Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Confusing Science with Magic
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.