If you are a science journalist and want to write an enjoyable piece, you go in search for a thought provoking example which will interest readers and make them want to know more. After that, the more nuanced story follows. The risk, though, is that it is mostly the spectacular example that readers will remember.
Gemma Milne, science journalist for the BBC, The Guardian and other outlets, is not making things easy for herself with her book Smoke & Mirrors: How hype obscures the future and how to see past it. Sensational hypes detract from what technological progress is really about, she asserts. She shows this using nine fields: food technology; cancer research; batteries; nuclear fusion; space travel; quantum computing; computer-brain interfaces; artificial intelligence; and the search for extraterrestrial life. All areas where people dream of wild claims. But what is the real situation?
‘This conclusion is not very exhilarating, but it is fitting’
Milne is very matter-of-fact. The chapter on food technology for example, begins with a simple calculation in which she shows that the large-scale eating of meat is not viable and that we will have to be prepared to pay more for quality foodstuffs. This leads to an argument on making food production more efficient (using technology) and therefore more sustainable. Milne too is unable to avoid the temptation to cover Beyond Meat’s ‘fake’ burgers and lab grown meat, while these are only transition products, ideas which give a glimpse into the future while still harking back to the traditional. The protein version of Blackberrys, you could say.
In general though, Milne is well able to weed out hypes, such as the endless amount of claims that a universal cure for cancer is around the corner. Or the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Canadian company D-Wave that swore to have a functioning quantum computer. That claim may be incorrect, but it nevertheless attracted so much venture capital that D-Wave really could build something that resembles a quantum computer. On the other hand, you could ask yourself if the chapter on nuclear fusion, however nuanced, is not amplifying the hype, simply because the future of this technology is completely unknown.
Milne closes the book with a few general observations about technological hypes that mostly act as a distraction from what scientific progress really is about. This conclusion is not very exhilarating, but it does match the subject well.
- Gemma Milne, Smoke & Mirrors, How hype obscures the future and how to see past it, Robinson, 2020, ISBN 978-1-4721-4366-2, Euro 9,50 (e-book)