Friday, September 26, 2008

The masters of science fiction

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -Arthur C. Clarke
I think I've finally figured out the problem with science. That is to say, I think I know what the real issue is with the public perception of science, and what it is about it that makes the average layman surprisingly loath to trust it. Let's face it; every day we're going to open the newspaper and find another story along the lines of some school board refusing to teach evolution, and the more "enlightened" among us will shake their heads and mumble something along the lines of, "Are we living in the dark ages or something?" Well, I've decided that in the end, the problem surprisingly lies with science itself, and the manner in which science by its very nature generates its own bad press.

I don't remember what it was that was simmering somewhere on the back-burners of my mind the other day as I was perusing some essays by Isaac Asimov, but maybe it will come back to me, as it had become a thought suddenly boiled over when I hit a particular sentence in one of his essays. Just in case you're not familiar with Asimov--and actually, you're probably not as familiar as you think you are even if you do know something about him--he's probably best known as a science fiction writer, but also carried on his resume a number of works of fiction in the genres of mystery and fantasy, as well as a certain amount of writing on science fact, history, and Biblical commentary. Asimov was probably my favorite author as a child, and I'd always wanted to write as well as he did, but never thought it likely. Turns out my wish may have come true: while his storytelling is superb, his essays are pretty crappy. I am in good company after all.

It's probably actually not his essay writing overall, but this particular subset. I picked up a copy of Magic: The final fantasy collection, which is a gathering together of all Asimov's "fantasy stories that have never before appeared in book form." Truth be told, even the fiction is not quite as good as his sci-fi works elsewhere, but the section of essays dissecting the nature of the fantasy genre seem to really fall short. Maybe it's just me. Actually, one of the hard things in evaluating the fiction is that not too much of it falls into the standard sort of format that one thinks of as "fantasy"; one story, a mystery involving Batman, actually has no supernatural element to it at all, so go figure.

What does all of this have to do with science, though? Well, as Asimov works his way through essay after essay of reflection on the subject of magic, faeries, mythical creatures and dashing knights riding off to slay dragons, he ends up--as a firm believer in science, and an author with a strong preference for science fiction over fantasy--taking many of these thematic concepts and relating them back to scientific principles. Science fiction and fantasy both generally involve the use of extraordinary means of meeting the protagonist's ends, but there tends to be a divergence in the nature of the means that is sometimes hard to describe precisely due to the fact that, as Clarke has said, technology can sometimes appear to be magical. Asimov points out that the real difference is that technology is something that always comes with limits, but magic much less so.

An excellent example is to think about the worlds of "Star Trek" vs. "Harry Potter". Both involve fictional means of teleportation, but there are few similarities in the workings of each. In the Trek world, teleportation is made possible through the employment of technology that requires a very large amount of energy and powerful supercomputers. Those attempting to teleport with these devices need to program these powerful computers with the particular coordinates of departure and arrival, the subjects of teleportation cannot be in motion, the teleportation device must be fully-powered and within a certain distance, and (for some unstated reason that has never made much sense to me) the operator of the device needs to know the number of people being teleported. In Potter's world on the other hand, all one needs to teleport is to be a wizard who really wants to go to a location in mind. I'm sure there are Potter fans who would take issue with such a simplification of the process, but really, I've simplified the process from both worlds.

So who is the winner? Maybe it seems like Potter is, as he needs no power source or help from a computer, has no limits on distance of travel, and can disappear at will in mid-stride while running from the hot pursuit of Voldemort. Not so, however. There are, and will always be, people who have a preference for the theoretically possible over the fantastic. After all, what good is Potter-style teleportation to "muggles" like you and me? Computers and technology, on the other hand, make amazing strides daily, and who knows? While physicists haven't yet invented the warp drive, it has been suspected that the principles of relativity actually do allow for travel faster than light speed if we could find a way to manipulate the space-time continuum. Sci-fi has a lot of big "ifs", but they're not the ridiculous imaginings of magic and fantasy, at least.

That sort of thinking is actually the smaller part of the problem of science: it's sort of a killjoy. On page 143 of "Magic", Asimov points out that the old fairy tale staple of "seven-league boots" are something for which science can't really produce an analogue. Seven-league boots are magical pieces of footwear that allow the wearer to move seven leagues (21 miles) in a single step. Asimov points out that such boots would cause the wearer to, at the pace of a brisk walk, achieve escape velocity and therefore be launched into space in a stride or two. Sheesh, Asimov, you're no fun. I'm not personally a big fan of the fantasy genre, but I think it's clear enough that we're meant to understand that magic boots, by the very fact of their being magic, don't have to concern the wearer with mundane factors such as escape velocity and wind resistance (I'm sure someone could give some very good reason why travelling at escape velocity with no protective gear would cause air friction enough to vaporize you, or at least severely chap your skin). Asimov is only trying to point out that science, unlike magic, has limits, but really the depressing thing about science is that really on the whole, science is all about telling us repeatedly that we are limited.

One of the best-known limits in science is the speed of light, but it's odd that it's so well-known. That is to say, it's not that people know what the speed of light is (I can seldom remember it off the top of my head), but they know it exists, and the one thing they really know about relativity theory is that things in the real world can't go faster than light. What does this really do for the layman, though? What possible purpose does it serve the non-physicist to know that the universe has a speed limit, especially since not a one of us will likely ever travel so much as 0.01% of that limit? It only reminds us that we do not have unlimited ability, and while this is true, it adds nothing to the human condition to know it to be so. Science doesn't care, nor should it, as it exists in a world of facts and not fantasy or feelings.

I've written before that science is not in the business of making people feel good or have a sense of self-worth, and that's why it makes for a lousy religion. "But wait," most readers will object, "science isn't a religion!" No, it's not. The bigger part of the problem of science is that despite that fact that it isn't a religion, there are an awful lot of people who treat it like one. Something else that I know I have written about many, many times is the fact that the world is full of skeptics who are more than happy to puff out their chests and declare, "We don't need God and religion to give us the answers, for science has all the answers we need!" But whatever you may feel about religion, the second part of that sentence is dreadfully wrong: science doesn't have answers, it only has theories. Wait! I'm probably not saying what you think I'm saying...

My imagination makes it hard to write this, as I know with almost every sentence I write, there is someone out there who will be reading this and saying, "What an idiot!" Maybe, but can you wait until I've had my say? I know there are a lot of creationists that love the catch phrase, "Evolution is just a theory," and of course, they're missing that in the realm of science, that word tends to mean something deeper than they give it credit. Granted. What I'm saying is that even giving it all the credit it truly deserves, it's still not the end-all and be-all of truth, because science is not a religion in very important ways that are actually its strength, but unfortunately its lesser-known strength.

The Asimov essay that boiled over that thought was one titled "Giants in the Earth", an essay on why he thinks so many cultures (including the Bible) have had myths concerning giants and other fantastic larger-than-life creatures. He gives a number of theories about why people would imagine giants, mainly focusing on people of lesser technology who marveled at achievements of more advanced societies such as the massive walls of Mycenae and the pyramids of Egypt and, not being able to fathom technology that could move such massive stones, imagine the employment of giant men or sorcerers for the purpose. In general, this is not an unreasonable theory, but I do have some issues with it, the main one being the assumption that every single example of stories about giants surely could not have simply been the result of actual, living giants. After all, Goliath was only said to be nine feet tall, and while that sounds pretty fantastical, I fail to see why there could not exist a man of that stature, or at least near that stature helped with a dash of exaggeration or rounding off to the nearest cubit. I think I may have made this exact analogy in a former piece of writing, but if a person who had never been to China or known anything about it ran into Yao Ming, he might be tempted to tell friends that China was a land populated with giants, and he would be sort of right, since there are at least a few of them.

Now, just shortly after denying that tales of mythical giants had anything to do with actual giants, and denying that tales of dragons could have anything to do with actual oversized lizards such as dinosaurs or who knows what, Asimov makes this startling statement:
"The elephant bird, or aepyornis, of Madagascar still survived in medieval times. It weighed half a ton and was the largest bird that ever existed. It must surely have been the inspiration for the flying bird-monster, the 'roc,' that we find in the Sinbad tales of The Arabian Nights."
"Surely"? Maybe Asimov had some backing for this statement, but from what I see here, it seems to be pure speculation. Why does one need to go to Madagascar to find such a large bird when fairly large birds such as ostriches and crowned eagles exist on the African mainland? The apparent assertion of a matter of speculation as bare fact is what disturbed me, and surprised me from Asimov as a supposed man of science.

Maybe it's a particular problem of Asimov's, being a writer of sci-fi and mystery, that he feels a need to see to it that loose ends are tied up into a neat little bundle. Fiction does that quite often, especially in the mystery genre. We expect when we close the book after reading the last page that even if the ending is not a happy one, we at least will have had everything explained to us, and everything will be understood. Religion (which atheists will gladly relegate to fictional status) also tends toward this sort of resolution. It tends to try to answer as many of the key philosophical questions of life as it can, and then blankets anything that wasn't covered with some panacea such as, "Well, God is working all things to the good, and He will triumph in the end." Everybody likes a happy ending.

Science may like to define limits, but has no end in itself, and never completely ties up all the loose ends. This is the true strength and power of science, but it's not a savory one. Those so-called skeptics who claim that science has all the answers are missing the true point of science: that it has no answers, only a better class of questions. The real problem of science is that people are looking for final answers, and science's disciples are more than happy to claim that they have them, despite the fact that they are (unintentionally, granted) misleading people with such a claim.

It is the nature of science's never-ending quest to question reality that what are today's scientific truths will be tomorrow's scientific misconceptions. We had nine planets, but then we only had eight. We were descended from homo erectus, but then we weren't. The smallest indivisible units in the universe were atoms, but then they were found to be made of protons, neutrons and electrons, which were later found to be made of quarks, which in turn are made of...what? To the average person, all of this sort of stuff looks like indecision: can't science make up its mind? I thought you said science had the answers? To the non-technical mind, the answers that science give look like so much magical hocus-pocus, and when Rowling tells us in book seven that wands only properly work for their true owners, yet book four is full of magicians getting along just fine with borrowed and/or stolen wands, we start to think it may all be a bunch of crap.

Science is suffering from bad press, and it's not bad press from those fools who do things like ban the teaching of evolution in schools, but from those people who say things like, "Science has given us the answer, and the answer is evolution." Such an attitude falls prey to those who object, "What happened to us being evolved from homo erectus?" or "Why do you think it is that Piltdown Man turned out to just be a hoax?" If "evolution is the answer", then like dogmatic religious zealots, the disciples of the religion of science will demand that asking more questions is inappropriate, never realizing that like Pharisees berating Christ for healing on the Sabbath, they're elevating tradition over deeper, more fundamental truths. Yes, science embraces evolutionary theory, among other theories, and as a "theory" it's actually something deeper and more well-established than just an idea of how the world might happen to work, but just as Christianity holds as an underlying tenet that "Love thy neighbor" is more important than any rules about how you run your church, science holds to an underlying tenet that above all, we must keep asking questions of our universe.

Evolutionary theory is a better theory than its detractors give it credit, and I expect it to be a part of science for quite some time, despite the fact that simpler concepts, like the number of planets we have, lasted for much shorter time than evolution has already enjoyed. But it is the nature of science that all theories are potentially only here for today, waiting for the time that they will be replaced by a better theory and discarded. The real failure of our educational system is not a failing to convince everyone that evolution or any other theory is true; after all, the greatest scientists have always been the ones who were willing to be the first to discard the failed theories of the past. No, the real failure is not teaching our children that the real strength of science and greatness of scientists was not in their determined acceptance of the status quo, but in the very willingness to go against it. Mendeleyev wasn't the first person to think of the concept of the periodic table of elements (a crude approach to modern understanding of the behavior of subatomic particles before anyone had even thought of subatomic particles), but he was one of the first people to be willing to keep pushing and questioning until scientists decided to take it seriously.

Yes, the problem with science is that we haughtily insist that people accept it as it is, forgetting that the state of science is always evolving. Religion is the one that often strives to be right without being questioned. Science? It only strives to be a little less wrong than it was yesterday, and there's nothing wrong with that.


Brucker said...

I don't want to be outright unkind to Asmiov; I found his comment on the elephant bird to be odd, but I'm inclined to think it's more of a slip-up than a real lapse of judgement, and certainly not reflective of his overall views on science. To my delight, later on in the collection, there can be found an essay with the title "The Right Answer" which touches on some of the same subject material as my own piece here. In particular, Asimov writes:

"What characterizes the value of science, however, is not the particular conclusions it comes to. Those are sharply limited in number and guesswork will get you the 'right' answer with better odds than you'll find at the racetrack.

"What characterizes the value of science is its
methodology, the system it uses to arrive at those conclusions."

You might guess these paragraphs elicited a smile from this reader.

Brucker said...

On page 10 of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, he says: "Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis; you can never prove it." Hawking clearly also believes that the strength of science is that it never says, "This is the truth," but rather, "This is our current understanding of how the universe works, but we're looking for a better one."

Brucker said...

I recently came across a lovely Wikipedia article that had a section particularly on evolution that touched on some of the subjects I've discussed here and in other posts. Just thought I'd share, as it would help in the overall discussion if people on both sides of the evolution debate had certain matters cleared up:

Common Misconceptions: Evolution

Brucker said...

Isn't it fun the way I so often seem to be the only one commenting on my own posts? That's very interesting Brucker, have you seen this funny cartoon that is semi-related?

Na said...

I am going to try to reply paragraph by paragraph.

You start by saying that the average layman is surprisingly loathed to trust science. Maybe the average American layman is, but I don't think this is at all true of people from countries that are less religious than the US. It certainly doesn't resemble the average British or Japanese layman, who find science awe inspiring; just look at the viewing figures for science programs here, whether it be Brian Cox talking about space, or the BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs, the whole nation tunes in. Could it be true only of the average American layman because of their religiousness (or religiosity) which is hostile to science.

I think you're to hard on yourself as a writer; I clearly disagree with a great deal of what you say, but if you said it in a way that didn't hold my interest, I won't bother with it.

The Batman story sounds a bit like he could be one of the Watchmen.

If you want some really good books that relate fantasy stories to science, I would highly recommend reading "The Science of Discworld" Trilogy.
They are excellent.

I have had debates with people on whether a person would actually still be the same person if they were teleported.
I really enjoyed Harry Potter, but I think if a large dominating section of society decided it was true, that it should be revered, and believers in Harry Potter should have a privileged position. That would also suck. And you know what kind of things the Pottists would say in defense against detractors, "yes, but he used magic" and "of course that's not meant literally".

Yes, magic beans = nonsense, technology = awesome!

Na said...

I don't know why you think the limits are so depressing. Limits means there is something to know and understand, to work with, they are the solid ground, knowing them tells us we are making progress. There really is no difference between not knowing the limitations and not knowing, but once you know the limitations you can begin to understand them, and that exposes possibilities.
As far as stories are concern, even fantasy stories gain excitement from limitations and the possibility of something going wrong with the magic if they don't get it quite right.

How can anyone today, looking at the speed of progress around them given to us by the understanding of limitations feel bummed out by them. "Isn't it great that we can now, thanks to scientists understanding the speed of light making it possible for us to make satellites orbit the earth, we can get directions on the go to anywhere directly to our cars" "That's as maybe, but I'm never going to be able to step outside the universe, turn it into broccoli soup, suck it up and fart it out as 3 red balloons; and that makes me really depressed."
Also, if you are opposed people knowing things that are of no direct practical use to them in their life then education in general is in trouble. Most people don't need a second language, or to be able to paint a picture of anything, woodwork is out, when do most people use their knowledge of how to find the area of a circle or knowing what a diphthong means? And as for the Bible, well...
I always think of the speed of light as 12 million miles a minute because of Monty Python's Galaxy Song (though it's actually 11.2)

People only treat it like a religion in the sense that it is a source for answers. However, unlike religion it is only expected to have the best answers available, and answers must be testable. Ultimately if it doesn't have a supernatural element and dogma, then it can't be a religion.
You: science doesn't have answers, it only has theories.
Me: Oh My Goodness! That is...
You: Wait! I'm probably not saying what you think I'm saying.
Me: I do hope not, but continue.

You're far from being an idiot, you're what happens when a thinking man, sadly gets intellectually tangled in the spiderweb of religion.
Evolution is the be-all and end-all to biology, without it we cannot make sense of what we find in biology, the answer to why this does this or is like that is just because is it. Only through evolution can sense be seen in everything. Ultimately, even if the theory of natural selection ever faced challengers, they would all still have to be other theories of evolution. In the same way there will always be a theory of gravity, even though it is no longer Newton's theory of universal gravitation, but Einstein's theory of general relativity that prevails.
I would add, being that you didn't get around to addressing it but suggested at the end of the last paragraph that you would, theories are answers e.g. Q. Why do I get ill when someone sneezes in my face? A. Because of pathogens (Germ theory).

I don't really see the connection with the previously paragraph. You previously accepted that "theory" in a scientific sense means something deeper, and now you seem to be trying to equate it to simple opinion.
I don't think you need to have massive walls to imagine humans but bigger. However, someone dealing with massive constructions like pyramids may well imagine that "Gen 6:4 There were giants in the earth in those days" (though apparently the word giant used in genesis here is a mistranslation of the word tyrant or bully) to build it. But why does this matter, I don't think you've shown anything here.

Na said...

Again not hard to imagine birds but bigger either. However, I don't know that he is presenting this as bare fact; I would of expected the use of "were" instead of "must surely have been" if it was bare fact, this just seems like opinion. But if he meant more than in his opinion it's highly likely that seeing such bird, how it acts etc. was probably an influence on the character of the "roc", then he could be right or wrong, I don't know, but I also don't see why it matters, how it says anything about science.
It seems like you're attempting to make an ad hominem attack on science, based on one book about stories by author who writes well informed science fiction, is that really what you're doing here? Surely not! ;)

Just want to rewrite one bit of this:
Religion (which atheists will gladly recognise as having a fictional status, and which the religious do as well in all religions but their own).

Science not only has answers, it requires it's answers to be testable and tested (unlike religion). It's utter nonsense to say science has no answers. It is also great at generating questions.
No scientist would claim that we have the answers to everything, and I suspect (and desire) that there is no limit to the amount of questions there is, because the more we discover, the more questions that are generated. However, I wonder what the questions are to these "final answers" that science doesn't at the moment have any answer for.

The change in the number of planets is due to categorisation changes.!
The homo erectus is just a exciting new development, much like the small divisible units. At one point they say atoms are the smallest things we know of right now, then with research we discovered there were indeed protons, neutrons and electrons. However science didn't stop looking - like someone who thought that protons, electrons and neutrons were definitely the small possible thing would - and so we found quarks. This doesn't look like indecision, it looks like progress. The average person says I know science works, because I'm surrounded by a world that proves it. Who can type away that science doesn't produce useable solid results, while using a computer? How crazy would that be?!

That we weren't evolved from homo erectus, does nothing to shake evolution. I don't understand why you think it would.
You obviously didn't read the whole of your Piltdown link, especially the section titled "Exposure of the hoax" that even starts with the sentence "From the outset, some scientists expressed skepticism about the Piltdown". You miss the fact that any mistake that was corrected in science or scientific hoax that was uncovered in science, was done by scientists. I would also add that I even mistakes of science have proven more useful and closer to truth than anything religion has given us. Unless we need incredibly precise measurement, we still chose to use Newton over Einstein, and no one just guesses and prays they're right when they known a scientific alternative.

I would only be repeating myself to reply to this paragraph.

This idea that it only strives to be a little less wrong (to tidy up) is only part of the story, it also strives to deepen our understanding of what it is right about. For as simple example, the recognition by science that a solid, liquid and gas are as they are because of the relationship between molecules will not change. But our deeper understanding of what that means will continue to progress.

Brucker said...

This is one of my favorite posts, and I really think it has something important to say, so I'm a bit embarrassed that I let this comment go so long without responding. I don't want to be misunderstood here.

It may indeed be more common in America to be mistrustful of science, I don't know. I don't think it has that much to do with religion per se, but rather the problems I talk about in the post may serve to give ammunition to religious anti-science types. Let me be clear that I'm not saying that I believe that science is flawed, I'm saying that science is suffering from bad PR, and I've seen the effects.

The parallels between Batman and The Watchmen were, I think, built into the latter. Thanks for the book recommendation, I do like the Discword series.

I see the point of your parallel between the Harry Potter series and religious works, except (for better or worse) the writers of religious works intend for their writings to be taken more seriously than I think Rowling does.

Why are limits depressing? Well, this was admittedly not well-developed, but let me suggest one thought: Once you understand relativity theory, it becomes clear that the chance of ever meeting a space alien from another star system is pretty close to zero. It just takes too long to travel between stars to make it something practical, even for civilizations far more adanced than ours. I know people that really, really would like to believe that we're being visited all the time, but I just don't see it. Even if there is life on other star systems, we're still effectively alone in the universe.

Yes, knowing those limits allows for advances in technology, I just think that most people would be more bummed at the loss of possibility of faster-than-light travel than thrilled at GPS systems, especially given how glitchy they tend to be. I'm not at all opposed to people knowing things of no direct practical use to them; I'm a firm believer in a well-rounded education. I have no talent in the visual arts, nor am I likely to ever use such skills in any future career, but I'm glad I took art classes in high school and college. (I even took woodworking in middle school, and don't regret that even though I was terrible at it.)

Brucker said...

As you say, the answers that science has are only the best currently available, and they're always testable, i.e. falsifiable. Falsifiability is a cornerstone of the scientific method, but does the general populace understand that? That's where I was going with "it only has theories", that is, "theories" aren't answers, they're frameworks for looking at concepts, and some work better than others. Evolutionary theory is an excellent way of looking at biological phenomenon, but it doesn't in itself tell you how biology *is*, rather it helps you understand and figure out how biology is. As you have said, the current state of science is that there isn't even a glimmer of another theory that can hold a candle to evolutionary theory (although there do exist different forms of evolution, with Lamarkianism making a surprising recent comeback due to the study of epigenetics).

The problem is that within evolutionary theory, we construct ideas of how we came to be (e.g. Piltdown, homo erectus) which may later prove to be false. In reality, this is not a problem, of course, but when people are being told that science has the answers, and then, oops, it turns out that they were the wrong answers, people lose faith. But people were never meant to have faith in science in that manner, if anything, we were meant to have faith in the methods by which we keep making the best approximations to reality. When I say that science doesn't have answers, I mean not answers in the truth-with-a-capital-T sense that religion so often claims. All of science's answers are always possibly wrong, and I'm saying that's a good long as people understand this fact and why it is so.

The thing about atoms is something that is a personal issue for me, because in school every few years they would re-teach us atomic theory, and it was always different. They never said, "This is a simplified model for something that is really far more complicated and mysterious," but that's what it was, even at the most complicated that I learned it in school (and maybe in reality?) While a lot of the disillusionment with science I'm talking about is referring to other people's reactions I've seen, I personally felt like the educational system was constantly lying to me by never saying (in simpler wording) that atoms are not so much entities in themselves as epiphenomena of more complex and microscopic entities. As you say, the more knowledge we have represents progress, but do we ever refer to things in terms of expected future progress? It's far too rare (in my opinion) to hear a scientist say, "These are our best current models of reality."

So back to religious anti-intellectuals standing in opposition to science (which understand, I'm trying not to be). I don't need to read the whole of the Piltdown link to have the info I need to make my point because I can assure you that anti-evolutionists only need to know that science made a mistake to make the argument. Of course the mistake was found and corrected, because that's how science works, but does everyone understand that that's how science works? If everyone understood the scientific method better, if science didn't sometimes act like a religion, then attacks against issues like this would be seen more obviously for the silliness that they are. Furthermore, I think that we'd be less likely to see the sort of opposition to science from anti-intellectuals than we do once science becomes seen as a more friendly and less domineering thing that it was never meant to be. Why ban teaching of evolution in schools when it's just a theory after all? (For all both great and small that the word "theory" may mean?) And although I didn't bring it up in the post, maybe a better understanding of what is and is not science could help put an end to silly things like Intelligent Design, which I find to be an interesting theory, but not a scientific one, you know?

Brucker said...

Somebody just sent me a link to an excellent article on the relationship between natural science and metaphysics that I think explores some of the same ideas that I brought up in this post. The Queen's New Clothes