Consider the technique used in the headline –it’s the craft of clickbait, not journalism. The journalistic headlines would be “Scientists have used a small drone to pollinate a flower.” Yawn. If you said, “Scientists prepare to replace bees with drones,” the lie would be so big and so obvious that scientists would have to protest and your credibility, if any, would suffer. But who could blame you for simply asking the question? (Headlines asking questions, by the way, are an indicator of fake news.)
The story itself breathes heavily through an account of a team in Japan outfitting a little drone with some horsehairs and sticky stuff and successfully transferring some pollen from one lily (a flower selected for its large size and accessible pollen) to another. Mission accomplished, in approximately half the attempts made. The team leader — Eijiro Miyako of Japan’s Nanomaterials Research Institute — said he felt “happiness that I’m a scientist.”
Couple things. The drone they used cost over a hundred dollars and required a human operator. To pollinate just the almond crop, in California alone, each year requires 35 billion bees pollinating three trillion flowers on 900,000 acres. Each little drone, with its four slashing propellers, is going to scare and injure real bees and damage plants while barging around the flowers.
Well, sure, comes the response, we’ll have to develop some kind of artificial intelligence to make the drones self-piloting, and we’ll have to achieve economies of scale, but we can do that. Eventually. In other words if we had some ham we could have ham and eggs if we had some eggs.
Over and over again we are treated to the same cycle; some minor achievement in the lab, announced with a flurry of irrational predictions about the brave new world to come because of this breakthrough. Fusion (at room temperature) has been announced a half dozen times. A week or so ago a breathless account of the creation of metallic hydrogen caught the world’s attention until it fell apart of its own weight.
These “studies” continue to flourish for the same reason that clickbait ads and fake news flourish; because of the avid appetite of ill-informed people for easy solutions. When the ad offers a quick and easy cure for cancer, or the fake news proclaims that a politician we don’t like has been caught running a child sex-slave ring out of a pizza parlor, or fake science proclaims that we no longer have to worry about the bees dying or the globe warming or the world running out of oil, way too many of us turn off our critical faculties and go back to sleep.
Money flows to the grant proposals that envision finding out that what we want to be true, is true. Money flows to the clickbait ads that offer easy solutions to complex problems. Eyeballs cascade to the fake news that proclaims what we want to hear, or what we are afraid we’ll hear. And the institutions that once imposed responsibility on these offerings — the universities, the regulatory bodies, the great newspapers — are vampires now whose souls have fled, leaving behind only a vast craving for cash.
There’s no one left to tell us there aren’t going to be driverless cars and tabletop fusion and eternal life and a cure for cancer and a mechanical replacement for bees and a simple fix for climate change; to tell us it’s up to us not to be taken, not to be gullible, not to accept a view of the world that’s simple and easy and deadly wrong. It’s hard work, but somebody’s got to do it, and there’s no drone that will do it for you.