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Foresight Debate with Scientific American

Foresight Institute vs Scientific American
Debate on nanotechnology: Round 4 from Drexler

Overview of the Debate

Round 1 | Round 2 | Round 3 | Round 4 | Epilogue

Round 4 -- Part 1 | Part 2

Response from Eric Drexler to the email reply from Scientific American

Date: Tue, 14 May 1996 15:14:56 -0700
Mime-Version: 1.0
Subject: Re: Reply from SciAm

Dear Mr. Rennie:

Several readers have remarked that your recent response to Foresight Institute is cleverly written; I agree, yet am disappointed in the quality of its intellectual content. To begin at the end: You close by claiming to have met Ralph Merkle's challenge to address what he rightly terms "the fundamental technical question: given the currently accepted understanding of natural law, is nanotechnology feasible or is it not?"

If science were opinion polling, I would criticize your position for being based on a small and biased sample. But science is still widely supposed to be about knowledge of the real world and its potentialities; if we accept this, then it would seem that advancing a negative answer to Merkle's question would require statements of the form "The proposal A appears unworkable because it conflicts with scientific principle B." For example, I am willing to state and argue the proposition that "Faster than light travel through space appears unworkable because it conflicts with the well-tested principles of relativistic dynamics," or that "Molecular machines cannot use thermal motion in an isothermal environment to produce mechanical power, because this would violate (among others) the principle of microscopic reversibility." Many statements purporting to attack molecular manufacturing on substantive scientific grounds have been made over the years, yet none has become a standard, widely-cited criticism. Why? Because they have been refuted, and because most scientists are cautious in their concrete, substantive statements.

Unsurprisingly, you cite no such substantive statements. Your letter instead tells us that some prominent scientists are willing to disparage new ideas in vague terms -- but this is neither new to history nor informative by itself. You state "Given that the people in question are the likes of [prominent names in somewhat related fields] and others, they can muster technical arguments in support of their position." This is a reasonable hope; in a world having higher standards, it might even be regarded as a scientific duty. In my years of experience in this field, however, they and others in their position have instead either attacked a straw man, misapplied principles known to bright undergraduates, argued from ignorance ("I don't see how, therefore..."), or retreated to vague generalities about the need for experiments to answer questions that, oddly enough, they never articulate. (Equating science with lab work leaves a significant fraction of the NSF budget unexplained. So much for string theory!)

An example of the straw-man problem: You note that "Smalley talked explicitly about his doubts during a presentation at the conference"; these doubts, however, were not only vague, but centered on an extravagant concept of an unreasonably-universal assembler that no researcher in the field has proposed. Although I delivered a public correction, Mr. Stix has apparently conveyed the impression that Smalley was addressing a proposal of mine. Just as Smalley voiced doubt regarding unreasonable molecular assemblers, I could declare my doubt that he will ever succeed in turning lead into gold via fullerene catalysis. If I were to suggest that he had proposed such alchemy, would this qualify me as a critic of his work?

In stating that "theory and computer models are insufficient proof [sic] of the ultimate feasibility of these concepts," do you mean (1) that modern physical models have no predictive value, or (2) that they have predictive value, but not in distinguishing between feasible and infeasible classes of technological systems, or (3) that molecular machine systems are in a special category, immune to fruitful study, or (4) something else entirely? Please note that no thoughtful scientist asks for "proof" of a theoretical proposition in a nonmathematical context (see Popper). One must instead weigh the evidence for alternative conclusions, as is routine in fields ranging from cosmology to aircraft configuration design.

If you're not yet nervous about the tenability of your position, you should be. Our side of the debate is armed with a growing literature, in books and refereed journals, stretching back to 1981. After all these years, your side seemingly has nothing in its arsenal but misconceptions, a shrinking numerical majority of uninformed opinion, debaters' tricks, name-calling, and sheer bluff. It doesn't even have an articulate and scientific spokesman. You say that "most researchers working in allied areas--including ones embraced by the nanoists [note name-calling] themselves--think that the actual science in nanotechnology has gaping holes." If this were true and widely recognized, then surely someone, if only a lowly grad student backed by gratified professors, would have published a paper or a Web document describing one of these holes in our scientific understanding. And, almost as surely, you would be citing it. Can you deliver such a statement, or is this merely more bluff and citing of uninformed opinion? Please note that dredging up further variations of the banal observation that proposed technologies don't yet exist will win no points in this game.

In a year of effort, Ed Regis failed to find a scientific-sounding criticism that didn't collapse on closer examination, as described in his book. I have sought a refutation of these ideas for almost twenty years, including queries to scientific and technical audiences of the highest quality. None has emerged, even from the endless technical controversies on the internet. A parsimonious explanation would be that my arguments are hard to attack because they are, in essence, correct. After all this fuss, one can hardly argue that no one has been motivated to try.

Merely declaring that you know researchers who "can muster [unspecified] technical arguments" amounts to saying "Our position is credible because we know of credible people whom we are quite sure could produce some sort of credible supporting argument, some day, if they ever tried." A lesser publication might be expected to base its judgment on such grounds, but for your magazine this should be profoundly embarrassing. If the new editorial standards welcome vacuous blather of this sort, then it would advance public understanding of science and technology in the coming years if you were to adopt a fresh, appealing name (Popular Scientific American? Science People? Science Illustrated?) and thus separate your product from the reputation and expectations that the venerable name "Scientific American" still carries.

Please do try to cajole one of those fierce-sounding scientists into offering a public, scientific criticism of the actual concepts of molecular manufacturing -- not of their own misconceptions, not of the disturbing consequences for medicine and economics, not of Ed Regis's popularization, or of a dentist's remarks, or my numerous personal shortcomings, but of the technical content of the case made in Nanosystems. It's big and detailed, offering a wide, stationary target that must surely be riddled with those gaping holes and fatal errors of analysis that we incompetent nanodreamers produce in such profusion. If your advisors are right, knocking it down will be easy and fun, and will do an enormous public service in clearing nano-nonsense from the air. Why not invite someone to do it, or assign someone from your staff, or do it yourself? You might find the effort enlightening, particularly if you request a reply from our side of the fence and can recognize when your side has lost an argument.

Good luck -- you're standing on thin air over a vast chasm, and having company in this predicament adds weight where it doesn't help. In politicized, journalistic science, like cartoon physics, it may seem that you're safe so long as no one looks down. But the world is changing. Since the early 1980s, I've argued that a hypertext system like the Web could one day help depoliticize science and policy discussions by facilitating genuine criticism, debunking bogus arguments, highlighting substance, removing the arbitrary power of editors, enabling freelance editing, indexing and review, and, perhaps most significantly:

* by enabling participants to convert the otherwise-invisible absence of a sound opposing argument into a distinct, visible, and influential feature of the intellectual landscape.

On the Web as it exists, this is best accomplished by issuing a challenge together with a promise that the response, if any, will be made easy to find from the same site. We're now entering round two. Welcome to the experiment, and thanks for the help you've already given.


K. Eric Drexler

P.S. I always liked Mr. Peabody when I was a lad, and he still strikes me as having offered (at least compared to the general run of cartoon characters and dogs) an excellent role-model for a budding young nerd. But regarding his voice, I must disagree: it is of professional quality, and vastly superior to my own.

On to SciAm correction

Round 4 -- Part 1 | Part 2

Round 1 | Round 2 | Round 3 | Round 4 | Epilogue

Overview of the Debate


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