Wednesday 23 June 2010

Measuring human capability: Moonshot versus 'Texas Sharpshooter'

The reason that the Moonshot was a valid measure of human capability is that the problem was not chosen but imposed.

The objective of landing men on the moon (and bringing them safely back) was not chosen by scientists and engineers as being something already within their capability – but was a problem imposed on them by politicians.

The desirability of the Moonshot is irrelevant to this point. I used to be strongly in favour of space exploration, now I have probably turned against it – but my own views are not relevant to the use of the Moonshot as the ultimate evidence of human capability.

Other examples of imposed problems include the Manhattan project for devising an atomic bomb – although in this instance the project was embarked upon precisely because senior scientists judged that the problem could possibly, maybe probably, be solved; and therefore that the US ought to solve it first before Germany did so. But, either way, the problem of building an atomic bomb was also successfully solved.

Again, the desirability of atomic bombs is not the point here – the point is that it was a measure of human capability in solving imposed problems.

Since the Moonshot, there have been several major problems imposed by politicians on scientists that have *not* been solved: finding a ‘cure for cancer’ and ‘understanding the brain’ being two problems at which vastly more monetary and manpower resources (although vastly less talent and creativity) have been thrown than was the case for either the Moonshot or Manhattan Project.

The Gulf of Mexico oil leak is another imposed problem. And, so far, this has not been solved.

But modern technological advances are *not* imposed problems; they are instead examples of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

The joke of the Texas Sharpshooter is that he fires his gun many times into a barn door, then draws a target over the bullet holes, with the bulls-eye over the closest cluster of bullet holes.

In other words the Texas Sharpshooter makes it look as if he had been aiming at the bulls-eye and had hit it, when in fact he drew the bulls-eye only after he took the shots.

Modern science and engineering is like that. People do research and development, and then proclaim triumphantly that they have achieved whatever-happens-to-come-out-of-R&D, and then they spin, hype and market whatever-happens-to-come-out-of-R&D as if it were a major breakthrough.

In other words, modern R&D triumphantly solves a retrospectively designated problem, the problem being generated to validate whatever-happens-to-come-out-of-R&D.

The Human Genome Project was an example of Texas Sharpshooting masquerading as human capability. Sequencing the human genome was not solving an imposed problem, nor any other kind of real world problem, but was merely doing a bit faster what was already happening.

Personally, I am no fan of Big Science, indeed I regard the success of Manhattan Project as the beginning of the end for real science.

BUT those who are keen that humanity solve big problems and who boast about our ability to do so; need to acknowledge that humanity has apparently become much *worse*, not better, at solving big problems over the past 40 years – so long as we judge success only in terms of solving imposed problems which we do not already know how to solve, and so long as we ignore the trickery of the many Texas Sharpshooters among modern scientists and engineers.