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The Birth of Fantasy Science

Last Sunday night I sat goggle-eyed in front of the TV to watch the first installment of Impact on on ABC, which I had heard would show the end of the world by means of the moon crashing into the earth-- very cool. But it wasn't the special effects that knocked me for a loop.  It was the total disregard for scientific fact that made my jaw slack and my mind reel.

Ok, Sci-fi has always been somewhat schlock-ridden, but this has been often due, it seems to me, to cheesy effects which didn't match up to the mind-blowing science very well.  Even the most far-fetched-stinkers (like the mutational effects of atom blasts) were based on areas of knowledge open to debate-- we just couldn't know exactly-- at the time.  That sort of scenario seemed fair enough to silence the inner critic and open the door to dark science fantasies.

But now that we have the tools to depict things properly, what happens?  Impossibilities can now be shown so convincingly it no longer matters whether the science fiction makes any sense or not.  Science has been kicked to the back of the bus.  In fact, in fact we now have a new genre--  Fantasy Science.

I have long awaited some correction to sci-fi stories, so  that they did not always depict the scientists as fools, and the military as heroes who have to rush in and blow something up and stop the ungodly work of the always naive, always misguided men of knowledge (The Thing). Society apparently fears intellectuals, fears knowledge, likes to think that too much education produces fools.  Carl Sagan did a good job of depicting the science/religion conflict in a more mature way in his book Contact, but the movie made from it was softened, lacked some of its conviction.  Still it might have been the first public defense of science since the Scopes trial.  Funny, I didn't think science would ever need to be defended.

Is reality something factual, or is it just a conscious choice?  That seems to define the current battlefield in the war religion now wages against science.  It is an argument entirely outside of science, that science, in an a priori way,  has no defense against.  Yet there is a battle going on to capture individual human minds, and science is unable to use the techniques of its aggressor-- the hyperbole, flash, the manipulation of desires and fears, the blurring of truth. It must find other ways to fight back.  I think the stakes are high.  I think that that if we can not remain rational as a species, we are toast. 

A chilling phrase, which now seems to indicate to me a tipping point in our society, was spoken to me a decade or so ago.  I was in the process of trying to make what I thought was an unbiased assessment of some current political situation.  The person I was talking to said:  "Arguing about it doesn't prove anything.  If so many people think it is true, then it is."  Finally, the whole meaning of "perception being truth" sunk into me.  Think about that phrase: arguing doesn't prove anything.  What it really means is: there is no such thing as proof-- proof is irrelevant, or worse,  a social anathema. If more than half of our society believes that, I have no hope for us.

So my anger over the science of Impact is not so much that it smacks of physics as re-written by morons, but rather that the scientists, when asked for help to save the earth, are forced to throw up their hands and say:  We can't explain this!  This is not like any science we have ever experienced before! This changes all the rules! 

One of the current levers undermining science is the notion that any law of the universe can change at any time-- and now here's convincing proof (for the masses) on TV-- a lot of people who look like scientists say it is so, followed by a display of such exquisite cgi realism that it must be true.

I had no idea the first time I read AE Van Vogt's great story "The Voyage of the Space Beagle," that it would turn out by today's standards to be a utopian dreamer's version of rationality.  A nexialist, defined as a man trained in the practical integration of all fields of knowledge with reason, gets to call the shots.  Imagine that!

Read the Van Vogt.  And then watch part II of Impact this Sunday.  Not as a Sci-Fi entertainment, but as one might watch Kurtz played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, sweating, swallowing, contemplating the death of science, whispering:  it's judgment that defeats us...



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 26th, 2009 08:30 pm (UTC)
The rejection of truthfulness as a leading principle is what I see behind the issues you describe. But to be sincere, I don't think that rejection has its origins in religious movements, but rather in rationalism gone awry. Religious fundamentalists are now taking advantage of people lost in a wasteland of shattered Weltanschauungen.
Jun. 27th, 2009 03:14 am (UTC)
That may be so. In fact, I believe it would be our spirituality, backed by our rationality, that could save us in the end. The essay is offered with the hope its thesis will be disproved.
Jun. 27th, 2009 09:31 am (UTC)
Well, arguing about it doesn't prove anything. No, seriously. These thoughts are part of a larger project of mine, I haven’t even really started building solid foundations for the whole thing but my feelings are: I think part of the rationalist agenda was to undermine the church’s authority, free mankind from the yoke of inculcated superstition and open the gates to the realm of reasoned knowledge. Therefore people have been being told for centuries not to believe everything they are told, to think and find out for themselves and question authority on principle. This is very fine when it comes to cosmological and some other kinds of knowledge, especially during the now past period when that knowledge could really be acquired with reasonable effort by virtually anyone. But then, at the beginning of the twentieth century the reach, depth and amount of scientific knowledge became impossible to hold in a single mind, to understand without highly specialized training, and the regular folks on the street were left outside, with their rationalist agenda and no means to fulfil it. What’s worse, scientists became removed authorities who dictated unintelligible lessons on the nature of life and the cosmos, therefore, they joined the ranks of those to be distrusted. So, as the last century passed, and not only science but the whole world grew enormously more complex, people held fast to their conviction of questioning authority while progressively losing their ability to ascertain the truth of facts by reliable methods and with generally accepted results. Knowledge degenerated into opinion.
The other part of the story is that the rationalist agenda assumed but did not express explicitly that the quest of knowledge has to be a quest for truth; Truth which is neither open to debate nor contingent on consensus. The handling of truth requires moral and philosophic foundations. Unfortunately, philosophy has never been embraced by the majority and morals were mostly left in the domain of the same church whose authority was being questioned.
So, by now we have become a bunch of apes infatuated with our ability to form sophisticated opinions, proud that we reject authority, that we know better than the priest, the statesman, the teacher, the parent, the scientist and even the doctor. We have forgotten what truth is, we have lost our love for it, because we have come to prefer knowing better over knowing anything at all.
I think we need both our spirituality and our rationality to get ahead indeed, but in order to be saved we’ll need to find new love for truth and morals. Your own disgust seems to be directed not only at the crappy science but at the fact that nobody seems to give a damn.
Jun. 27th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
You are certainly right about me having a prejudicial rationalist agenda that questions authority! That pretty well defines my developmental years. And it is also true that I am frustrated in my inability to take Newton, Einstein, Wittgenstein, etc. on and move forward to even greater understandings.

But I do not question the authority of gravity, or those things which science has shown us with convincing evidence. Still, the questioning itself would not be bad, just the posture of denial, the lazy failure to be convinced and assured by the evidence whether it is sufficient proof or not.

As you say at the end, I am riled that truths so easily available are ignored, distorted, and fear that this may greatly alter the perceptions of those who most need clarification of the truth.

This is strongly tied to my Tower of Babel study as an example of "bad babble."

Jun. 27th, 2009 03:27 pm (UTC)
Re: "Nobody seems to give a damn."

No, it feels more like somebody does want to distort the science, but why? Perhaps there is no insidious religious agenda behind it. The religion/science trope, however, is firmly written into the script for all to hear-- but perhaps this is just cliche and not the most important bit. So, putting that aside, the product may be even more greatly effected by the "TV agenda."

Consider-- why isn't the moon just struck by an asteroid and forced out of its stable orbit to eventually strike the earth? That is both the easiest plot to imagine and also the most true to physics. The problem is that it seems to force an unresolvable scenario in which the inhabitants of earth must die.

Clearly some weird science needs to be involved so that something can be done to save the earth. And this weird science also gives the opportunity to increase perceived entertainment value, to make the story even more "exciting" with more bizzare events and special effects!

One way of stating the production's failure is just to say: they did not even get their weird science right. Weird science should involve unknown factors, not changes in the rules of gravity.

Frankly, I love the scenario of scientists racing against the clock to save humanity. I love the moment where rationality is on the line, and faith in the survival of man rides on the last "hail Mary" toss of the football.

Just don't tell me that the problem is a piece of brown dwarf that got stuck in the moon, and that it's making diners in Paris float out of their cafe chairs! Please!
Jun. 27th, 2009 04:53 pm (UTC)
I think questioning authority is not a problem in itself. But questioning authority out of principle, even then when we have no way of refuting or confirming its assertions is. If we are really after the truth, we must be prepared to accept the teachings of those who've gone further, because we cannot, at least not anymore, cover all the ground by ourselves. The problem is that many, maybe the majority, refuse to submit to any authority anymore; that is wilfully preferring ignorance over humility.
And that is exactly where obscurantists, like the proponents of intelligent design, incide. Any hope of success for them lies with people’s refusal to accept the intellectual authority of scientists; they rely on their kooky crap being accepted as just another flavour of the stuff those professors in the funny lab coats come up with. As you say, people are lazy, but I insist, they’ve also stopped caring for the truth.
And it’s not just science; look at how well Dan Brown’s anti-church stuff sells. It’s shoddy crap, even by the standards of the ignoramuses he pilfers it from, and yet people love it because it reinforces their feeling of knowing better than all those superstitious old goats in cassocks.
And yes, the TV Agenda too, if you ask me, the only thing you can rely on with those people is their disrespect for even the dimmest of intellects. From what you’ve told already, I feel lucky to have been spared the experience so far. But I don’t doubt that German television will import it or produce its own version of the show.
Jun. 27th, 2009 05:39 pm (UTC)
Ironically, I believe it is a cooperative German-American production, and there should be a German-language-version out already, or very soon.

Jun. 29th, 2009 02:26 pm (UTC)
Part II: the governments could not contain the secret, and when the world's population found out, they mostly became calm and meditative. Some found faith, others went golfing. The religion trope faded.

The scientists did save the day after the military failed to blow the moon up.

However, the weird science involved reversing the polarity between the moon's "core" and the brown dwarf, causing the the brown dwarf to be "ejected like a peach pit" from the moon, and splitting the moon in two to hang in the sky like two pieces of a torn paper plate.

The bad science "in a peach pit" was the brown dwarf itself, not only incorrectly defined, but supposedly endowed with more mass than earth, and off the charts with magnetic charge.

I have no idea what would happen the instant the moon suddenly became more than twice the mass of earth, but I assume it would orbit the sun, and the earth would revolve around it or get sucked in-- not the other way around.

Instead they say: "the moon now has more than twice the mass of earth, and so there is no way it can escape the earth's gravity!"

Edited at 2009-06-29 04:41 pm (UTC)
Jun. 29th, 2009 02:56 pm (UTC)
Thus the plot is salvageable. Delete the brown dwarf and make it an asteroid that impacts the moon that is also a super magnet. All the same stuff happens (metal stuff on earth is lifted), and there is at least a chance the moon has an iron core which could be magnetized to repel the intruder. Use more realistic charts of orbit, and voila, better sci-fi!

Now, to do something with the awful soap opera pacing....
Jun. 27th, 2009 03:37 pm (UTC)
This is a very nice analysis, by the way!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Cydonia photo: ESA

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