Thursday, March 03, 2005

"Every Absurdity Now Has A Champion"

I've read a fair amount of pop science in my day, which means that I've been regularly entertained with tall tales that would make Baron Munchausen blush. Theoretical physicists are the worst offenders, but anyone with the proper scientific capital can publish a pop science book on virtually any absurdity he or she can dream up, and there are plenty of people who'll swallow it whole.

Douglas Hofstadter babbles about putting everything that was in Einstein's head into a book, in order to converse with him. Freeman Dyson says that genetic engineering will soon become a wonderful hobby for the masses. Other folks dazzle us with anthropic principles, self-organization, the physics of immortality, the "God particle" and the "God gene."

Then there's the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which not only sheathes Occam's Razor, but throws it on the ground, smashes it with a sledgehammer, and pisses all over the fragments. And there's the ineffably silly Ray Kurzweil, who's so anxious about the ethical issues raised by the advent of "Spiritual Machines" (Cheer up, may never happen!). And there are philosophers who fancy they've proved that consciousness is an illusion, but that the information consciousness offers and receives is more than substantial enough to be worth a book deal or a TV appearance.

All of these notions can't be right, though there's no reason why they couldn't all be wrong. But people swoon over them to an amazing extent. I've had perfectly intelligent people tell me, in all earnestness, that their computers are conscious, or that it's impossible that any scientific question could go unanswered forever, or that there's something called a "God gene," or that many worlds are, at this moment, diverging from this dimension at the rate of trillions per nanosecond.

Many years ago, someone I used to know read a book on quantum mechanics, and proclaimed to me that there were only two possibilities: Either everything is superposed between being and not-being, happening and not-happening, until it's observed; or each possible occurrence, down to the subatomic level, causes a new universe to form. I tried to say, politely, that he was laboring under a couple of simple misconceptions, but he wouldn't hear of it. "Those are the scientifically acceptable choices," he said. "It's one or the other."

At Pharyngula the other day, a commenter tried to refute a garden-variety creationist troll by (among other things) invoking Kurzweil's belief that we will soon download human personalities, like computer software, into new bodies. Now, we can argue about whether that's possible; I happen to think it's absurd techno-triumphalist claptrap and that Kurzweil's an utter schmuck. Nonetheless, I accept that someone could disagree with me as to the theoretical possibility without being crazy or stupid. But when such downloadable personalities are treated for all intents and purposes as fact, and are produced triumphantly in argument as a rebuke to the illiterati, I lose all patience.

Not that I have much patience to begin with, given the sort of gobbledlygook that regularly gets a free pass by virtue of being "scientific." For instance, here's Freeman Dyson on what he calls our Post-Darwinian Future:

We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species will no longer exist, and the evolution of life will again be communal. In the post-Darwinian era, biotechnology will be domesticated....Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of the general public, will give us an explosion of biodiversity. Designing genomes will be a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators and diversity to our fauna and flora.
Every one of Dyson's statements seems to me to be perfectly insane; the whole concept is not only ghastly beyond belief, but logically unjustifiable. Nonetheless, it's been received rather rapturously in a couple of "scientific" forums I've visited, and by any number of science-minded bloggers. What's missing from it - besides the merest fragment of evidence or common sense - is any comprehension of how people are, and why they can't necessarily be trusted to use technology wisely. It lacks any grasp whatsoever of the wholesome and bracing truth that "man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward," and it proves yet again that scientists are not necessarily ethicists, nor even reasonable people.

Dr. Michio Kaku is one of the worst offenders in the field; his new book, Parallel Worlds, is a typical hodge-podge of ultra-fashionable theoretical physics, cavalier assumptions, and pure fantasy. It's one of the most perfectly useless books I've ever read...useless in the sense that it fails as science and as metaphysics. It simultaneously lacks the tutelary virtues of religion and myth, and the scientific virtues of cold hard materialism, and is therefore an essentially sterile work of the imagination and the last thing on earth anyone should take seriously.

And yet, retail shelves are groaning under the weight of books like Parallel Worlds...books that brew all the "wild" ideas of physics and evolutionary psychology and cognitive science into an unwholesome potion that seems to have no other purpose than to afflict the general public with slack-jawed, uncritical, quasi-religious awe.

Why is this? Because, for whatever reason suits your prejudices, human beings seem to enjoy the feeling of slack-jawed, uncritical, quasi-religious awe.

Beyond this, people like to feel that they're conversant with great mysteries; they very much like to feel that they understand life, and can explain it to other people. Speaking of which, over at Eschaton the other night, I found myself in an argument with one of those wonderfully polite racialists who tries to justify his unpleasant theories via recourse to Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. That's par for the course towards the end of a long thread. But imagine my chagrin the next morning, when I was listening - with my usual edgy disapproval - to Air America's tiresome Marc Maron, and heard him tell a caller to "read The Blank Slate and start figuring out what's actually behind all the stuff people do" (or words to that effect).

His smugness was palpable, needless to say. He'd figured things out, thanks to Science, and was all set to rid the world of Error.

Unfortunately for him, error happens to be science's primary export. As Arthur Fine points out in The Shaky Game: Einstein, Realism, and the Quantum Theory:
Overwhelmingly, the results of the conscientious pursuit of scientific inquiry are failures: failed theories, failed hypotheses, failed conjectures, inaccurate measurements, incorrect estimations of parameters, fallacious causal inferences, and so forth.
As a simple statistical matter, a given hypothesis - and most pop science books are either hypotheses or descriptions of hypotheses - has a far better chance of being wrong than right. (Particularly when it's founded on shoddy research, like Pinker's.)

In Science of Science and Reflexivity, Pierre Bourdieu notes that science, like all fields, has a "price of entry" that makes it more (or less) autonomous by regulating its accessibility to new entrants. A firm grasp of higher mathematics is a typical entrance fee; there are others. Ideally, in Bourdieu's view, such restrictions must strike a balance between elitism and demagogy. As regards the latter option, he devastatingly describes consumers of pop science as people who have:
[A] self-interested propensity to hide from themselves the limits of their own capacities of appropriation - following the model of self-deception that is expressed so well by readers of popularizing journals when they assert that "this is a high-level scientific journal that anyone can understand."
But popularizing journals make a great deal of money, of course, and this is alluring not just to publishers, but to scientists who are willing to trade autonomy for fame and money by catering to a sensation-starved public.

At which point, all is vanity. We end up with a situation where people like Marc Maron can cheaply assert their status as rational intellectuals by pledging allegiance to "Science," by way of whatever pop-science potboiler is blowing minds at the moment. In my opinion, these books are a bad influence on public debate, and are not all that different from Medieval wonder-books that amazed readers with the marvels of the Great Chain of Being (except that their use of language isn't as graceful, of course). As a counterbalance to the forces of "irrationality and superstition," they leave a lot to be desired.

That's what I think, anyway.


Eli said...

Why can't they just do what I do and read sci-fi??? I love being immersed in other realities where this stuff comes to fruition, but I don't generally think, "Yeah, that could really happen!" Odd that so many people pooh-pooh science fiction, but are happy to read it in the guise of SCIENCE.

If I may blogwhore a bit, the power of awe has been around as a valuable tool of the ruling class for for quite a long time...

JMS said...

I enjoyed reading this one. Couldn't have said it any better. I hang out with plenty of engineering and science minded people, and I could pass as a hard core materialist skeptic if I wanted to.

But I'm perfectly happy to be a humanist mystic, disbelieving in everything except for change. I'm not even that enamoured with humans. I just want to imply I'm a rational mystic. We've got flaws, and they're writ large on the world as our population grows. Watching my two year old mimic my exact actions is cute, and has scary implications.

It's an especial hoot to read about imagineers who pull this "downloading personalities" nonsense out of thin air. We don't even understand conciousness yet, much less have the ability to star trek it all over creation.

I guess it is lucky for some of these trained as scientists types that they are on the correct side of the fence, and don't have to run the gauntlet of professional skeptics, outside gnawing on their stone soup of chiropractors and ufologists.

Rmj said...

Blast it, Philalethes, people are going to think we plan this stuff. Now you've given me more grist for my blog (up later; don't go early, you'll miss it!).

But you also remind me of the famous anecdote about Ludwig Wittgenstein. Russell came upon W. deep in thought, and knowing his former students predilection for ethical and metaphysical issues (which Russell eschewed both in his life and his thought), asked: "What are you thinking about, logic, or your sins?" To which Wittgenstein replied: "Both."

Say no more, say no more! Nudge nudge, wink wink, know what I mean?

Rmj said...

Oh, and on, say, "consciousness." As Stephen Jay Gould said of intelligence, maybe as soon as we can have a hard and fast definition of "consciousness," then we can get about "understanding" what it is.

But at the moment, scientifically speaking, consciousness is just so much smoke. And intelligence? You're better off nailing jello to the wall than asserting you can measure that.

But I'm sure we'll soon download it anyway....(into who? Johnny Mnemonic? Eli, these guys are reading science fiction. Some English teacher failed to teach them the definition of "fiction," that's all.)

robin andrea said...

well done. and with your usual command of language. the freeman dyson part is especially grim. the area of science that has fascinated me for most of my life is physics. the many worlds interpretation seems beyond weird to me also. schrodinger made up his cat in the box paradox to ridicule the idea of observation being required to collapse the state vector.

robin andrea said...

oh yeah. that was me the pirate speaking as dharma bums. rd has many science interests, but physics isn't one.

dread pirate roberts

Wayne Hughes said...

You all DO listen to NPR's New Dimensions, don't you? (It may not be NPR, but that's the venue in which I do not hear it.) I'm sure you'll see the light once you've listened to it :-| .

Freeman Dyson was one of the few scientists I was aware of in the mid 70's, when as a fairly average college student I wasn't aware of very much. I heard him speak a couple of years ago; he's an extremely compelling speaker. But I suspect he's just messing with us. He's certainly not a biologist and I doubt if he could defend his assertions cited here.

Phila said...


New Directions...I think I heard a bit of that once. The announcer's voice gave me the creeps...there was a really unpleasant, cultish feel to it.

For the record, I think I came off a bit harsh in this post (considering how sick I am, it's a miracle I even got it written). Honestly, I'm willing to entertain all sorts of irrational notions, and as a good Feyerabendian I welcome everyone else to do likewise! I just don't like it when unwittingly irrational people pretend to have the market cornered on "reason," whether they're on the Right or the Left. Which is why I don't like that magazine titled "Reason," and also don't like it when people call themselves "freethinkers." Caveat emptor, as the saying is.

Wayne Hughes said...

Oh, agreed completely. It seems that if Dyson is messing with us he deserves what he gets.

Now for a biologist completely readable, informative, and knowledgeable Edward O. Wilson is probably at the top of my list. He doesn't do future perfect, but he does do present imperfect.

@whut said...

I'd agree. I can only stomach coffee-table science that presents a cynical or snarky attitude. Robert L. Park, Richard Feynman fall into this category. David Goodstein has taken over Feynman's mantle at CalTech by writing a realistic oil/energy book recently called "Out of Gas".