Oct 17, 2023·edited Oct 17, 2023Liked by Fergus McCullough

I would agree with 5. Cultural decline and 3. Excessive regulation (at least in the west). In 5 minutes I could find several examples where regulation is (insanely) stifling innovation

1. SpaceX starship being delayed by nearly year because of “Environmental Review”. (It’s in the middle of the desert?)

2. FDA stifling innovation: https://sciencehistory.org/stories/magazine/the-death-of-jesse-gelsinger-20-years-later/

Is the so-called “Faustian Spirit” (https://counter-currents.com/2013/06/the-faustian-spirit/) still well and alive in Europe? I often think of the Tibetans being confused as to why anyone would attempt to climb Everest. "Because it's there." - Mallory.

I would contend with 6. Working hours are declining. The hours being put towards productive tasks as opposed to just surviving must be greater in aggregate when you factor in India, China etc…

I saw Fergus “restacked” your post. I would be inclined to agree w/ him that University and how research is conducted is significantly to blame. In short

+ Peer Review (Einstein famously insulted by peer review) sucks. Watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yckPYJgjXeY. A math prof writes a paper in ~ 2 months. Takes nearly 2 years to get published. Compare this to how much work was achieved in weeks, when the superconductor paper was published on arXiv. We need to shorten feedback loops

+ Research Agencies/ Grant Agencies. See the effect your mates Patrick/Tyler had with fast grants vs NIH, NHS etc…(Anything groundbreaking in the past 100 years is near guaranteed to be have funded by DARPA. It’s budget is only ~4 billlion!)

+ Wrong incentives in Academia only way to climb is become an Administrator and empire build taking on grad students doing iterative work.

+ More places nowadays for the insanely talented to go vs the Victorian Era. Would Maxwell be working in a Hedge Fund nowadays?

I would highly recommend the below, Great Post Discussing what’s gone wrong in Academia:


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Thanks for putting your thoughts regarding the Great Stagnation out there, Sam. It would be great to hear more about your thoughts on demography and economic growth, as you know we were promised flying cars during a baby boom! One thing I have noticed is that there seems to have been an 'ageing' of the typical science PhD graduate, the same goes for the humanities, though I will restrict my question to science to make responding less time consuming.

Controlling for cultural factors, to what extent do you think demographics might feed into the TFP data? Internet and universities aside, the great leaps in science you mention were made by comparatively young people: Penzias and Wilson were just 31 and 28 years old respectively when they stumbled upon cosmic microwave background radiation.

Notably, structured PhD programmes are a relatively recent phenomenon and might feed into the university bureaucracy you mention - maybe if budding science PhD students could do sufficient work in one or two years, rather than having to stick to a four-year PhD track, they might be more likely to do frontier defining work.

A flaw in my reasoning here is that it has become more time consuming to understand a subfield given the breadth of knowledge that now exists, which means it takes longer to gain the expertise a PhD graduate is expected to have in their area, so feel free to critique my thoughts on this.

I really enjoyed reading this piece so thanks again for sharing it.

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This is a fantastic overview of the stagnation debate, and almost fully on the nose. I must disagree with one thing, namely the “ideas are harder to find” section. How could one even judge such a thing, without knowing what discoveries are lying ahead (which we can’t, per definition). I forgot who it was that lamented that he wished he lived before Newton, since the laws of physics could only be discovered once. Of course, he was proven wrong by Einstein. There is no reason to assume that reality is not infinitely complex, and there’s always much more to discover. Any lamentation such as the above seems ridiculous in hindsight, and people lamenting it now will seem ridiculous in 500 (or even 100) years.

The same thing goes for economic growth. The thing which degrowthers consequently get wrong with the “infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet”-quip is that growth does not need to be quantitative, but can be qualitative as well (e.g. colour television instead of black and white television). Since we can find better ways of producing things with less resources, and since people pay more money for better products, we can keep improving the human condition infinitely of a finite planet.

Moreover, as you point out, there are always more S curves out there that we can climb. Looking at the ones we currently know of, and saying that they are running out and as such progress must end, is just failure of the imagination (and of studying the history of science). The big society moving breakthroughs are almost always fundamental to such a degree that they they create their own new paradigm. This is why the # of researchers is far less relevant than the amount of researchers working on fundamental, interdisciplinary, contrarian and daring research.

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1. Re: “If TFP is going up and to the right, then what’s the problem? … Should I expect technology to improve by a similar amount each year, or should I expect it to improve by a similar percentage?”

IMO, exponential growth is sort of the baseline. Utility functions are ~logarithmic, therefore improvement is relative, therefore what matters is growth rates rather than absolute growth, and therefore exponential growth is basically constant growth and linear growth is deceleration.

More: https://rootsofprogress.org/exponential-growth-is-the-baseline

2. Re GDP being mismeasured, Gordon has an answer to this: GDP has *always* been mismeasured, and it's not clear that it is *more* mismeasured now. Yes, the Internet provides lots of consumer surplus. But so does penicillin: the consumer value is saving your life, which is a lot of surplus over the cost of the pills.

(One argument for “increasing mismeasurement” that I have heard suggested is the shift from manufacturing to services. This is an interesting hypothesis, but I haven't seen it developed.)

3. Re ideas getting harder to find, you prompted me to write up some brief thoughts here: https://progressforum.org/posts/oTrktskpBncRkpPFa/where-i-have-landed-on-ideas-getting-harder-to-find-in-a. Ideas do get harder to find, but we also get better at finding them, and growth rates have to be understood as the balance of these opposing forces.

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Your view is highly retrospective. It assumes that because the low-hanging fruit has been plucked in the basic sciences and elsewhere that stagnation is somehow inevitable. Even assuming no further paradigmatic breakthroughs here (and this seems unlikely), there is potential for any one breakthrough in R&D to propel us onto a more general S curve. E.g. cheap, abundant energy through cheaper renewables (perhaps with better storage through hydrogen or some other medium) combined with robotics and decent (not necessarily AGI level) AI could reduce the cost of setting up a new factory by orders of magnitude. The design and architecture would be faster and more bullet proof with real-world level simulation ironing out problems at multiple levels in advance, the build and materials would be cheaper, the machines and their operation would be robotic. With transport costs heading to zero, the world market is at your doorstep. And so on. If a lack of basic science was the bottleneck in the early 19th century, the infusion of AI into the physical realm (combining Thiel's bits and atoms) may be the one to translate the tech S curve to other areas. But there are several other potential breakthrough points. Yes, organizational factors are sticky obstacles but it may only take one small principality to find a better method of regulating innovation for the laggards to start catching up. In summary, our first innovation bounty was from breakthroughs in basic science. The next could be through more prosaic innovation using the basic science we already have. Throw in the possibilities of fusion, working nano-tech etc, real fundamental breakthroughs and the future gets brighter yet.

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1. The idea that low hanging ideas have already been picked implies a tree-like theory of for ideas whereby new ideas are somehow derived from previous ideas, making each progressive idea further out of reach.

This contradicted by the simple example of the theory of general relativity, which does not extend or build on Newton's theory. Rather, general relatively replaces Newton's theory and provides a better explanation for our universe.

2. The statement "innovations build upon one another" is true, in a loose sense, but deserves careful examination in the context of a theory of knowledge.

There are reasons - additional to #1 above - as to why the idea of "ideas building on themselves" can be misleading, notably, the (incorrect) implication that some types of ideas are more foundational than others. For example, "reductionism" - the idea that a low level idea (e.g. quantum mechanics) can explain all higher level ideas (i.e. the law/hypothesis of supply and demand within an economy). Yet, we have neither a low level nor a high level idea that best describes the universe. Instead, our universe is currently best described by different level ideas. It is not meaningful to ascribe hierarchies of importance to them (e.g. to say that quantum mechanics is a more foundational idea than democracy - because democracy is not well described by quantum mechanics, nor vice versa).

3. "[David Deutsch] denies the conceptual possibility of ideas getting harder to find"

The Popperian theory of knowledge (non-reductionist, non-wholist, conjecture+criticism basis for knowledge) does deny the possibility of there being any physical limits on knowledge. It also denies the possibility of there being specified paths to knowledge that could put certain ideas lower or higher on a tree of ideas.

However, this doesn't deny that there can be social or physical reasons (e.g. if humanity all got poisoned or extinct) for the rate of ideas to decline. Indeed, your article points out a number of those.

4. Current best theories of the universe don't set a bound on GDP of the earth.

To argue an ideas-based bound on physical growth, you would have to present a theory of the universe whereby the space for ideas is growing more slowly than the growth of GDP. There are aspects of our best current descriptions of the universe that are uncountably infinite (e.g. in Quantum Mechanics). GDP of the earth alone cannot be uncountably infinite.

Interestingly, I think the line here is compatible with theories of knowledge allowing for infinite ideas (and GDP):

"I struggle to see a future with persistent economic growth that is remotely recognisable".

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Nice article! I just have 2 more thoughts:

1. Have you considered whether it might be status-oriented? E.g. Elon Musk went from building a rocket company to...running Twitter. Maybe intelligent/wealthy people who previously would have invented something, aren't enticed to create/build nowadays because it's seen as lower status?

2. Because of the low-hanging fruit + bureaucracy argument, research teams are growing in size. These teams are less disruptive than the smaller ones (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-0941-9)

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"I don’t think even this is enough to account for how much researcher productivity has declined since the days of Victorian gentlemen making earth-shattering discoveries in their spare time."

Did they though? I think the earth-shattering discoveries were largely made by professors (Sedgwick, Maxwell, etc) or people like Darwin who were working full-time but independently as they were self-funded. "Spare time" misrepresents this... How many of the important discoveries were genuinely made in evenings and weekends by people with unrelated jobs?

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