Surgical pathologist Heffner argues that the notion of unlimited progress creates a perilous optimism in both the scientific and socio-political realms.
Humans' faith in "progress" has become delusional, writes Heffner in this dense but well-guided foray into the roots and foibles of our giddy optimism that all technological and social quandaries have answers. In part, the roots of this optimism can be found in the period following the Industrial Revolution up until about the middle of the 20th century. It was then that technological/scientific progress was so spectacular that its great leaps forward infected society with a sense of unending betterment, or at least impending solutions. Science was ascendant, its objectivity and logical positivism applicable even in the social sphere: home economics, the science of administration, political science. Such headiness is a chimera, cautions Heffner; science has its limits, and it isn’t as tidy, logical or formally objective as many claim. This is especially true in the arenas that saw terrific advancement, such as medicine and transportation. Heffner provides numerous examples of a pervasive attitude that assumes that problems can be approached from a predictable, digital aspect, whereas many are more analog—continuous and unpredictable—in manner, from chemical signals leaping the synaptic cleft, to the biochemical processes of DNA and cellular instability, to weather forecasting and nuclear fusion. Heffner claims “trying to control or cure…cancer by tinkering with DNA can be seen as similar to trying to control the contour of fallen snow by altering some of the details of snowflakes.” Chaos theory seems more pertinent, tiny input parameter uncertainties resulting in unpredictable, sometimes huge, effects. Having entered into a period of diminishing research returns, incremental changes are in order. Heffner sees this as applying to the socio-political terrain as well. Here readers can joust with his conservatism—“Since the risk of calamity to the train may be increasing, the brakemen are becoming more indispensable”—and his own heady optimism that worthwhile change will receive “due bipartisan support,” vested interests be damned.
Politically to your taste or not, the work is a salubrious tonic to the blinkered toxicity of the unlimited-progress mindset.