Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Burton Richter's Four Laws of Societal Inertia

      Burton Richter NSF crop.jpg    
Burton Richter (b. 1931)
 (Nobel Prize for Physics 1976)

I was reading Richter's recent book 'Beyond Smoke and Mirrors' about Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century when I came across his four laws relating to societal inertia.  I thought they are very well stated to understand why things are so difficult to change when they obviously need to be changed.

I reproduce the four laws in the following:

First Law:  The future is hard to predict because it has not happened yet.
Second Law:  No matter how good a solution is, some people will demand we wait for a better one.
Third Law:  Short term pain is a deterrent to action no matter how much good that action will do in the long run.
Fourth Law:  The largest subsidies go to technologies that deliver the most votes or campaign contributions.

I would like to add a further observation to these 
(corollary to the Fourth Law):

The rich and powerful prefer status quo and influence decisions made by administrators with scant knowledge of science and technology.

What I find interesting in these laws is that they are equally applicable to the way society might respond to the march of new technologies.  That the new technologies will benefit our civilization is far from certain and much will depend on how they are controlled and implemented.  

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