#130: Is Science Reaching Its Limits? — John Horgan

John Horgan is a science journalist and Director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He was senior writer at Scientific American from 1986-1997 and is the author of the bestselling book The End of Science.

Read the full transcript

[Transcript coming soon.]

6 Comments

TheSkeptic
May 25, 2021 1:43 am

Excellent conversation. Couple of observations:
1. I think there is a more charitable explanation for Chomsky’s response to the “authority” question than the one Horgan lights upon. Given the nature of verbal conversation, I would lean towards the conclusion that Chomsky did not add sufficient nuance to a general statement (“I’m against all authority”) than that we’ve uncovered a hitherto unsuspected “twisty paradox” in Chomsky’s character. Which of the two is more likely? I greatly admire John Horgan’s writings, but the journalistic tradecraft of finding a new “angle” into the subject can bring its own distortions.

While Chomsky’s response is one of self-deprecation (owning up to being an authority in linguistics would seem conceited even if it were true), I wonder why Horgan glosses over the difference between political authority (of a leader, party or system) and scientific eminence. Surely these are very different things and using the word “authority” for both just muddies the waters. Is a Nobel prizewinning author exerting a baleful authority on the field of literature and the rest of us?

Also, by undermining his own authority, isn’t Chomsky being true to his principle of being against all authority – including his own? If the field of linguistics has not moved past his shadow (debatable), the blame cannot be laid at Chomsky’s door. He’s 92 years old and long-retired from that discipline.

2. The interview ended on a rushed note, right after introducing a stunning reversal of Horgan’s signature thesis: the end of science (pure science devoted to fundamental questions as opposed to applied science). Ever since I read Horgan’s book presenting this idea in the 90’s, it (bolstered over the ensuing years by Horgan’s spirited defenses of its soundness and continued relevance) has remained with me as one of the deepest questions our culture should be asking of itself. So to see him walk it back after merely months of acquaintance with quantum mechanics is astounding. What new vistas for pure science does quantum mechanics point to? Will learning other scientific disciplines similarly upend his (and our) armchair pessimism over their future? I hope this was just a teaser for the articles or book that Horgan plans to write explaining his change of stance.

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