The never-ending projects fantasized about by scientists promise much without actually delivering anything.
This is an opinion editorial by Jimmy Song, a Bitcoin developer, educator and entrepreneur and programmer with over 20 years of experience.
Link to the audio read of the article.
We’ve all heard the hype. Nano-technology, quantum computing and cold fusion. They’re supposed to come real soon and change everything. Tiny machines that build skyscrapers from dirt. Computers with enough computing power for general AI. Cold fusion that will give us limitless clean energy. They’ve been a part of public imagination for decades.
These technologies have entered the public consciousness through popular magazine articles written by people that fancy themselves as scientists and engineers but are closer to second-rate sci-fi writers, the kind that think putting the word „blockchain“ in a story makes them all hip and in-the-know. Their speciality is writing fanciful stories promoting some defunct economist’s vision rather than saying anything realistic.
Stories about the difficulty of achieving something won’t get many clicks and require far more technical aptitude, so they write stories about how a breakthrough is imminent. Not coincidentally, there’s usually some call to action about how we must do something, like fund some agency or invest in a company or cancel critics! It’s suspiciously like an altcoin marketing scheme where much is promised and little is delivered.
Promises, Predictions And Credit
That similarity between altcoins and these hyped technologies is not a coincidence. They both operate on the same principle. Hype the hell out of something to get money and run away before people discover that the hype doesn’t match the substance. They are promising something to get money now for a non-existent return.
This should be familiar because this is how scams work. Promise, never deliver and make excuses. This pattern is endemic to the fiat monetary system. Whether they realize they are scamming is really immaterial. The result is that investors are parted from their money and have little to show for it.
The reason scams thrive in a fiat system is because banks extend credit ex nihilo, and that created money has to go somewhere. The people that get access to the money first are what we call Cantillionaires. Successful Cantillionaires keep the money that they get access to and they use their influence to make more money, because, as we know, inflation will eat their money. This puts a lot of pressure on earning a return and finding good investments becomes a full time job.
Even for full-time investors, it’s impossible to learn all the technological and engineering realities, so they rely on popular writing to guide them. Many VCs pride themselves on knowledge of science fiction as if that’s a great guide to the future. That’s like thinking you know how to scout for great baseball players because you’ve watched a couple of baseball movies.
The unfortunate result is a massive misallocation of capital, where money goes toward things that have hype. Because the nature of these projects are so uncertain and so long-term, they are never proven to be scams. After all, a sufficiently long term project is indistinguishable from a scam. The breakthrough is always around the corner and failures blamed on setbacks and bad timing.
Some of the worst allocation of capital, unsurprisingly, happens at universities. As I wrote about already, fiat education ends up allocating an insane amount of resources to rent-seeking. The sciences, even the hardest ones are not spared.
Living On Past Reputation
Science has a good reputation from past decades of huge accomplishments like air travel, the atomic bomb and the microchip. Of course, these were all engineering feats, but never mind that — the reputation of science is sound among the public in the same way that Warren Buffet lives off of his investing acumen from 40 years ago.
Yet if you look at what „science“ has produced the past 50 years, the accomplishments are incremental based on prior breakthroughs. For example, microchips more or less work the same way as they were in the 50’s, just smaller, faster and more efficient. Despite all the claims around quantum computing, no one has actually made a truly functional, error-corrected qubit. The breakthrough is completely theoretical and no one has actually built anything that works.
The hype around quantum is based partly on past reputation of science in completely different fields and partly on deceitful claims put out by every lab that needs to justify its funding. Such justifications are necessary for obvious economic reasons. Without such claims, they would no longer receive any funding. A result of „this field is a dead end“ would cut all their funding so everyone continues and plays pretend because they like rent-seeking.
Science And Cantillon
Because scientific research is largely done in universities, it’s no surprise that it’s very inefficient. As usual, the level of inefficiency is way more than most people know. Not only are there large numbers of administrators and bureaucrats, but many of even the best scientists are engaged in rent-seeking. They churn out papers in esoteric fields about topics that have no way of being disproved.
It’s very difficult to prove something can’t be done and as I stated above, even if there were, it would likely not see the light of day, so research and investment continue. Think about it, when’s the last time a hyped technology was killed outright? They’re like altcoins, they die slowly and with a whimper as popularity wanes over a long period of time.
Many of these theoretical constructs assume all sorts of devices which we have no clue how to build and are all circlejerks. The papers enrich the paper writer and create no goods or services for humanity. The claim is always that such contributions will be useful in some future when the pesky engineers finally make the thing. This is indistinguishable from a waste of time given how improbable and impractical these theoretical constructs are.
As a result, we have entire fields of study which are rent-seeking in universities. This is probably easier to believe in the humanities which are almost purely political rather than a proper study of anything. Sadly, even hard science fields are now less about exploring truth as it is political posturing.
The delusion that the funders of these projects are under is that money can solve everything. They’re like the proverbial guy with a hammer thinking everything is a nail. Not everything is solvable with money, particularly inventions. The fiat delusion is that you can add progress in any arbitrary direction by providing funding for it. This is like trying to make 2+2=5 or making people denounce their most cherished beliefs by throwing money at it. Some things are just not solvable with money.
Don’t believe me? Think about the Soviet Union, who wanted a weapon that could wipe out the west in one fell swoop. They directed a large percentage of their GDP toward that research and couldn’t come up with anything beyond what was already established. They got the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb and even got people into space, but these were all things that didn’t require new huge breakthroughs. Years before nanotech, quantum computing and cold fusion, the Soviet Union was working on the same paradigm of funding driving inventions. They were trying to create the equivalent of a quantum computer or a cold fusion machine and couldn’t do it, even with very smart scientists.
Inventions and breakthroughs don’t work this way, and thank goodness, because if it did, we’d be calling each other comrade and fear being sent to the gulag. Throwing money at a technology does not create truly novel engineering solutions. At best, money can scale something you already know how to do, but coming up with truly novel things is not a matter of money, it’s a matter of genius.
Unfortunately, the current state of science is way more similar to the Communist system than we’d like to admit. We throw money at hyped technologies, hoping for a breakthrough but the money goes to waste because it incentivizes rent-seeking. Somehow we are either eternally optimistic about the imminent breakthroughs or blind to the many rent-seekers. There are hundreds of physicists employed in string-theory, for example, which is something that’s not provable. And that’s physics, a very hard science. Think about softer sciences and how much rent-seeking there must be.
The rent-seeking frauds can keep claiming that they’re just 20 years away and retire before they’ve been found out. In the meantime, they keep publishing papers that don’t create anything of substance and advance theories that are likely untrue. Altcoiners couldn’t dream of such a good racket.
Engineering > Science
The real breakthroughs almost always come through experimentation, not through theory. Academics put angels on the head of a pin through theory, as increasingly, their elaborate theories lack testability. There are no practical engineering outcomes from their theories and they stay in their ivory towers collecting checks.
Historically some effect is first used by an engineer to make something work. Most of the time the engineer does not understand why something works, just that it does. It’s only after the engineering proves itself that theory comes in to give a better understanding of why. The modern scientific industrial complex has it backwards and tries to create theory first. This has historically not been kind to the theoreticians when they meet engineering reality.
Many people know that the Wright brothers invented the airplane. Most of them are not aware that these were bicycle mechanics that experimented a ton. They weren’t academic eggheads. There were academic eggheads that got funding to test their theories of flight who failed spectacularly in making a flying machine. The Wright Brothers took no funding and spent their own money experimenting. They were the ones successful in creating an airplane. Engineering is the fertile ground from which useful theories are made, not the other way around.
Yet the fiat model of funding theory which hopes to create the desired engineering outcome continues. This is not because it works so well, but because there’s a large rent-seeking class that wants to keep their positions in the Cantillon hierarchy.
Fiat science works from hype like the futurist writers mentioned earlier. They imagine futures which have little basis in reality — that is, experimentation. In my field of software this is called vaporware. Vaporware is non-existent software and they are promises without any results. Vaporware is always six months away. They just have to get X fixed, or implement some new exciting feature Y or redo the architecture for some critical reason. They just never ship.
We call it vaporware because we never see evidence that the product works and fiat science is the same way. The breakthroughs always seem to be around the corner. Or there are claimed breakthroughs, just no actual products or real world evidence of those breakthroughs until some time in the future. Fiat science never ships.
I’m sure somebody will read this article and send me some quantum computing „breakthrough“ from some institution saying they made something useful. Let me tell you, vaporware is famous for demos. In software, if it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t exist and demos or partial results or whatever don’t count.
Trusted Third Parties
Science has become a trusted third party. They haven’t had to ship and they operate as a monopoly, so they haven’t had to deliver anything. Worse, because they can assume away any parts they can’t figure out, they dismiss critical components as engineering problems and keep it at the theoretical level. They can’t let experiment get in the way of their rent-seeking theories! Therefore, theories go further and further away from reality and we get what we have now.
Fiat science is living on its reputation from 50 years ago. They’ve grown soft due to their rent-seeking, like a college professor with tenure. Debasement of reputation takes a very long time when it can be hidden so easily.
Science Is Now Politics
Given that science has become largely rent-seeking, it’s no surprise then that its purpose has morphed. Instead of seeking truth, it’s now serving the needs of those that pay them: the government. Science is now political.
I only need to say the words „climate change“ to trigger lots of people. Whatever side you’re on, you cannot deny that science has been used as a weapon in that political battle. But it’s not just climate change, it’s also other „promising technologies“ like stem cells. This was promised as a fruitful field for science that would change everything if only those religious conservatives would get out of the way.
15 years later, we can tell that embryonic stem cells really didn’t add much. It was used as a weapon to bash the more conservative people than an actual fruitful avenue of research. Much like fiat education and fiat health care, the results serve the political ends rather than its stated intentions.
Fiat science takes its lead from fiat economics, or Keynesianism. Keynesianism tried to rewrite the laws of economics to justify whatever it is they wanted to do. Fiat science is doing the same, borrowing on the banked reputation of engineers who did experiments from the past 200 years.
Beware Of Hype
Hype is a form of propaganda and we should thus be very skeptical. Propaganda is the language of politics, not science. Much like Keynesian economics, hype is an attempt to distort reality for theft and authoritarian rule. Anything hyped is not so much science as it is wishful thinking at best.
Hype is inversely proportional to relevance. This makes sense since if something really was revolutionary, hype wouldn’t be necessary. People would profit from using it and crush competitors.
The real sign that something is really revolutionary are the number of people in competing industries that are saying bad things about it. We can tell Bitcoin is revolutionary by the criticism of those from traditional finance, central banking and altcoins that are saying bad things about it. We don’t need a hype man to pump us up.
In a fiat economy, the incumbents will say these bad things because they want protection for their current industry. Being out-competed, they turn to rent-seeking. Airlines, universities and banks are examples of incumbents with large regulatory moats which protect their rackets. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to distinguish which things are revolutionary and which ones are real scams without knowing the details, but that’s why we need to dig deeper and not rely on propaganda from tech writers.
In the end, the only thing that should be the judge is reality itself. Not authorities, trusted third parties, a majority of people or a majority of money.
Don’t tell me the theory. Ship.
Ten Things Fiat Science Will Tell You Soon
- Eating bugs is not only good for you but also much better for the environment.
- Owning things is psychologically harmful.
- Russia (or China or whatever enemy) is making a nanotech weapon that will kill everyone instantly, so we must nuke them first.
- Replacing your fully functioning arm with one made by a defense contractor is perfectly safe.
- Quantum computing threats mean that you should give the government all your data so they can protect it.
- We are quickly approaching peak air-travel.
- Climate change created a sea level rise in 2005 to sink Manhattan in a majority of multiverses.
- Water is a pollutant.
- A new theory of dark gravity explains the rotational velocity of certain types of galaxies.
- A promising cure for everything using the kidneys of conservative Christians is on the horizon.
This is a guest post by Jimmy Song. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.