twin, waiting in increasing frustration for a fulfillment that’s endlessly promised but never arrives. That’s the time bomb ticking away at the heart of the system. Chowdhury, Solnit, and their many equivalents in today’s media are right to be terrified at the increasingly widespread refusal to put any more faith in the same tripe that’s been shoveled forth by their equivalents since the managerial aristocracy seized power not quite a century ago. Once the central narrative breaks down, after all, the end of the existing order of society is a foregone conclusion.
That end need not involve vast amounts of bloodshed. Wars of independence tend to be hard-fought, but domestic revolutions very often involve only token violence. What happens instead—in France in 1789, in Russia in 1991, and in many other cases—is that a system that has been hollowed out by a string of cascading failures runs into one more crisis than it can tolerate, and implodes under the weight of its own absurdities. We are much closer to such scenes in North America and Western Europe right now than I think most people realize. Every belly laugh called forth by the drivel that Chowdhury and Solnit expect us to believe brings us closer still.
* * * * *
A glance at the calendar reminded me this morning that August has five Wednesdays, and it’s a long-established tradition on this blog that the readers get to vote on the topic for my post for the fifth Wednesday of any month that has one. The ball is in your court, dear readers. What do you want to hear about?