Progress Studies

There are few ideas with a higher status in our society than Progress. It emerged during the Enlightenment in the 18th century.

The idea of progress (Ngram Viewer)

The belief that advances in technology, science, and social organisation can produce an improvement in the human condition took the baton from Religion. Like religion, it provides us with a sense of meaning and purpose, and justify many of the things governments and social organisations do or don’t do (no worry, progress will take care of them).

Not surprisingly, like other sacred ideas which inspire us and we live for, progress is, to put it mildly, a blurred one.

The Progress of humanity belongs to the same order of ideas as Providence or personal immortality. It is true or it is false, and like them it cannot be proved either true or false. Belief in it is an act of faith.

J. B. Bury, “The Idea of Progress”

That’s the reason there are people who, armed with data and statistics, identify trends which make them believe (or say they believe) in progress. And there are others who, feeling anxiety over the appropriateness or sustainability of those trends, or their personal prospects, cannot believe in it. The debate is tightening due to blatant inequality.

Furthermore, even assuming that progress is desirable, we do not even understand too well how to “produce” it. Technological innovation is hard, very hard. Social innovation is even harder.

Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison argue for a field of study dedicated to Progress, with a clear focus on action:

We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”

It would consider the problem as broadly as possible. It would study the successful people, organizations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date, and it would attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.

Plenty of existing scholarship touches on these topics, but it takes place in a highly fragmented fashion and fails to directly confront some of the most important practical questions.

An important distinction between our proposed Progress Studies and a lot of existing scholarship is that mere comprehension is not the goal. When (…) viewed through the lens of Progress Studies, the implicit question is how scientists (or funders or evaluators of scientists) should be acting. The success of Progress Studies will come from its ability to identify effective progress-increasing interventions and the extent to which they are adopted by universities, funding agencies, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other institutions. In that sense, Progress Studies is closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand.

We Need a New Science of Progress

I fully support the idea. We need to improve our understanding of progress. The focus on results, in particular, is good. It is difficult to understand how difficult is to make (new) things happen until you try.

However, a focus on action should not blind our understanding, as many times happens. I am afraid that, as long as progress determines where we are aiming, it will always be very difficult to separate progress from politics.


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