Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Szilard: The Mark Gable Foundation

A comment from CIP on Peter Woit's blog discussing the "Breakthrough" prizes (which are million dollar awards to big-name scientists, sometimes for ideas that did not work out, scientifically speaking, though they led to huge payouts) led me to this, by John G. Cramer:
Last October I added a Google Analytics link to my online archive of these AV columns. Among other things, this allows me to conduct a "popularity contest" of my old columns. Rather to my surprise, the clear winner as the most popular of my 177 Alternate View columns so far is AV-04, "The Retarding of Science", published in the mid-December 1984 issue of Analog. That column was my only tongue-in-cheek foray into humor in writing these columns, but the surprising interest this 30 year old column seems to have gathered encourages me to do it again.

The December-1984 column was inspired by a Leo Szilard short story, "The Mark Gable Foundation", which described the creation of an endowed non-profit foundation for the specific purpose of slowing the pace of scientific progress. In the story, a physicist emerged from cold-sleep 200 years in the future to find that most of his scientific training was obsolete and that science was progressing "altogether too fast as it is". He enlisted the help of the world's wealthiest man to create a non-profit organization, The Mark Gable Foundation, dedicated to retarding scientific progress.

The Mark Gable Foundation achieved this objective by creating, for each major field of scientific investigation, a panel of distinguished scientists which would meet monthly to award prizes and grants for the best recent scientific work. (The Foundation, as Szilard pointed out, bears some resemblance to the U.S. National Science Foundation.) This plan, it was explained, would keep the best of the older scientists away from their laboratories and busy with unproductive travel, meetings, and report writing and would cause the younger scientists in need of funds to go for the "sure thing" that would be certain to lead to publishable results, thereby filling the scientific journals with trivial results and channeling research in the direction of the safe, the fashionable, and the obvious, and away from the more risky innovations and breakthroughs at the frontiers of knowledge.
The AV-04 article written in 1984, announced a new organization:
The time has come for a new initiative. I would like to announce the creation of a new scientific organization, the American Association for the Retardation of Science and Engineering (acronym: AARSE), dedicated to the retardation of scientific progress wherever it may occur, in whatever field, in whatever place. AARSE is created for the specific purpose of encouraging the retardation of scientific progress and of giving appropriate recognition to those who have done the most in the recent times to further this goal. 
 One of the first awardees:
Finally, we wish to honor those who have been able to substantially retard scientific progress by fuzzing out the distinction between science and non-science. There have been several notable efforts in this area. For example, there has been a particularly effective campaign to associate the word "research" with the act of looking up some bit of information in a book where it happens to be written down. Thus: "I will have to get back to you after I research that in the World Almanac." Equally important is the effort to apply, without regard to training or education, the term "engineer" to anyone who gets his hands dirty in his work. Thus the janitor becomes a "Building Maintenance Engineer" and the garbage man a "Solid Waste Engineer". But perhaps the most significant effort in this area goes to those who have been attacking the meaning of the word "science" itself by labeling certain fundamentalist Christian beliefs with the appellation "Creation Science". This brilliant application of the technique at a stroke confounds the distinction between science and religious dogma and brings scientific research into direct conflict with religion in a way which has been sadly absent since the times of Galileo and Darwin. For this outstanding achievement in the retardation of science we are pleased to present Gold-Plated AARSE Awards to the Institute for Creation Research of El Cajon, California, to the State Legislatures of Arkansas and Louisiana, and to clergymen, laymen, and laywomen everywhere who have contributed to this massive and effective effort.