Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Confusing Science with Magic

Arthur C. Clarke once observed that any sufficiently advanced technology can seem indistinguishable from magic. Many TV shows and situation comedies have presented time travel, where present technology appears magical to an earlier population, or even where a technologically sophisticated alien presents herself as a god. It's a fair observation.

At the same time, it can be easy to lose track of how we perceive the development of technology, particularly if we lack a sufficient understanding of the science underlying the technology. Watch an episode of the original Battlestar Galactica series and much of the technology seems antiquated - voice recognition software putting your dictation on a low resolution CRT? How about the communicators from the original Star Trek series? Why don't they upgrade to iPhones? And a separate tricorder? Why isn't there an app for that?

Quite a few years back I was involved in a discussion about food shortages and distribution issues, regional overpopulation and the like. Somebody who was reasonably well-educated popped in with the comment that she didn't worry about food shortages because it was only a matter of time before we had food replicators, as seen on Star Trek, the Next Generation. If Jean-Luc Picard could turn to a hole in the wall, say "Earl Grey, hot", and have a cup full of tea magically appear, clearly it is only a matter of time before we all have such a wondrous device creating and serving our favorite foods in unlimited quantity, right?

Well, wrong. I pointed out the physics involved - development of the device aside, the extraordinary amount of energy it would take to replicate food in that manner. My comment fell on deaf ears. "Scientists will figure it out."

There's nothing new in that attitude. Charlatans have, for centuries, promised that they can find ways (figuratively or literally) to turn common items into gold. Even in this age of modern pharmaceuticals, we're always hoping for a magic pill or potion that will allow us to live forever, to overcome the effects of inactivity, overeating, aging. We are primed to hope, and there will always be somebody looking to capitalize on that fact.

On Real Time this past weekend, Bill Maher criticized a Member of Congress, John Shimkus, for making the insipid suggestion that we don't need to worry about climate change, because God had promised Noah that he would never again destroy the Earth with a flood. Never mind that the promise wasn't, "I'll stop you from destroying the Earth."

One of Maher's guests, Will Cain, expressed skepticism that climate change was as serious as some suggest. He employed the traditional had waving defense of many climate change deniers, pretending that there's a meaningful disagreement among climate scientists about the reality of climate change. He then launched into what I expect he believes to be a discussion of science, reciting that the world had been predicted to run out of food but that the development of fertilizers proved that theory wrong.

In other words, "Don't worry about the facts. Don't worry about what science can actually do. Because, magic."

When religious people respond to criticism of faith-based argument by asserting that a lot of argument that is supposedly based on science is in fact based on faith, they can point to Will Cain as their poster child.

It was not scientifically wrong to look at the world's capacity for food production and, based upon the amount of food an average individual requires to survive, projecting a maximum carrying capacity for the planet. Although the development of nitrogen-based fertilizers did significantly increase the planet's capacity for food production, it remains possible to do exactly the same thing: to calculate the Earth's carrying capacity based upon current levels of food production. It's also possible to examine how regional or global shortages will change that number.

Beyond confusing science with magic, and adding a generous topping of faith and self-centeredness - never mind where science hasn't worked out so well for past or present populations, if Will Cain needs science to fix something it will deliver and it will do so in a timely manner - Cain demonstrates confused thinking.

The fact that the world once faced an issue that was (partially) overcome by science does not mean that the world, facing that same issue again, will experience a similar scientific breakthrough. It certainly does not mean that, faced with a completely different issue, we can count on science to provide the necessary solution within the necessary time frame.

Cain's resort to "science", really science fiction, as a solution to a real problem is scarcely more intellectually sound than Shimkus's reliance on God's promise not to again flood the world. While they practice their respective forms of faith, the rest of us need to keep working on a back up plan.


  1. D's Squirrel Food10/10/12, 3:48 PM


    Just wanted to drop by and let you know you've got a great blog here. I know you don't have a very lively comment section, and that's a shame, because your commentary is spot on. I also appreciate your push back at Joanne's site (from which I founf The Stopped Clock), which seems to be increasingly White Supremacist.

    On topic, do you see a solution to the problem of people confusing science with science fiction? The obvious answer is better science education, but I'm afraid that is necessary but not sufficient. Evidence seems to go out the window when ideology gets involved.

  2. Responding to your last point first, no, even with education we're going to be battling logical fallacies, rash assumptions, prejudices, wishful thinking, the embrace of mythology, and the like... because they're part of how the human brain works. Education helps, but it won't solve the problem - and in some cases empowers people to mislead or to believe that they know or understand far more than they in fact do. No matter how informed you are or try to be, you have to be aware of and try to guard against cognitive distortions.

    Comments? Yeah, I wouldn't mind having more. It's interesting, though, how some threads get huge numbers of page views and no comments, and others get relatively few page views and tons of comments. My comments dropped off over the course of a very long period during which my blog was either algorithmically misidentified (or maliciously reported as) having auto-generated content; by the time I figured out the problem (which was a great deal of time later) I was able to recover a lot of traffic but for some reason never recovered the same level of commentary. Then I started to post (by blog standards) some pretty long blog posts... probably not the best way to engage passers by. ;-)

  3. Passersby? Picard? Tea? Earl? CogDistortions?joans site? (15 minutes typing per sentemnnce cause you FUCKED UP MY PHONE!) YOUR STUPID OVERKILL GAME, IS A DEADLY PLAY, when it ruins lives and a f/f chat or love note would have sufficed and save lives. U FOOL. You people make no fucking sense. I don't know how to translate, Obama, Romney, fiscal cliff, Hillary, democrat, economy, republican, taxes, rich, government...(WTF) "You’vegotto put the corn where the hogs can get to it"(WTF )..REALLY...NOT ONE DAMN THING MAKES SENSE, except YOU TWO ARE Big Mistakes, Fucking Up MY LIFE and I am Helping You End Your Evil Internal Self Loathing. Perma-Exit. Ps, cognitive...bla bla...you're insane. NOTHING has any CRED, therefore I'm NOT trying to learn to communicate w/ you two anonim-asses. NO I.D. and NO TRUST...= No Desire to cooperate...WORK ON A NEW PLAN BEFORE THERES...NO YOU. Oh yeah, re: me moving from under twin towers, I been thinkin. Theres no need 4 me to move, once U2 are REMOVED. I think your kristiLball is deceiving you on that issue. My greatest desire is for this city, state, earth to be minus one fatbasterd AND one 5'7" krak-ho SPORTING a Wicca Top-Knot. Swear To God! dawg

    1. That's not the type of comment Squirrel Food had in mind.


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