Scientists’ Pride and Failed Predictions from the New York Academy of Sciences

The second event of the series Science and the Seven Deadly Sins took place last night at the New York Academy of Sciences.

Scientific American‘s George Musser moderated this panel entitled Pride: Flying Cars and Other Broken Promises, where Dr. Gregory Benford (physicist and science fiction writer) and Dr. Stuart Firestein (scientist and author, Ignorance, How It Drives Science) examined why scientists are so bad at predicting the impact of their work, and theology professor Dr. Christiana Peppard (Fordham University) explored the ethical side of scientific false promises.

What happened to all those promises from the scientists and engineers–jet packs, robotic companions, dinner in a pill form? We have oodles of gadgets and the internet but can’t figure out how to feed the world or save our planet. Scientists study big questions but in order to get the funding for their studies have to write grant proposals which many times must present rosy pictures and grandiose prophecies which don’t come true. What are the ethics behind this? We don’t like to publish the negative outcomes of studies so we usually have an unbalanced reporting. In reality, the world of scientific research is a humbling experience with many more failures than successes.

Dr. Gregory Benford (University of California, Irvine) says that science doesn’t promise a future. Science is about finding out how the world works. When you talk about predicting the future, you’re talking about imagination and imagination is more important than knowledge, as quoted from Einstein. Benford entertained us with old covers from the magazine Popular Mechanics featuring crazy innovations which actually came true–something that looks like Skype, a woman buying online with a futuristic circular city in the background. Not every artist’s rendering became a success. For instance, a common concept was bigger was supposed to be better. But floating airports on the ocean? Lots of submarines in the ocean make that a dangerous proposition.

Dr. Stuart Firestein (Department Chair of Biological Sciences at Columbia University) says that scientists think of science in the frame of questions and that the most unknowable of all is the future. He advocates using predictions to catalogue what we don’t know. Predicting outcomes is a tricky business and leads to the debate of whether we should be promoting applied research or basic research. He gave an example. Benjamin Franklin witnessed the first flight of human beings in a demonstration of hot air balloons in Paris. Someone in the crowd turned to him and said, “Well that’s all well and good but what use is flight likely to be?” Franklin turned to him and answered, “Really? What use is a newborn baby?”

Dr. Christina Peppard, the ethicist in the group, cited the renaissance philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist and author Sir Francis Bacon who in his book The New Atlantis spoke of the regularity of the laws of nature. This made our relationship to the material world more comfortable and the sense of mastery lead to the development of pride. There’s the pride of Icarus, hubris, the idea of playing God. There’s also a sense of pride which has to do with doing something well, i.e. with integrity, and which makes a difference in how we know what we know or in people’s lifestyles. How do we make sure that the science we do is done with integrity? Ethics can remind us of certain important questions to keep in mind whether we’re embarking on a research project or an NIH initiative. Ethics is about who we are, how we act, and how we relate to one another and the world around us. Peppard proposed four important questions to consider: What are we aiming at, what’s the goal? By what means are we trying to get there and are those means just? Who benefits from them and who bears the burdens of them? How then is that knowledge of power used once we get to the point of having attained it?

Musser brought the discussion around to addressing whether the failure of predicting outcomes is a problem or just one of those things. Some predictions come to fruition, some don’t. Where’s the value come from? Is it only in something that delivers on its promises or something that gives value all the way along? Firestein pointed out that we’ve learned a tremendous amount along the way in trying to find the cure for cancer.

Benford added that you cannot have a future that you first do not imagine. With a second reference to Bacon’s The New Atlantis, he quoted,“From such studies we will have an enlarged perspective.” Everyone should be in favor of the expansion of human horizons because that is what imagining the future is all about. The ethicist cautioned, “But who gets to do the imaginings? Who gets to set the funding?” pointing to Galileo’s continual trauma of having to apply for monies from fairly fickle sources.

Which would we rather have? More Edisons or Einsteins? Firestein noted that Edison did marvelous things but he couldn’t have done them without Farraday’s discoveries. The physicist and Nobel Laureate Paul Dirac discovered an equation that led to the discovery of the positron. At that time, it didn’t have any value other than it was part of his study to know the fundamental units of the universe. But fifty years later we have the PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography) which nobody back then could have predicted.

What’s important to note is that science is a revisionist activity and inherently has a lot of doubt. How do you predict when you know everything you have is uncertain? Fundamentally human beings don’t like uncertainty or ambiguity. But this could change if we changed the way we teach science. We should teach questions and exploration rather than facts and certainty.

In closing, Firestein woefully acknowledged how the NIH insists on receiving hypothesis driven proposals which kind of sets the stage for false predictions. Benford noted, somewhat facetiously, that grant proposals are a form of science fiction but the budget is fantasy.

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