Tuesday, July 30, 2019

A call for progress studies

From the article:
Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”
I've got a quibble here. From my point of view science and technology are aspects of culture, along with the arts, marriage customs, cuisine and the like. Habits and practices of organization, they too are aspects of culture, and so with economic practices. In the large we have societies, which are groups of people, and culture, which are the ideas, attitudes, customs, and so forth practiced by the people of a society. Moreover, when you think about it, it's quite clear that most modern societies contain within them a diversity of cultures, and by that I do not only mean ethnicities (Irish, Basque, Lakota, Tamil, and the like). Each occupational specialty, for example, has its own culture, if not family of cultures. Culture is dizzying in its variety.

Let's continue:
Looking backwards, it’s striking how unevenly distributed progress has been in the past. In antiquity, the ancient Greeks were discoverers of everything from the arch bridge to the spherical earth. By 1100, the successful pursuit of new knowledge was probably most concentrated in parts of China and the Middle East. Along the cultural dimension, the artists of Renaissance Florence enriched the heritage of all humankind, and in the process created the masterworks that are still the lifeblood of the local economy. The late 18th and early 19th century saw a burst of progress in Northern England, with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In each case, the discoveries that came to elevate standards of living for everyone arose in comparatively tiny geographic pockets of innovative effort. Present-day instances include places like Silicon Valley in software and Switzerland’s Basel region in life sciences.

These kinds of examples show that there can be ecosystems that are better at generating progress than others, perhaps by orders of magnitude. But what do they have in common? Just how productive can a cultural ecosystem be? Why did Silicon Valley happen in California rather than Japan or Boston? Why was early-20th-century science in Germany and Central Europe so strong? Can we deliberately engineer the conditions most hospitable to this kind of advancement or effectively tweak the systems that surround us today?
And so, we're out to change the world:
An important distinction between our proposed Progress Studies and a lot of existing scholarship is that mere comprehension is not the goal. When anthropologists look at scientists, they’re trying to understand the species. But when viewed through the lens of Progress Studies, the implicit question is how scientists (or funders or evaluators of scientists) should be acting. The success of Progress Studies will come from its ability to identify effective progress-increasing interventions and the extent to which they are adopted by universities, funding agencies, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other institutions. In that sense, Progress Studies is closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand.

We know that, to some readers, the word progress may sound too normative. However, it is the explicit bedrock upon which Vannevar Bush made his case for postwar funding of science, a case that led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation. In an era where funding for good projects can be hard to come by, or is even endangered, we must affirmatively make the case for the study of how to improve human well-being. This possibility is a fundamental reason why the American public is interested in supporting the pursuit of knowledge, and rightly so.
Needless to say, Collison and Cowen need to know the work David Hays and I have done on cultural ranks, which can provide a framework for thinking about many of these issues.

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BTW, is this one small step for progress studies - The artificial "scientist" makes new discoveries in a pile of old scientific papers [#AI , #Word2Vec]?


  1. "Looking backwards, it’s striking how unevenly distributed progress has been in the past. In antiquity, the ancient Greeks were discoverers of everything from the arch bridge to the spherical earth."

    I can't read past this sentence. Its alarming and indicates that the serious issues surrounding this subject have not been thought through and instead the authors appear to be running with them.

    It's unreadable.

  2. And we must take into consideration that all that has been considered progress was not positive. I would then refine the question as to how can we foster positive progress? One problem with fostering progress or any sort of change is that we really have no way of knowing all of the consequences.