[isml] Science's Mything Links (fwd)

From: Eugene Leitl (Eugene.Leitl@lrz.uni-muenchen.de)
Date: Mon Jul 23 2001 - 12:02:42 MDT


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Date: Mon, 23 Jul 2001 13:28:37 -0700
From: DS2000 <ds2000@mediaone.net>
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Subject: [isml] Science's Mything Links

>From The Washington Post,
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A35319-2001Jul22.html
-
Science's Mything Links
As the Boundaries of Reality Expand, Our Thinking Seems to Be Going Over the
Edge
     (Giacomo Marchesi - for The Washington Post)

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 23, 2001; Page C01

Humans are actually a slave race created 200,000 years ago to mine
monoatomic gold that creates exotic powers for alien beings from a 10th
planet, the overlords of which are now remembered by mankind as ancient
Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian and Hebrew gods.

So contended one Neil Freer on May 24 at the Arlington Institute, after its
president, John Peterson, had told his audience, conspicuously including
uniformed U.S. military officers, that Freer's presentation might change
their lives. The institute advises on planning for the future. Its respected
client list includes the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

Or: The government is using black holes to park stealth space weapons
platforms several galaxies away. This connects to a government program to
use clairvoyants to sense alien presence on the far side of the moon. So
suggested the May 22 "Islands in the Clickstream" column of
technology-and-society consultant Richard Thieme of Milwaukee. Thieme is a
solid enough citizen that his clients have included Arthur Andersen,
Allstate Insurance and the Department of the Treasury.

Have we entered an era in which mind-sizzling technological leaps -- virtual
reality, genetically altered rabbits that glow in the dark, digital actors,
laboratory animals bred to grow human organs, stock-trading in your back
yard, clones -- are now so common that even respected members of the
scientific world are finding it increasingly difficult to separate miracles,
magic, myths and madness?

When that question was put to Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired
magazine when it was the bible of the digerati, he replied, "Well, you know,
I completely believe in Sasquatch and Bigfoot."

- - -

"There is no use in trying," said Alice; "one can't believe impossible
things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your
age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as
many as six impossible things before breakfast."

-- Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking Glass"

- - -

It's tough to compare one era's stock of ooga-booga with another's. In the
1200s, scholars researched the size, shape and precise location of Hell, as
well as how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

Today's supply of woo-woo is certainly remarkable, however. At no time in
human history has scientific rationality so thoroughly underpinned our
society and the world's economy. As many as 90 percent of all the scientists
who have ever lived are alive today, science historian Derek John De Solla
Price once calculated.

In the past four decades, we have created more scientific knowledge than in
the previous 5,000 years, by some reckonings -- and we've largely amassed it
by obeying the First Law of High Tech: Think outside the box.

Is it possible that in recent years we've thought outside the box so often
that we forget why we ever thought it was a good idea to have a box at
all -- a reality model? Is one person's beliefs about what is real as good
as another's, and it's impolite to argue otherwise? Where do we draw the
line? Has reality simply become a matter of taste?

Recently Caroline Wagner, a senior policy analyst with the Science and
Technology Policy Institute of the Rand Corp. in Arlington, found herself in
a cafe in Paris, talking into a piece of plastic.

"I could not conceptualize how I could talk instantly with my husband in
Virginia while I was sitting on the Champs-Elysees," she said of her cell
phone. "I realized that I just didn't really understand how it worked. I
knew the physics of it, but when I try to really imagine it working, I
can't, basically. I just have to accept the 'magic' of it."

Magic! The ultimate dirty word, to those who count on reality being
concrete.

Yet rational, fact-based projections into the near future are
indistinguishable from science fiction. Steven Spielberg's new film, "A.I.,"
is based on the work of scientists like Ray Kurzweil, who has nine honorary
doctorates, has been awarded honors by two U.S. presidents, and was named
inventor of the year by MIT. He projects that machines will transcend mortal
brainpower within 20 years.

The paranormal and the otherworldly are a boom industry. This summer's crop
of films includes "Tomb Raiders," "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," "Final
Fantasy: The Spirits Within," "Planet of the Apes," "Ghost World," "Ghosts
of Mars," "Soul Survivors" and "Jeepers Creepers." In "Shrek" the bad guy
attempts to banish fairy tale characters and magical creatures to make a
perfect kingdom, and we're not on his side, educated as we may be.

Art Bell's national radio show, dedicated to the spooky, the conspiratorial
and the alien, broadcast from a bunker in the Nevada desert, owns late-night
radio with 10 million listeners on more than 460 stations.

Television is loaded with witches, vampires, angels and extraterrestrials,
from Buffy and Sabrina to "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "The X-Files."

The eight-volume apocalyptic fiction series "Left Behind" -- in which the
Book of Revelation is made into a thriller -- has sold 40 million books.
Amazon.com gives a respectful review to "The Biggest Secret," by British
author David Icke, who believes George Bush and Al Gore are alien lizards.

On the Internet, Crank Dot Net is "devoted to presenting Web sites by and
about cranks, crankism, crankishness, and crankosity. All cranks, all the
time." Its index alone is a thrilling catalogue of today's belief systems,
from alien abductions to zero-point energy. Tasty categories include
alchemy, antigravity, Area 51, Atlantis, Bible code, conspiracy, crop
circles, Einstein was wrong, hollow Earth, Holocaust deniers, Martians,
Nostradamus, proof of God, Roswell, N.M., and its imprisoned aliens, sacred
geometry, satanism, scientific creationism, Scientology, star drives, time
travel, and urine therapy.

Where do you draw the line between the marvelous and the lunatic? And if you
can't agree on something as basic as that, how do all the pieces of society
work together?

- - -

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

-- The late astronomer Carl Sagan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, author of
"Cosmos" -- the best-selling science book in the history of the English
language -- and believer in the possibility of extraterrestrial life and
intelligence.

- - -

There are time-honored ways to weed out ideas about alien invaders from the
planet Nibiru, says Robert Ehrlich, the physics professor at George Mason
University and author of the recent "Nine Crazy Ideas in Science."

Ehrlich acknowledges that he is way out on a limb as a scientist in that he
can imagine how a particle called a tachyon might travel faster than light,
despite everything Einstein said. He also believes that time travel is not
out of the question.

Nonetheless, he contends you can make some reasonable attacks on extravagant
claims.

For example, he says, you can locate in the realm of the faith-based any
ideas that cannot be tested or proved false -- like the notion that the
world is only 5,000 years old but was created to look as if it were 4.5
billion years old.

Obsessiveness rings his bells. "A key indicator here is the proposer's
selectivity in paying great attention to facts that may support the idea,
but paying scant attention to facts that refute it." He puts cold fusion in
this category.

Overambitiousness: "A theory of everything that cannot actually calculate
anything, or make definitive predictions that allow it to be tested, does
not seem very promising," he says. Rupert Sheldrake's notion of "morphic
resonance," which holds that everything from crystals to human society
inherit a collective memory, is his example.

Secrecy among researchers, he says, creates "the impression that they have
something to hide, and would prefer that others not try to replicate their
results."

Simplicity, on the other hand, he admires. All things being equal, he'll
always default to the most elegant and spare explanation -- like E=mc{+2} --
that fits the observable. This principle of choosing the simplest solution
has been known since the Middle Ages as "Occam's razor," after a Franciscan
thinker named William of Ockham.

A useful way to look at a proposition is to consider its consequences. It's
not good to believe that antigravity shields will allow you to step out of a
26th-story window, for example, while the consequences of being wrong can be
so dramatic.

The blurring of the line between genius and madness, or science and
superstition, supports a small book industry all its own. These works
include "Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud," by the
University of Maryland's Robert L. Park, and "The Borderlands of Science:
Where Sense Meets Nonsense" and "Why People Believe Weird Things:
Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time" by Michael
Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine. There is even "The Complete
Idiot's Guide to Urban Legends."

The thinking that underpins conventional descriptions of reality is hardly
secret. "It's pretty widely publicized," says Shermer, a leading scourge of
superstition and bad science. "There's lot of popular science writing and TV
shows. It's not a mystery."

So what's going on?

"lt goes to the heart of why religion is still so hugely popular even in
this age of science," says Shermer. "At the start of the 20th century,
sociologists said religiosity would decline because of public education and
rise of science. Instead, it got bigger. All of this stuff is linked to the
desire for there to be Something Else with a capital S. A force or a power.
It's the basis of mythology -- all that Joseph Campbell 'Power of Myth'
stuff. We love all that. That's why 'Star Wars' and the Force were so
popular."

Why is that appealing?

"Humans are pattern-seeking storytelling animals trying to make sense of our
world. And it seems that weird forces surround us. This desire to believe
goes way back in evolutionary history."

Think of the constellations in the night sky. Humans eagerly connect dots
and then come up with the most elaborate -- even poetic -- tales to imbue
them with meaning.

After all, lots of theories have gone from mad to mainstream -- the Earth
revolves around the sun, or man can fly, or continents drift about on
tectonic plates, or quantum physics can wrap everything tangible in ideas
like "quarks" and "charm." As the physicist Niels Bohr remarked, 'Anyone who
is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it." He also said, "You
never understand quantum physics, you just get used to it."

Nowadays, you might say, we're so used to not being used to things that it's
easy to be used to anything.

Even respectable, mainstream scientists whose theories are totally inside
the box sound outside the box to a lot of people.

The expanding universe is accelerating because of a mysterious
anti-gravitational force. Mars rocks may have life forms; and why not, since
bacteria two miles deep in stone turn out to be alive.

Even undergraduates can now conduct experiments in which an electron is in
two places at once. Matter is made up of superstrings vibrating in as many
as 13 dimensions. Modern cosmology discusses multiple universes, and
universes that beget universes.

Betty Sue Flowers, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says:
"The Enlightenment, the Renaissance gave us a sense of coherence. There was
a benevolent God that invented the universe, even if it were a clockwork
frame. That framework has been up for grabs -- it has fallen away. For a
long time it didn't bother us. But now we are facing strong questions.
Should we indeed ban the cloning of humans? For that you need a larger
frame. We do not have that agreed-upon larger frame. This is a spiritual
crisis. It's not about science."

- - -

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

-- Arthur C. Clarke, author of "2001: A Space Odyssey"

- - -

Flowers, who teaches poetry, was the editor of "The Power of Myth," the book
by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers that accompanied the hugely popular and
honored PBS series of the same name. She points out the differences between
religion and science: "The rules for thinking in science mean that no matter
how weird your idea, you can follow your weirdness and disprove it or come
up with a better weirdness. If you do, everybody else will drop the old
weirdness. That's the distinguishing aspect of science. You can convince
people to drop the weirdness they're holding. Religious weirdness, there's
no way to get rid of it except to go to war."

Flowers sees a cultural revolution coming that seeks to address today's
confusions about how things really do fit together. She says: "What's
emerging is an interesting amalgam. It comes from our economic myths, of
globalization, that everything fits together. And that overlays our
environmental work about the way things fit together. Even if it's a remote
snail, it has intrinsic value. There is an interconnectedness of things.
There is a value somehow in the way things are connected -- the web of life.
That's the next enlightenment." She can imagine our interest in the way
things fit together being expressed in an increased interest in beauty.

The importance of creating such a commonly held framework, Flowers believes,
is "it synchronizes human activity. It distinguishes what 'outside the box'
is. It gives you a way to move forward together."

Ray Kurzweil thinks he sees where scientific rationality and our apparently
inbred need for transcendence can reconcile -- can fit together in a way
that would help us come up with a new frame. He sees the rise of intelligent
machines that will not only raise astounding questions about what
constitutes reality, but perhaps will also help us resolve some.

Kurzweil is credited with creating not only the first commercial computer
scanner but also the first machines that could read books out loud to the
blind. His latest book is called "The Age of Spiritual Machines: When
Computers Exceed Human Intelligence."

He accepts and assumes that our world is being transformed at an exponential
rate by technology, but he sees in that a beauty, a kind of art.

"I always thought of technology as magical," he says. "It's about
transcendence. If you put materials or sounds or colors in a certain
pattern, the power of it becomes greater than just the materials that go
into it. That's true of art, music and technology."

He is convinced that humans and the intelligent machines we are creating are
coming together. Within 10 years, he believes, when a thousand-dollar
personal computer can perform a trillion calculations a second and can be
embedded in clothing, most routine business transactions, like sales and
travel reservations, will take place between a human and a machine
personality that looks like a human face and has pretty good powers of
spontaneous speech.

"In my view, human civilization will come to accept that there's not much
difference between information processing in biological brains or
non-biological," Kurzweil says. "That's a political prediction."

He adds: "By 2030, 2040, non-biological forms of thinking will become
dominant.

We will encounter entities that are not biological that will claim really
very convincingly to be conscious. How can we resolve that? Our
consciousness is the most important aspect of reality. We will be doing a
lot of things that only exist in the mystical world today. Where mystical
beliefs impinge on our direct observations, people see angels.

Go back through history and the beliefs in angels, gods and goddesses have
deep roots."

Are you saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from angels?

"Depends what you mean by angels," he says.

2001 The Washington Post Company

--
Dan S

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