RE: Cryonics/Nanotech Skepticism (Was: Schindler's List)

Hal Finney (
Fri, 14 Aug 1998 12:49:30 -0700

L. Lanford, <>, writes:
> [Quotes Drexler on 'believe the old, reject the new']
> Nanotech in particular advocates such a radical paradigm shift that
> this meme would be particularly potent, especially for the uninformed.
> But a scientific community claims to be dedicated to the idea of
> advancement, and as Robin pointed out, the most vocal skeptics are
> from our own scientists. The criticisms are of an odd breed as well,
> typically either dismissive of the idea as science fiction or critical of
> Drexler personally.
> And why not? Nanotech would render a large sector of that community
> obsolete (and vie for grants), so there is little reason for career scientists
> to support a fledgling competitor. Instead of fear of the unknown, danger
> of obsolescence sets in. The nanotech revolution will be made up mostly
> of people who are making their life choices now -- high school and college
> students in biology or chemistry or computer science, people who have
> little to lose by creating a new and unfamiliar world.

It sounds like you are saying that scientists are either being dishonest or irrational. They may understand the significance of nanotech, but they dishonestly downplay its importance because they don't want to be made obsolescent or to lose grant funding to a competitor. Or they may be irrational because subconscious fears of these problems prevent them from rationally evaluating nanotechnology.

People are not as honest as we might wish, and politics plays as important a role in science as in any other human endeavor. But I doubt that dishonesty is a significant factor in the rejection of nanotech. Most scientists have more integrity than that, I think.

This leaves irrationality. Rejecting bizarre-seeming ideas is reasonable as a first cut at things, but to persist over a long period of time it means that people are not evaluating this new technology fairly. They are being irrational in not giving nanotechnology the attention and the analysis it deserves.

What we seem to end up with is a world in which both sides of the controversy each believe that the other side is being irrational. Nanotech opponents believe the supporters are fanatics and wild-eyed dreamers with no grounding in reality. Supporters believe opponents are stodgy and closed-minded, afraid of the changes which new technology would bring.

Robin Hanson has an interesting argument that factual disagreements should not persist. However I think it took as one of its premises that people believe that others are basically rational. If that is the case then over time people should modify their beliefs in the face of persistent disagreement. Disagreements about factual matters should not be stable.

What if people hold the contrary belief, that there are significant numbers of other people who are stubbornly irrational? It would seem that we might have a stable outcome similar to what we actually see: people collecting into subgroups with shared opinions, where they believe other members of their group are rational (at least on this issue!). However the existence of significant groups with other opinions does not lead them to change their ideas because they simply assume that the others are irrational.