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Saturday, December 12, 2009

More from C.P. Snow

C.P. Snow's lectures at Harvard in 1961 title "Science and Government" provided a lot of things to think about. One issue that came to conversation with my father a few days ago was the extent to which science is replicated independently. What I mean by that is how often there are two or more people working completely independent of one another who, in the process of answering the same general question, come to the same general answer.

My father's examples were two-fold. First, the creation of the calculus was undertaken by two people thousands of miles apart and completely unaware of each others existence. The other was the advancement of nuclear weapons after world war two. The latter example is important because there were fears, some of them legitimate and others not so legitimate, that there were spies on both sides of the iron curtain feeding information back and forth and reducing the value of each side's "secrets." The point is that it is difficult to know just what is a secret that has been shared with an enemy and what is the enemy asking and answering the same question you are and coming up with a very similar answer.

Snow has something to say in this area which I found very interesting (and which might have some role in economic science and climate change science):

Seeing the first jet flying in 1942, I [Snow] could not believe this was not unique. it was like denying one's own identity to credit there was anything like that in existence. As a matter of fact, of course, there were in existence quite a lot like that. The Germans had already got a jet flying even more impressively. In cold blood the probabilities dawn again, just as they dawned upon anyone connected with radar, who found the same gadgets being developed in the same loving secrecy in England, in the United States, in Germany and elsewhere.

The overriding truth is a bleak one, if one is living in the physical presence of gadgets and spends one's creative force developing them: that societies at about the same level of technology will produce similar inventions. In military technology in particular, where the level of the United States and the U.S.S.R. is very much the same and where the investment of scientists and money is also similar, it would be astonishing if either society kept for long anything like a serious, much less decisive, technical lead.

It is overwhelming odds that one country will get its nose in front in one field for a short time, the other somewhere else. The situation, fluctuating in detail but steady in the gross, is likely to continue without limit. It is quite unrealistic, an very dangerous, to imagine that the West as a whole can expect a permanent and decisive lead in military technology over the East as a whole. That expectation is a typical piece of gadgeteer's thinking. It has done the West more harm than any other kind of thinking. History and science do not work that way.

This is probably true in economic science - that countries of equal income and investment probably come to the same general conclusion about economic problems. In economic science, as opposed to climate change science, economists all over the world are working on different data samples and, more or less, coming to the same general conclusions - which refute one set of theories and support another set. At the same time there are divisions within economic science, especially in the macroeconomic area, which often fall along political lines. In these cases there is less concensus but still many occassions when economists of a similar world view come to similar conclusions using different data.

It also seems to me that what Snow is proposing, that countries of similar technological and economic status often come to similar conclusions might have some bearing on the current global military struggle. The West would seem to have a permanent technological advantage over our military adversary this does not mean that we have a permanent tactical/strategic advantage. Moreover, if it is true that our postmodern society is not conducive to car bombings, suicide bombings, and the collateral damage that goes along with that form of military strike, then it is entirely possible that our cultural disparity could hinder our ability to achieve victory.

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