Innovation in a uniform, precipitous decline since at least 1945

Innovation in a uniform, precipitous decline since at least 1945. By Eugyppius.

Last summer, we reviewed research showing that, as scientific fields grow, they become more conformist, and advances in knowledge occur more lethargically.

This is a problem, both because academia is now bloated with more researchers than ever before, and their ranks are constantly growing; and also because anything seen as new, exciting or promising, is immediately flooded with money and countless new researchers, whose presence will only slow progress and ensure greater conformity. …

New findings:

A new paper in Nature, finding that papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time, confirms and expands upon this basic picture. …

Via a statistical measure known as the “CD index” (for “consolidating” or “disruptive”), the authors can (very roughly) measure the foundational nature of any given paper…:



The authors also look at trends in paper vocabulary. New, foundational papers and patents are obviously more likely to introduce new terminology and to use current words in novel combinations, whereas a world in which progress has stagnated would see publications deploying increasingly uniform language.

This measure, too, reveals a general, steady collapse in innovation across all fields …

Whereas words like “produce” and “make” dominated research in the 1950s and patents in the 1980s, recent work is more likely to talk of improving, enhancing, or including. It is depressing even to type this.

The top end is still chugging along:

What is more, the authors find that, despite the general decline in innovation, there has been “remarkable stability in the absolute number of highly disruptive works” in all major fields since 1945 …

This confirms my general suspicion, that postwar expansions to science (and academia more broadly) have happened via increases to the number of less prestigious schools, less talented professors and less intelligent students. The whole enterprise has been inflated at the bottom, in other words, and not at the top, such that we’re wasting huge amounts of money for very little added advantage. …

Return to idiocracy?

Our scientific institutions rest on reputations they earned generations ago, and it’s going to take a long time for the wider culture to internalise the fact that the guys who discovered antibiotics and deduced the structure of DNA aren’t around anymore.

Science has entered a new, careerist era, one in which it will grow ever more conformist, erratic and unreliable. There’s nothing unusual about this: In the premodern era, doctors were routinely mocked as worthless charlatans, and all areas of scientific inquiry were larded with total lunacy well through the eighteenth century. We desperately need to increase our scepticism of and our pessimism about The Science.

Nothing that more identity politics can’t fix, comrade.