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Posts Tagged ‘science’

The Pace, the Pace

An end-of-the-year crystal-ball statement by New York Times technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, stimulated me to muse some more about how Americans think about technological change. Manjoo wrote:

In 2016, let’s begin to appreciate the dominant role technology now plays in shaping the world, and let’s strive to get smarter about how we think about its effects. “The pace of technological change has never been faster, so it’s more important for people to understand things that are harder to keep on top of,” said Julius Genachowski, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. . . .

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As I discussed in an earlier post, such claims are perennial. More examples: About 60 years before Manjoo, on April 22, 1957, noted Times journalist C. L. Sulzberger warned:

The dizzy speed with which mechanical techniques are now developing leads many serious thinkers to wonder if they may not soon exceed human capacity to absorb them.

And about 25 years before that, a member of my own tribe, sociology founding father William F. Ogburn, told a panel–as reported in the Times on January 2, 1931–that:

An increasing number of inventions . . . will mean an increasing pace of change and less peace. It will become increasingly difficult for the growing person to adapt himself to an ever more complicated environment; and so in the future, . . . . the problem will be met, perhaps, by prolonging infancy to say, thirty or forty years of age or even longer.

(Parents of 20-somethings may want to comment on the prediction of prolonged infancy.)

The Genachowski-like claims that Americans today are buffeted by unprecedented social change driven by an unprecedented technological pace is, I have argued (here and here), wrong. We may yet face, but do not yet experience, the sort of machine-assisted disruptions that were common a century ago.

Still, all this is about the views of talking (or writing) heads. How have average Americans thought about the pace and dangers of technological change?

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Many of America’s cultural battles in recent decades seem to be face-offs between science and faith: over the teaching of evolution, the reality of climate change, the value of stem cell research, the personhood status of an embryo, and the so on. Many on the liberal side of these issues see the controversies as part of a confrontation between ignorance and knowledge. For the more philosophically inclined, it is about a centuries-old tension between Faith and the Enlightenment’s assertion of reasoned observation. (Scientific American writer Michael Shermer’s “Skeptic” column is largely devoted to this theme.) Recent research suggests, however, a more complex structure to these debates and Americans’ views: Many of those on the religious side are far from scientific naifs; some are scientifically quite knowledgeable. It’s when science directly touches faith that the conflict flares up.

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Respecting the Science

Some folks – perhaps only stats nerds like yours truly – noticed this item in the press last week: “Second-Quarter G.D.P. Revised Sharply Higher … Government statisticians gave the American economy a lift Thursday when they sharply revised their calculation of the nation’s second-quarter growth to an annual rate of 2.5 percent, up from an initial estimate of 1.7 percent.”

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What is striking about this huge revision – the new estimate means that the economy was growing almost 50% faster than initially estimated – is not so much the statistical work itself, but how the media, the financial markets, and public read them. The economic numbers are only approximations. Indeed, this 0.8 point revision is less than the average revision made on quarterly growth rates over the last almost 30 years. The problem is not with the statisticians working to estimate these numbers; they are top-notch. The problem is the non-statisticians who fail to appreciate how noisy the data are and who make strong claims and key decisions based on small variations that experienced researchers treat with appropriate distance.

(As a footnote to this post, I ask why two scholars recently dismissed economics as a science on the grounds that economists don’t predict the future – an odd argument.)

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