We’re putting together a list of big, high profile goals that proved far more challenging than people had anticipated circa 1970

June 11, 2018

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Palko writes:

The postwar era (roughly defined here as 1945 to 1970) was a period of such rapid and ubiquitous technological and scientific advances that people naturally assumed that this rate of progress would continue or even accelerate. This led not just futurists like Arthur C Clarke but also researchers in the fields to underestimate the difficulty of certain problems, often optimistically applying the within-a-decade deadline to their predictions.

I [Palko] am trying to come up with a list of big, high profile goals that proved far more challenging than people had anticipated circa 1970.

He continues with some examples:

The war on cancer. I suspect that the celebrated victory over polio significantly contributed to an unrealistic expectation for other major diseases.

Fusion reactors. It took about a decade to go from atomic bomb to nuclear power compact and reliable enough to deploy in submarines.

Artificial intelligence. We’ve already mentioned the famously overoptimistic predictions that came out of the field at the time.

Artificial hearts.
From Wikipedia:

“In 1964, the National Institutes of Health started the Artificial Heart Program, with the goal of putting a man-made heart into a human by the end of the decade.”

Not sure whether they meant 1970 or 1974, but either way, they missed their target.

Does anyone out there have additional items I should add to the list?

Yes, I have some examples! Before getting to them, let me first point out that some obvious candidates don’t really work. Rockets to Mars and flying cars . . . people were talking about both of these, but there was also lots of skepticism. It’s my impression that the flying-car thing was always a bit of a joke, as the energy consumption and air traffic control problems were always pretty obvious.

Weather modification, maybe? I don’t know enough about the history (see book #4 in this list) to know for sure; was this an area in which wild optimism was the norm?

Most of my examples are intellectual rather than physical products:

– Game theory. If you read Luce and Raiffa’s classic 1957 text, you’ll see lots of fun stuff and also a triumphalist attitude that just about all the important problems of game theory had been solved, and we were just in a mopping-up phase.

– Classical statistics. As X and I wrote, “Many leading mathematicians and statisticians had worked on military problems during the World War II, using available statistical tools to solve real problems in real time. Serious applied work motivates the development of new methods and also builds a sense of confidence in the existing methods that have led to such success. After some formalization and mathematical development of the immediate postwar period, it was natural to feel that, with a bit more research, the hypothesis testing framework could be adapted to solve any statistical problem.” As the recent replication crisis illustrates, we’re still living with the consequences of this war-inspired confidence.

– Psychotherapy. Between Freudian analysis from one direction, and Thorazine etc. from the other, it must have seemed to many that we were gradually solving the major problems of mental health.

– Keynesian economics. Just a matter of fine tuning, right?

– Various specific social engineering problems, such as traffic congestion, not enough houses or apartments where people want to live, paying for everyone’s health care, etc.: these were low-level concerns which I imagine that many people assumed would solve themselves in due course as we gradually got richer.

As Palko notes, a common feature of all these examples is that a period of sustained success (in the case of Freudian analysis, success in the social realm even if not in the outcomes that matter) gave people the illusion that they were at the beginning or middle, rather than the end, of a long upward ramp. Also, in none of these cases was the techo-optimism universal; there were always skeptics. But these are all examples where an extreme optimism was, at least, considered an intellectually and socially respectable condition.

What other examples do you have?

P.S. It’s mid-December in blogtime but this topic is so juicy, I’m posting it right away. I’ve bumped today’s scheduled post, “‘My advisor and I disagree on how we should carry out repeated cross-validation. We would love to have a third expert opinion. . .'”, to the end of the queue.

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