Mistake of the Week: “The Future Is In X”

One of the surest signs of the shnood is the portentous repetition of the following two slogans:

Biology will be the physics of the 21st century.

The future of the world is in China and India.

Let me translate for you:

You know the field of Darwin, Pasteur, and Mendel, the field that fills almost every page of Science and Nature, the field that gave rise to modern medicine and transformed the human condition over the last few centuries? Well, don’t count it out entirely! This plucky newcomer among the sciences is due to make its mark. Another thing you shouldn’t count out is the continent of Asia, which is situated next to Europe. Did you know that China, far more than a source of General Tso’s Chicken, has been one of the centers of human civilization for 4,000 years? And did you know that Gandhi and Ramanujan both hailed from a spunky little country called India? It’s true!

Let me offer my own counterslogans:

Biology will be the biology of the 21st century.

The future of China and India is in China and India, respectively.

18 Responses to “Mistake of the Week: “The Future Is In X””

  1. michael v Says:

    Scott, you must admit that, at a best guess, the practical consequences of new biology (for ordinary people, not for the world of mind) in the 21st century will be larger, relative to those of physics, than they were in the 20th century. Likewise, the size of China’s and India’s economies will be much greater, as a fraction of the world economy, in the 21st century than in the 20th.

    Congrads on your blog’s scientific impact.

  2. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I am as irritated by fatuous hype as you are and I have no intention to endorse (or oppose!) any of these claims about the future. That said, you could argue just based on population that the current world economic order is not natural.

    China has 4.5 times the population of the United States and India has 3.5 times the population of the United States, but these two countries put together have less money and influence than the United States does by itself. So it begs the question: Will the global political balance stay this unfair forever, or will there eventually be a reckoning? Or are we already in the midst of one?

    I do not mean these as rhetorical questions. There are serious arguments in both directions, on one side that American power is fairly stable, on the other side that China is on roughly the same track as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

  3. John Sidles Says:

    Hmmm … a mixture of humor and irritation … aren’t these the two responses that are most characteristic of an agnotological cognitive challenge?

    Let’s increase the challenge by sharpening Scott’s two slogans:

    (1) As 21st Century biology becomes more observational and more synoptic (and therefore, less experimental and less hypothetical) biology will cease to exist as a traditional scientific discipline.

    We don’t yet know what cognitive structure humanity’s embrace of synoptic biology will take.

    And if biology becomes a cognitive discipline-other-than-science, couldn’t the same thing happen to other scientific disciplines?

    (2) For inexorable demographic reasons, Mandarin and Hindu will become the primary languages of 21st Century science.

  4. andrej Says:

    The style supplement in today’s Times has a snippet on how “Uzbekistan is the new Mongolia,” “Madison, Wisc. is the new Berkeley, Calif.,” and 3 more like these. Typical mistake of the week.

    “For the record: An article on Sunday about new fads misstated that Uzbekistan is the new Mongolia. The byline should read Uzbekistan is the new Uzbekistan. The Times regrets the error.”

  5. Anonymous Says:

    “Hindu” is a follower of Hinduism. You meant Hindi.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    John Slides coments:
    As 21st Century biology becomes more observational and more synoptic (and therefore, less experimental and less hypothetical) biology will cease to exist as a traditional scientific discipline.

    I don’t know whether bio will cease to exist as a traditional scientific discipline, but I would like it to be. (for some illogical and utterly stupid reasons).

    For inexorable demographic reasons, Mandarin and Hindu will become the primary languages of 21st Century science.

    You mean to say Hindi. Don’t you think that English should be the primary laguage. New Indian kids do speak better English than Hindi. SO the balance is shifted towards English again by a margin of (lets say) 300 to 400 million.

    Sarvagya Upadhyay

  7. Scott Says:

    Hmmm … a mixture of humor and irritation … aren’t these the two responses that are most characteristic of an agnotological cognitive challenge?

    No, I think they’re just my responses to pretty much anything.

  8. Scott Says:

    Look, it’s entirely possible that biology, China, and India will be more economically important in the next century than they were in the last (although, like Greg, I don’t regard any such prediction as obvious). What I object to is the view of history as a “searchlight” that only illuminates one region or topic at a time. Not only is this view silly, but ironically it minimizes the impact that biology, China, and India have already had.

    If Mandarin is to become the language of 21st century science, I’ll be well-prepared with the one word of it I still remember from middle school: dian nao, or “electric brain” i.e. computer. Well, I guess I also know wo, ni, ta and yi, er, san.

  9. John Sidles Says:

    My (extraordinarily hopeful) view is that by the end of the 21st Century most present-day scientific disciplines will cease to exist (in recognizable form) as ignorance increasingly becomes something that human societies design rather than tolerate.

    Obviously, this is feasible iff humanity possesses immense supplies of knowledge. So thanks, Google! Thanks, PubMed! Thanks, Large Synoptic Survey Telescope! Thanks, Lee Hood and Craig Venter! Thanks, Standard Model of Particle Physics! Thanks, AMS and Arxiv Server! May you all prosper, and increase your informatic bounty 100X.

    Meanwhile … hopefully … the global language of science will revert to Latin … which would be classy, fun, and egalitarian (but I’m not holding my breath). :)

    And Scott, if humor and irritation are feasible responses to most elements of a person’s life, then isn’t that life truly blessed? Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melekh ha’olam hatov v’hametiv … Praise God, who is good and causes good things to happen.

    Humanity surely has need of this blessing, to survive the coming century.

  10. Scott Says:

    You are truly a nut. :-)

  11. Luca Says:

    Scott, I see you don’t talk to Chinese people much: it’s FIVE thousand years.

  12. Scott Says:

    Sorry, Luca! But before writing that sentence, I did consult the world’s most reliable source. From the Wikipedia China entry:

    The first reliable historical dynasty is the Shang, which settled along the Yellow River in eastern China from the 18th to the 12th century BCE.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    In this age of the Internet and massive data sets, polylogarithmic time is the new polynomial time.

  14. Scott Says:

    :)

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Anonymous, you beat me to it: I was going to say that in the 21st century, NP will be the new P.

    As for the two slogans: I have too little insight in world economics and politics to have anything to say about the second one, but the first one I consider both meaningful and insightful. Despite Scott’s clarification, I haven’t really understood what it is that he objects to. It means only that whereas physics has been considered the most important science during most of the 20th century, both by the public and the scholars, biology is likely to be viewed similarly 100 years from now.

    That prediction might be right or wrong, but there’s nothing silly or moronic about it. Frankly, I think Scott is being very disingenuous here. He understands perfectly well what the statement means, but choses to disregard it for some strange strawman (i.e. that it really means that biology has had no importance whatsoever as of yet, a position no sane person would endorse, and is largely irrelevant to the matter at hand).

  16. Scott Says:

    Frankly, I think Scott is being very disingenuous here.

    Alright, let me try to be more genuous. I think that scientific breakthroughs are almost impossible to predict — since to whatever extent they can be predicted, to that extent they could have already been made. (Incidentally, this is why I think funding proposals are basically a waste of time, except as descriptions of prior work.) Yes, we can usually expect a field that’s produced lots of breakthroughs in the recent past to keep producing more of them. But it’s much more dangerous to go beyond that, and predict breakthroughs based on where we think people will be looking for them, or what they’ll consider important.

    You might respond: yes, but we’re not talking about fundamental new discoveries. We’re talking about applications of 20th-century biology, like gene therapy and stem cells. Well, OK — but in that case, instead of saying that “biology will be to the 21st century as physics was to the 20th,” presumably we should say that “biology was to the latter half of the 20th century as physics was to the late 19th and early 20th.”

    I seem to have wound up at the conclusion that (1) for me, science is the quest for fundamental discoveries, and (2) my irritation at the 21st-century bioshnoods is basically just a reflection of that belief. Honestly, when I started writing this, I had no idea that that’s where I was going to end up. But such is the nature of intellecutal exploration… :)

  17. Douglas Knight Says:

    We’re talking about applications of 20th-century biology, like gene therapy and stem cells….”biology was to the latter half of the 20th century as physics was to the late 19th and early 20th.”

    You’re right that applications of physics in the late 20th century paled before the previous 100 years, but there is a real statement about biology in the future; no one’s talking about the impact of biology in the late 20th century. (Although maybe they should be talking about the green revolution.)

  18. David Y Says:

    Re: age of Chinese civilization

    Okay, somebody had to tell this joke here:

    A Jewish man and a Chinese man were conversing.

    The Jewish man commented upon what a wise people the Chinese are.

    “Yes,” replied the Chinese, “Our culture is over 4,000 years old. But, you Jews are a very wise people, too.”

    The Jewish man replied, “Yes, our culture is over 5,000 years old.”

    The Chinese man was incredulous, “That’s impossible,” he replied.

    “Where did your people eat for a thousand years?