The Irony of "Progress Studies"

The term “nominative determinism” captures the idea that name is destiny. Storm Field is the real given name of a meteorologist, Igor Judge the real name of a justice. As Peter Thiel once put it, “the names of companies are often very predictive of future failure or success.”

I favor the contrary hypothesis: nominative anti-determinism. Uber Express is the slowest of their offerings, Operation Iraqi Freedom was a violation of sovereignty. This occurs not by coincidence, but as the result of desperate overcompensation. As John Searle once put it, “anything that calls itself ‘science’ probably isn’t”

Viewed through this lens, we can finally understand what Progress Studies is actually about. It is neither a real field of study, nor is it about progress. Instead, it’s proponents have been mired in a fixation on the past.

Patrick Hsu says his biggest dream is to build the Bell Labs of biomedical research. Adam Marbelstone, new Manhattan Projects. The Mercatus Center wants to know: “What’s Your Moonshot?”

Why do the ostensible leaders in innovation insist on defining themselves by the glories of past generations?

I don’t know how Robert Oppenheimer conceived of the actual Manhattan Project, but I’ll bet it was not “the transcontinental railroad of nuclear weapons”


Frequently Proposed Answers

We haven’t accomplished anything since 1970.
Whether or not there is a stagnation of some sort, it would be absurd to suggest we haven’t had any successes. We got a rover on mars, developed genome editing, nuclear power plants, vaccines and cell phones.

Jason Crawford suggests the accomplishments just haven’t not been as visible, or as unambiguous. There was no parade for quantum supremacy. No one is building the Human Genome Project for X.

It was all war funding, and war-time immigrants.
Per Nintil, we may want to get more specific.

The Manhattan Project was undertaken to win WWII. The Apollo Program was meant to win the Cold War. Both were powered by immigrant scientists, (Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, von Braun [1]). There is no such confluence of funding, urgency and talent aggregation today, and we are in need of a scientific equivalent of war.

As for Bell Labs, it seems to be the result of a momentary void in alternative sources of research funding. We might be accomplishing just as much today, but spread out across dozens of universities, and without the same concentration of talent.

There’s a 50 year lag before we’re allowed to experience nostalgia.
Even in 2013 Google was branding X as a “moonshot factory“ and it’s Chief Executive as “Captain of Moonshots“. So at best it is a 44 year lag.

I would be shocked if in another few years we start glorifying accomplishments from the 1970s that were previously ignored


Footnotes
[1] Of course von Braun was less of a refugee and more of a surrendered nazi, but his presence in the US was a product of the war all the same.