This not a political post. The president brought this up, but my issue here is with bad science.
Apparently last night—I could not be bothered to watch the speech—President Obama said that we need to cure cancer with a “moonshot” type of approach, and he wants to put Joe Biden in charge of that. Those of you with calendars and a working knowledge of civics may realize Biden is only VP for another year at this point, and that’s a bit of an ambitious timetable. But my problem isn’t actually with the timetable. Here’s where the president is wrong, and again I’m not here to get into what else he’s been right or wrong about, just this one thing: Cancer does not work that way.
There’s a common fallacy that says “We went to the moon, we should be able to accomplish ____.” We got to the moon by throwing enormous sums of money at the problem, an expensive undertaking but by golly we got there. It was a tremendous achievement for all mankind. The fallacious part comes where people assume all big problems can be tackled the very same way.
The space program in general, and the moon landings in specific, were an engineering problem with quantifiable boundaries. We knew that these things could be done with our level of technology at the time, but had to work very hard to figure out how to do millions of specific little things and then to execute. Engineering problems lend themselves to this kind of push, because you can create a checklist of all the things you need and quickly figure out if your technology is even capable of meeting the challenge. For the moon landings that checklist was very very large, but we knew we had the technology. Rocketry was understood, and we had all the math to tell us what had to be done.
We knew from the rough outlines that we could solve the problem, and merely had to dial down to more detail and implement the solution. Because of the way the problem was structured, it was question of man-hours and materials. To an extent, you can buy as many man-hours as you need as long as you have enough qualified people to draw from, and materials are pretty much obtainable at the going rate as long as your demand doesn’t exceed what’s available. In other words, this was the kind of challenge you can throw money at.
Big engineering problems are solvable with money, because once you have the math to tell you your plan will work, all you have to do is build it. Engineers understand structural physics really well.
The problem here is, we’re trying to solve an unknown. Back when Fermat’s Last Theorem was unproven, do you think laying out, say, $100 billion per year (even in ’90s dollars) to various mathematical think tanks would have gotten us any closer to the answer? Everyone who ever played with math has wanted to crack that nut. I still want to find a solution that’s simple and elegant, because I think there is one; Andrew Wiles got to the proof by fairly roundabout means that, while utterly impressive in their own right, had nothing to do with whatever approach Fermat might have taken.
How about this: Let’s invent a cheap room-temperature superconductor. Let’s figure out what causes gravity, then let’s invent anti-gravity. Low-cost, effective nuclear fusion, anyone? Hey, how about a 50% efficient solar cell while we’re at it? These are hard problems; we don’t even know if some of them can be solved. Look at all the effort that goes into creating better batteries; battery technology has been relatively stagnant compared to our advances everywhere else, even in the face of absolutely enormous pressure. Ask Apple what they would pay for a battery that offered twice as much life; ask anyone else what they’d pay for a battery that survived more recharge cycles.
Let’s find life on Mars or Enceladus, too. Does that put the problem in perspective? We could search Mars over and over and find nothing, only to suddenly find life after all; or we could find it soon, or go on searching forever.
You can’t force the unknown. It’s a process of exploration, not one of driving toward a charted destination. We’re already trying very hard; there may be room to try harder. There may be ways to smooth the path ahead and clear out some obstacles that impact how quickly discoveries can be made, and how quickly discoveries can be built upon other discoveries. But there is no way, no how, that we can simply resolve to beat cancer in a decade as JFK resolved to make it to the moon.
And I wish, very very hard, that that was not so.