Feb 1, 2015

Playing God

Cosmos reboot: Wonder and Skepticism
The title of this blog post is a tip of my cap to the Playing God Project. Their blog post about "the dangers of wonder overload" warns against "reverence for science", citing the specific example of how in Italy, it is a crime for a scientist to make a poor earthquake prediction.

I think Carl Sagan devised a nice formula that can prevent "reverence for science": maintaining a constant dynamic tension between wonder and skepticism. Science must reject any attempt by people to approach scientific efforts with reverence. Science only works when we all approach a scientific endeavor with skepticism. The formula of "skepticism and wonder" is discussed carefully in Sagan's book, The Demon-Haunted World.

" the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes - an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counter-intuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new." -Carl Sagan, chapter 17 of The Demon-Haunted World; "The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder".

Juno winter storm forecast: predicted too much snowfall
for New York City. North American Mesoscale (NAM)
I was amused this week by apologies from Gary Szatkowski at the National Weather Service and from some politicians for their less-than-perfect ability to predict the weather. These poor folks are damned if they do and damned if they don't predict the weather and try to prepare residents for emergencies. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio tried to protect his city and in so doing became the boy who cried 'wolf!'. In warning city residents about winter storm Juno he said, "This will be one of the largest blizzards in the history of New York City." Then the storm moved further east than some computer models had suggested and the city only got a modest snow storm. Blizzard conditions hit the tip of Long Island and the coast of New England.

A better N.Y.C. forecast generated by another computer model
If one computer model predicts more than 2 feet of snow while another predicts one foot, we expect responsible parties to err on the side of caution. I know almost nothing about mayor de Blasio, but I would not be surprised if he has very little understanding of how weather forecasts are made and how much trust to place in them. Soon after he became mayor he was criticized for not closing schools in advance of a snow storm. It would not be fun to be in a position of responsibility where you can come under attack for either being too cautious or not cautious enough.

I suspect that most people have some level of understanding about the challenge of predicting the weather...most people easily get over a failed weather forecast. Even if mayor de Blasio does not understand how computers can be used to predict the weather he should be willing to display some skepticism about the accuracy of computer weather models.

Sometimes the most damage is done by sensationalistic reporters who simply want a dramatic story, regardless of what has happened (or might happen). I wonder if some reporters look at forecast model data and expect them to be accurate. I'm not sure that such errors arise from having too much reverence for science, but if they do, maybe journalists need a tutorial on how to remain skeptical about scientifically-generated data like weather forecast models. Below, I look back at a famous science fiction story about a skeptical reporter.

Astounding Science-Fiction, September 1941
I'm a fan of the science fiction of Issac Asimov and I've previously blogged (most recently) about one of his most famous science fiction ideas, "psychohistory". Asimov imagined the implications of a future science that would allow prediction of the course of historical events in human society.

In the year before Astounding magazine editor Campbell and Asimov worked out the imaginary science of psychohistory, Campbell had challenged Asimov to write a story based on the idea of people living on a planet where the stars could only be seen once every 1000 years. Asimov wrote "Nightfall", a story that includes a reporter who is trying to cover the scientific discovery that explains why planet Lagash is plunged into darkness only periodically.

click image to enlarge
In Asimov's story, scientists have calculated that the next period of darkness (caused by an eclipse) will arrive at a precise time in the near future. The cover illustration for the September 1941 issue of Astounding magazine depicts the observatory on planet Lagash that has been prepared in order to photograph the stars that legend says will appear when the sky goes dark. In the background, a nearby city is in flames, set ablaze by its residents who have never previously experienced darkness.

In Nightfall, the reporter (Theremon) is a skeptic who grew up laughing at the Cultists and their Book of Revelations. The Book says that every 2050 years darkness falls on Lagash, stars appear in the sky and civilization collapses. However, some scientists took the beliefs of the Cultists seriously enough to use their information about the periodicity of nightfall in order to calculate the position of a planet that can occasionally cause an eclipse and bring darkness to Lagash. Since that discovery, the scientists have tried to get people to prepare for the coming darkness, but skeptics like Theremon have poured cold water on the idea....most people just laughed at the astronomers and ignored them.

Nightfall and Other Stories
In the Exode Trilogy I play with the idea that the human species is an artificial construct, brought into existence through the efforts of aliens who long ago came to Earth. In Exode, there are skeptics (such as Parthney) who accept the scientific theory that humans evolved on Earth and there are "creationists" such as Kach. Kach was born on Hemmal where she interacted with the hermaphroditic Prelands.

The Prelands are very religious and they believe that they were designed and made by the Creators. Much of my fun in developing the Exode Trilogy has involved imagining the means by which aliens could have created we humans and how it is that we Earthlings remain ignorant of our origins.

Playing God
I was led to the blog of the Playing God Project by their blog post called "Preaching with Prometheus". One of my earliest science fiction memories is the ending of the 1953 movie version of War of the Worlds. As a young boy,  I was amused by the idea that Humanity was saved from alien invasion because of God's wisdom in having created bacteria. The silly alien invaders from Mars were supposedly too stupid to protect themselves against Earth's bacteria.

Catholic News Service film classification system
Yesterday, Prometheus was on television. Due to its absurd elements, I found the movie impossible to watch, but I've previously blogged about this film because I like stories that depict Earth as having long ago been visited by aliens. In fact, that blog post is the second most frequently visited item of this blog.

The Playing God blog led me to the Catholic News Service review of the Prometheus film, which rated the movie as being "morally offensive". Specifically with respect to the idea that humans were created by aliens, the reviewer states that it is "too little and too late" to merely dangle before viewers the possibility that those aliens might have been made by a deity.

Charlie Hebdo: equal opportunity offender
Moral Offense
In Nightfall, one of the Cultists (Latimer) tries to destroy the cameras that have been attached to telecopes in order to photograph the stars. The head astronomer, Aton, is puzzled by Latimer's behavior. After all, Aton is about to photograph the stars and prove their existence.

Latimer is deeply offended by this, since, in his view, the Book of Revelations is already adequate proof of the existence of stars. By scientifically proving the existence of stars, Aton threatens to "remove all necessity" for the religious beliefs of the Cultists. Latimer feels a compulsion to "obey the will of  the Stars", which according to his religion includes the cataclysmic death of most people every 2050 years. Latimer believes it is blasphemy for the astronomers to try to educate people and prevent the downfall of civilization.

Science and Science Fiction
"The Creation of Adam"
Scientists and science fiction writers have a long history of ignoring religious doctrines and letting their imaginations run wild. The cultural tradition in science fiction is to explore all ideas no matter how bizarre or counter-intuitive or morally offensive they might be.

"Science can purify religion
from error and superstition;
religion can purify science from
idolatry and false absolutes.
Each can draw the other into
a wider world, a world
in which both can flourish."
I'm not sure why the Catholic News Service takes offense at a movie exploring the idea of alien involvement in our human origins. When the Bible was written, its authors were ignorant and unaware of the vastness of space and the deep history of Earth. Are there really still Catholics who want to be bound for all time to a set of stories that were written down by a small group of poorly educated people several thousand years ago?

Many different human cultures have devised creation stories. Are there really still Christians who need to take offense whenever people from other cultures resist accepting the literal truth of bible stories?

Related Reading: Finis.
Nightfall in 2017.
Next: If Earth were a sentient planet, what kind of god would it worship?
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