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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Science is like a good friend: sometimes it tells you things you don't want to hear...

Taken from here.

"Must be frustrating being a scientist. There you are, incrementally discovering how the universe works via a series of complex tests and experiments, for the benefit of all mankind - and what thanks do you get? People call you "egghead" or "boffin" or "heretic", and they cave your face in with a rock and bury you out in the wilderness.

Not literally - not in this day and age - but you get the idea. Scientists are mistrusted by huge swathes of the general public, who see them as emotionless lab-coated meddlers-with-nature rather than, say, fellow human beings who've actually bothered getting off their arses to work this shit out. The wariness stems from three popular misconceptions:

1) Scientists want to fill our world with chemicals and killer robots; 2) They don't appreciate the raw beauty of nature, maaan; and

3) They're always spoiling our fun, pointing out homeopathy doesn't work or ghosts don't exist EVEN THOUGH they KNOW we REALLY, REALLY want to believe in them.

That last delusion is the most insidious. Science is like a good friend: sometimes it tells you things you don't want to hear. It tells you the truth. And we all know how much that can hurt, don't we, fatso?

Many people find bald, unvarnished truths so disturbing, they prefer to ram their heads in the sand and start dreaming at the first sign of scientific reality. The more contrary evidence mounts up, the harder they'll ignore it. And even the greatest, most widely-admired scientists can provoke this reaction. Take Darwin. Or rather, take The Genius Of Darwin (Mon, 8pm, C4), the latest documentary from professional God-hatin' Professor Yaffle impersonator Richard Dawkins, which sets out to calmly and lucidly explain a) Why Darwin was so ace, and b) Just how much evidence there is to support his findings.

Darwin's theory of evolution was simple, beautiful, majestic and awe-inspiring. But because it contradicts the allegorical babblings of a bunch of made-up old books, it's been under attack since day one. That's just tough luck for Darwin. If the Bible had contained a passage that claimed gravity is caused by God pulling objects toward the ground with magic invisible threads, we'd still be debating Newton with idiots too.

Since Darwin's death, Dawkins points out, the evidence confirming his discovery has piled up and up and up, many thousand feet above the point of dispute. And yet heroically, many still dispute it. They're like couch potatoes watching Finding Nemo on DVD who've suffered some kind of brain haemorrhage which has led them to believe the story they're watching is real, that their screen is filled with water and talking fish, and that that's all there is to reality - just them and that screen and Nemo - and when you run into the room and point out the DVD player and the cables connecting it to the screen, and you open the windows and point outside and describe how overwhelming the real world is - when you do all that, it only spooks them. So they go on believing in Nemo, with gritted teeth if necessary.

What was it that spooked them so? Probably natural selection's lack of reassuring narrative. It lays the ruthless, godless world pretty bloody bare. As Dawkins says: "The total amount of suffering in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to say these words, thousands of animals are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, feeling teeth sink into their throats. Thousands are dying from starvation or disease or feeling a parasite rasping away from within. There is no central authority; no safety net. For most animals the reality of life is struggling, suffering and death."

Woo-hoo! Compare and contrast with the plot of Finding Nemo and it's easy to understand why people would rather believe in the purdy singing clown fish. But this is our reality, people. Like the man says, there's no safety net - so since we're all in this together, we'll have to make our own. And we can't do that with our eyes and minds shut now, can we?"

I've always felt that theists were just a bit cowardly and self-centered.

Cowardly enough to hate the notion that we are animals, life can be hard and largely pointless(obviously one can make their own purpose) and that death is permanent.

Self-centered enough to discount all evidence in favour of a belief in a divine creation. A personal divine creation. A personal relationship with the most powerful being in existence - who, despite all his powers and duties watching over the whole of the universe, has nothing better to do than sit around and listen to prayers about your car payments or the wart on your toe. Self-centered enough to stare out at the vastness of space - out into a universe that we can barely comprehend, let alone reach - and conclude that it was created specially for us.


  1. I do think that there is some legitimate concern regarding robots conquering us in the future.

    Assuming that the damn, dirty apes don't do it first.

  2. The tragedy of our human life is how much we are driven by our fears, both conscious and subconscious.

    Lance, there's a video at www.ted.com in which Kevin Kelly describes what the Internet is becoming -- one big machine with us and everything else as data. It's mildly creepy but also cool.

  3. I have to vote for number 1 also.

    Did you see this entry on the bad astronomy blog the other day. it seems that the pack robot is ready to go. creepy.

    sorry, I dont know how to post links any other way.


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