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Science's Mything Links
As the Boundaries of Reality Expand, Our Thinking Seems to Be Going Over the Edge

Science and Technology (Giacomo Marchesi - for The Washington Post)

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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. 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}mdash;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


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