When you look for science news at news aggegation sites like Google News or popular publications like, well, any given magazine or newspaper, or (yawn) any given non-fiction television program, what you are likely to find are fluff pieces on topics related to medicine, automobiles, and telecommunications. To people in the news business, scientific progress means new kinds of medicines, better cars, and the latest (n+1)G cell phone or iPad.

It is possible for even successful people to apply pop-culture metrics to economic theory. For instance, the founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, has written an essay for The National Review in which he questions the motives of scientists as well as their ability to maintain the growth of scientific progress.

The state of true science is the key to knowing whether something is truly rotten in the United States. But any such assessment encounters an immediate and almost insuperable challenge. Who can speak about the true health of the ever-expanding universe of human knowledge, given how complex, esoteric, and specialized the many scientific and technological fields have become? When any given field takes half a lifetime of study to master, who can compare and contrast and properly weight the rate of progress in nanotechnology and cryptography and superstring theory and 610 other disciplines? Indeed, how do we even know whether the so-called scientists are not just lawmakers and politicians in disguise (italics mine), as some conservatives suspect in fields as disparate as climate change, evolutionary biology, and embryonic-stem-cell research, and as I have come to suspect in almost all fields?

The article goes on to paint a picture of failure on the part of the scientific community for not coming up with a Moore’s law style of continuous bounty for the consumer.

Here is where I greatly disagree with Thiel. He cites the stagnation of wages as an indicator of economic progress which, in turn, is an indicator of tepid technological progress.

Let us now try to tackle this very thorny measurement problem from a very different angle. If meaningful scientific and technological progress occurs, then we reasonably would expect greater economic prosperity (though this may be offset by other factors). And also in reverse: If economic gains, as measured by certain key indicators, have been limited or nonexistent, then perhaps so has scientific and technological progress. Therefore, to the extent that economic growth is easier to quantify than scientific or technological progress, economic numbers will contain indirect but important clues to our larger investigation.

… Taken at face value, the economic numbers suggest that the notion of breathtaking and across-the-board progress is far from the mark. If one believes the economic data, then one must reject the optimism of the scientific establishment (italics mine).  Peter Thiel, National Review.

This is where Thiel drives into the weeds. He conflates stagnant wages in the post Viet Nam era with a failure of science and technology to produce the kinds of advances he would recognize as worthy.

What is lost on Thiel is the fact that stagnant wages are a kind of benefit to employers and investors as the result of technology. Over this so-called period of stagnation in wages is a complementary increase in productivity. If anything the improvements in technology unseen by Thiel and his ilk have been applied to render human labor obsolete, thereby sustaining profits. China hasn’t gotten all American jobs. Machines have taken over much ot it.

The fact that Thiel scans the horizon from his perch and fails to see this is indicative of a kind of blindness of prosperity. In his world, technology is the internet. Apparently, people like Thiel only register scientific progress as a stream of shiny new consumer electronics, supersonic transport, or brain transplants. The advances in science and technology from the last 20 years are everywhere, not necessarily just in internet technology, cell phones, and Viagra.

Semiconductor technology is now well below the micron scale and heading to the tens of nanometers.  Bits of data are heading toward tens to hundreds of electrons per bit.  Lithographic fabrication at this scale allows for rules of thumb like Moore’s Law.  Growth in component density can multiply parabolically or more as greater  acreage of chip surface is consumed in 3 dimensions. Many doublings are possible in this domain.

But parabolic growth in aircraft or land vehicle speed is limited by other physics. A dynamic range of only a few factors of ten in vehicle speed are economically feasible.  Fossil fuels are fantastically well suited for use in transportation owing to their high energy density, low cost per kiloJoule, and ability to flow through pipes. Fundamentally new forms of energy storage are hard to find and are expensive.  All energy usage is consumption.  Science can only go so far in facilitating better forms of consumption for the profligate.  Doing work against gravity also consumes lots of energy, so the world of George Jetson never became feasible.

Ordinary automobiles that comprise a part of the stagnancy that Thiel bemoans are coated in highly advanced polymer coatings made from specialty monomers, catalysts, and initiators. The polymeric mechanical assemblies are highly engineered as well as is the robotic assembly of the vehicle. The implementation of automation in the manufacture of plain old cars is just a part of the overall issue of low job growth. In this case, technological advancement => stagnant growth in wages and employment.