Thursday, January 3, 2019

Monitoring futuristic scientific news

In a previous post I mentioned that many published scientific news are not really new discoveries, but future forecasts. In a later post I made a more complete study by analyzing 56 journals of six different years and verifying that the number of scientific news that can be called futuristic seems to be growing over time, having passed, in little more than 20 years, from one out of three, to one out of two, approximately.
This gave me the idea that it would be interesting to know what had happened to these futuristic news after some time. For each specific news, three things may have happened:
1. The forecast of a possible discovery has been confirmed.
2. It has not been confirmed, but a new field of research has been opened, and the news in question continues to be investigated as possible future science.
3. Or it has not been confirmed, and the news in question has fallen into oblivion.

Estimating that an interval of 12 years is a sufficient time to carry out this review, I selected 25 futurological news published in the journal Science News between January and April 2006, in 11 issues of the journal. When they were published, all those news were futuristic, for they only posed possibilities, using terms like can, could, may, might, suggest, and the like. These 25 news items belong to the following fields:
  • 9 on medicine, including issues such as transplants, design of vaccines and medicines, and the study of the causes of diseases.
  • 7 on biology and paleontology, about questions such as the genetic origin of staple plants, the structure of the nervous system, the biological function of prions, the construction of biological membranes, and the origin of life.
  • 4 on technology, such as the development of energy sources, materials, optical instruments and nanotechnology.
  • 2 on astronomy: the possible discovery of a new class of stars, and the prediction of solar storms.
  • 2 on physics and chemistry: superconductivity and mixture purification.
  • 1 on psychology, about how we learn.
What has happened with those news after 12 years? This is what I have tried to discover, by means of Google searches on the corresponding topics:
  1. Five of the news (20%) disappeared completely. They have not been heard again (or at least I have not been able to find them). Among these news: a possible advance in superconductivity, one in learning, one that refers to the structure of the nervous system, another that has to do with cancer, and the one related to the origin of life.
  2. Six other news items (24%) have been confirmed. For instance, a vaccine against H5N1 flu, and the use of a drug have been approved. Also the relationship between the appetite hormone and memory; the role of prions in the development of stem cells; and the existence of a new type of neutron stars (pulsars) have been confirmed. Finally, we have learned to build a new type of ceramic material by studying the mother of pearl.
  3. The other 14 news items (56%) continue as an open field of research, i.e. they are still futuristic. In some of these cases (at least two) I have not been able to find in modern publications (a few of which are dated in 2018) the references that aroused my interest in the subject, which were published in 2006.
My conclusion: in 12 years, just one in four futuristic news has been confirmed. If the percentage of this type of news now approaches 50%, and continues being confirmed in such a small proportion, a statistical analysis of the process suggests that in 25 years, if trends continue as they are now, two thirds of new scientific news will be futuristic. I wonder whether this means that the advance of science is slowing down.

The same post in Spanish
Manuel Alfonseca

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