Cargo Cult Science

There seem to be few things more annoying to a nanoscientist than a picture of Drexlers atomic gear wheels (did anybody ever stop to ask why we would ever need such a thing?). At a recent high level business forum in Spain, the meeting came to a halt as angry academics berated one of the presenters for showing a picture of a desktop nanofactory.

“That’s just irresponsible” said one prominent scientist, “by showing a picture like this you are implying that these things are real, when in fact it’s just science fiction.”

At dinner afterwards with some of the biggest names in nanoscience, there was a discussion about how the whole Foresight set up has more in common these days with a cult such as the Raelians than the scientific community. After all, Foresight has a prophet (Drexler), a holy book (Nanosystems), and a set of adherents who are promised eternal life in return for stocking the cults coffers (Senior Associates). Add to that a set of evangelists (Chris Phoenix, Robert Freitas, and [whatever happened to] Professor Ralph Merkle etc.) who echo the prophets worlds and fearlessly defend him against any slur, and you end up with something of which cult leaders from Rabbi Berg to Jim Jones would be proud – here, just drink this elixir of nanobots.

While we are not suggesting that the Drexlerians are planning a mass suicide in the Guyanan jungle, it does make us wonder why supposedly rational people are willing to continue to believe in an idea that has no scientific credibility these days. Many in the scientific community have pointed out that none of the most enthusiastic Drexlerians have any kind of scientific track record – you can count their peer reviewed publications on one hand.

It hasn’t always been this way. Drexlers original ideas should have been a starting point for investigation, as were Feynman’s, rather than becoming an inflexible dogma to be defended against the legions of evil scientists, none of whom apparently know what they are talking about.

Where did it all go wrong?


Comments 1

  1. Michael Anissimov

    The idea of productive nanoscale machines has no scientific credibility? The smallest productive robotics will exist only at the microscale, presumably? Note that scaling laws would still cause microscale (rather than nanoscale) manufacturing to possess a throughput much greater than that seen with modern-day manufacturing technology.

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