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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Time Machine, again (III)

Part Three : Socialist Fiction

Let's recap. In part one, we looked at the surprisingly good science of The Time Machine. The most important aspect of which is that the Earth in the year 802,701 has been terraformed into a self-sustaining paradise. So perfect is the environment that the need for any kind of labour whatsoever has been eliminated.

In part two (which I strongly advise reading before this one) we looked at the effect this had had on the humans. Bereft of any requirement to work even to sustain their basic existence, humanity had degenerated into the stupid (but happy) child-like Eloi. We examined the plausibility of this and looked at why sating all our desires leads to a glorious utopia in Star Trek, but a ruined dystopia in The Time Machine. Star Trek posits that human ambitions will simply keep expanding as our mundane tasks are removed, and that universe has many reasons why intelligence must be maintained. The Time Machine does not. With no outlet for intelligence, it becomes a weakness.

But we also saw that this last point looked like it was on very shaky ground. Even with the mundane chores now a thing of the past, there's no obvious reason why intelligence should be a hindrance or why evolution would select against it. Or is there ?

Enter the Morlocks

The Time Traveller soon discovers that this false Eden really does have more in common with Star Trek's Risa - an artificial pleasure planet - than he first suspected. The conquest of nature is far from as perfect or as complete as it seemed (which doesn't invalidate the initial speculation - it just so happens that the world didn't turn out that way). Neither intelligence or the need for it has been eliminated after all:
I must confess that my satisfaction with my first theories of an automatic civilization and a decadent humanity did not long endure. Yet... I could find no machinery, no appliances of any kind. Yet these people were clothed in pleasant fabrics that must at times need renewal, and their sandals, though undecorated, were fairly complex specimens of metalwork. Somehow such things must be made. There were no shops, no workshops... They spent all their time in playing gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful fashion, in eating fruit and sleeping. I could not see how things were kept going.
The Time Traveller soon discovers the source of the Eloi's clothing : a foul race of pale ape-like creatures known as Morlocks who shun daylight and live underground. The Morlocks operate machines, although exactly what the purpose of the machines is is not made clear (beyond providing for the Eloi), and so are clearly more intelligent than the Eloi. But the extent of the underground caverns is vast (likely global), and the machines equally so. And how many sandals can they Eloi possibly need ? Have they also evolved into a race of shoe-hungry crazy people ?

My impression is that mankind hasn't managed such a perfect, self-sustaining Eden after all - it's the machines which are keeping everything balanced. If Wells were alive today, I think he would probably have them be devices for climate control.

Humanity, then, has split in two. The decadent Eloi have everything they need brought to them on a whim. The servile Morlocks are condemned to a life of squalor, servitude and darkness. The rich have gotten richer, and the poor poorer - it's the absolute epitome of social inequality, a speciation event. Yet, in an ironic twist of fate, while the Eloi are the masters of the Morlocks, they are also absolutely dependent on them. While the Eloi may initially have been the more intelligent of the two, that situation has long since been reversed. The Eloi have become so dependent on the products of the Morlocks that they have almost completely lost their own intelligence, while the Morlocks are still maintaining a global network of machines.
At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position... even now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Industry had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein, till, in the end--! 
While the mere stupidity of the Eloi was enough to turn mankind's dream of an effortless future into a sad, ruined Utopia, this splitting of the species is altogether different and darker.
Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people--due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor-- is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land.
And this same widening gulf--which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich--will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour. 
The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of to-day. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man. 
The Morlock's likely experience the same evolutionary selection pressure to keep their machines running as in the technologically-dependent societies of Star Trek. It's just that here they are compelled to remain in perpetual servitude to the now brain-addled, over-privileged Eloi. But how can this be ? If the Morlocks are now more intelligent than the Eloi, surely they have the advantage. Of course, this turns out to be exactly the case.

The Time Traveller's initial speculations about the Eloi weren't exactly wrong - they do have all their desires fulfilled - just incomplete. And it's not an absolute triumph of man over nature, more an ongoing war. But although the Eloi have indeed degenerated, this is only in part because they no longer need or want much of anything - it is very far from a full view of the year 802,701. Something much more sinister is going on.

Om nom nom

The first scenario, in which the entire species has degenerated due to technological dependence, might be tenable if natural curiosity could be selected against. But the Time Traveller has only vague notions of why this might be, and indeed that turns out to be wrong. However the second scenario, of having a race of intelligent workers in perpetual servitude to stupid people, is far more difficult to support - the Eloi possess not one single advantage over the Morlocks. And of course, we soon find that the Time Traveller was being too hasty in his conclusions.
The Upper-world people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants: but that had long since passed away. The Eloi, like the Carolingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility. They still possessed the earth on sufferance: since the Morlocks, subterranean for innumerable generations, had come at last to find the daylit surface intolerable. And the Morlocks made their garments, I inferred, and maintained them in their habitual needs... They did it as a standing horse paws with his foot, or as a man enjoys killing animals in sport: because ancient and departed necessities had impressed it on the organism. 
But, clearly, the old order was already in part reversed. The Nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back changed! Already the Eloi had begun to learn one old lesson anew. They were becoming reacquainted with Fear. And suddenly there came into my head the memory of the meat I had seen in the Under-world.
The Morlocks are carnivores who rear the Eloi like cattle. It's the ultimate revenge of the downtrodden masses. Most likely, the reason intelligence never re-evolves in the Eloi (or for that matter they never become any stronger or faster, which would give them an edge over their Morlock predators) is because the Morlocks eat those who pose any sign of a threat. They are the selection pressure keeping the Eloi docile.

Importantly, the Eloi haven't fallen from grace because of some political revolution : they have fallen because of their own over-privileged position. Their utter dependency on their Morlock servants has been a fatal weakness. Sheer, unchecked wealth inequality has proven fatal not because the Morlocks objected to it but because it is an inherently flawed system.

One important detail that's somewhat glossed over is that initially the Eloi were indeed more intelligent than the Morlocks : "this same widening gulf--which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process". How then is it that Eloi have lost their intelligence ? While the Morlocks could easily maintain their Eloi flock in docile servility by eating the smartest, it's difficult to see how how they could have caused this state in the first place. Perhaps, as their lives got easier and easier, the Eloi stopped bothering to invest in the now-unnecessary education of their young - they all became like the twerps one might see on My Super Sweet 16. Maybe the Morlocks were consciously working toward this final state : after all, they think on global scales, so perhaps they think on long timescales as well. We'll have to let that one go.

And yet while the Morlocks are intelligent, they are also horrific. The Time Traveller is far more accepting of the Eloi, who, though stupid, have retained some vestige of warmth and compassion. But Wells was a socialist - why, then, did he make the workers of the far future into ghoulish monsters ? It certainly makes for a gripping story. But perhaps mainly it's a straightforward warning : carry on like this and it's not going to end well for anyone.

Relevancy & Conclusion 

The Time Machine explores several interesting scenarios about the way in which the future could develop :
  1. A return to Paradise. The cost of bliss is stupidity. This scenario turns out to be untenable in the novel : intelligence is a genie that's difficult to put back in the bottle.
  2. Uber-privilege. An unchecked growth in wealth inequality doesn't end well for anyone - it leads to degeneracy even of those supposedly at the top of the pile.
  3. Social "justice". The final, horrifying result of the second scenario is that the masters become the slaves - not through political revolution but simply because the system of massive inequality is fundamentally flawed.
All of these are of course still relevant. I personally don't see some measure of wealth inequality as a bad thing - people like and deserve rewards for doing good. But rampant, unchecked wealth inequality - totally unrestricted capitalism - is insane. One should remember (for several reasons) that the working conditions back in 1895 were considerably worse than today. There was no minimum wage. Child labour was just beginning to be abolished. There was no limit to the number of working hours an employer could set in a week. There was no National Health Service, overall hygiene was poor. These things didn't happen because the market demanded them*, they happened because of campaigns and government action. Without this, it was quite conceivable at the time that the rich would continue getting richer while the poor got poorer, in absolute terms.

* Mind you, it's important to remember while some industrialists were the stereotype oppressors, not all were

I don't propose to try and answer the question as to whether there is greater or lesser wealth equality now than there was in 1895, fascinating though that may be. Relative wealth is a difficult concept. But in purely absolute terms, in Western Europe it is simply not true that the poor have gotten poorer (generally speaking), though the rich have certainly gotten richer. The poor have access to a wealth of technology, resources and social safety nets that simply did not exist in 1895; it's hard to imagine Morlocks with smartphones and healthcare plans. It's that vital combination of compassion coupled with technology that Star Trek explores so well - sometimes technology makes manual labour unnecessary, sometimes laws prevent it. And so Wells' dark vision does not look likely to come to pass.

Or does it ?

Both Star Trek and The Time Machine present answers to the question : "What would it be like if we had all our desires fulfilled ?". Because of the details of the futures they explore, their answers are radically different. Star Trek says that we will keep changing our desires so that we always want something new; The Time Machine says maybe not. In both worlds, human intelligence is still required - except in the first scenario the Time Traveller concludes. In that situation, there is no differentiation of the human species but rather the reverse : a continuous trend toward uniformity and stupidity. It's not the horrific future of carnivorous Morlocks farming their Eloi stock, but it's a dystopia nonetheless.

There is currently an ever-increasing trend towards automation, as examined in Humans Need Not Apply. One may argue that the timescales are debatable, but like Wells, one should try and take the long-term view. It certainly will not take eight hundred thousand years to automate a lot of jobs that currently rely on human labour, nor even eight hundred - probably somewhere between eight and eighty, but no more than that. The wealth inequality Wells' feared won't come to pass, but the lack of a need to think just might.

There are possible solutions to the employment crisis posed by automation. One is a guaranteed universal basic income : all your most basic needs to survive provided by the state. And why not ? The point of robots is to prevent people from having to do manual labour; if people don't benefit from this then there's really no point in robots at all. There is surely no moral reason why you should be forced into doing things you don't want to do just to stay alive, especially in a world where everything can be provided for you with no human labour required. Life is short - it is morally bankrupt (pardon the cliché) to demand that people don't enjoy it, to insist that they suffer solely because of your ideology.

I'll admit that I was initially staunchly opposed to the idea of UBI and was slightly outraged by this famous Buckminster Fuller quote. Yet now I find myself in almost full support. I still think it needs more trials, but, when you get right down to it, what exactly is the point of making people do work they neither want nor need to do ? Perhaps a UBI wasn't possible twenty years ago - in another twenty it may be unavoidable.
A second approach is to trust technology to solve its own problems : perhaps we will all be able to live entirely independently. 3D printers could allow us to fabricate new items and even food, we might grow our own power sources, transport could be fully automated. Thus in both cases people might not need to work at all, but get on with doing things they actually enjoy. The need for a UBI is circumvented in this case - indeed it becomes difficult to see what on earth money itself would be used for in such a situation. This prospect is probably rather further down the line, but it no longer looks at though we'll have to wait for the 24th Century to reach a moneyless society.

But... both of these overlook the question of artificial intelligence. They assume that there will still be a need for people to maintain all this advanced technology because the robots won't be able to do much for themselves. At the very least, in these scenarios, humans will still be the only entities capable of philosophy and higher reasoning - a situation that many feel is, in reality, only temporary. Basic income doesn't necessarily solve a damn thing if machines can also do all your thinking for you. Can we still maintain human ambition (which as we saw was a vital element in Star Trek's utopian vision) if machines can do everything for us, even our thinking ?

Traditionally, sci-fi explores A.I. through killer robot uprisings. Perhaps a more interesting question would be not what happens if the robots take over, but what if the robots do exactly what we want ? If you had a machine that could answer any question for you, would you become more and more curious about the world, or would you stop caring altogether ?

Star Trek dodges the question since in the Trek universe only humans are capable of understanding. The Time Machine doesn't explore artificial intelligence, but does look at what happens if humans no longer need to think, which is basically the same thing. That is why a 120 year-old novel which doesn't feature artificial intelligence is directly relevant to the modern world. Would we really stop thinking if we didn't need to ? I mean a complete and utter lack of need - literally no problem a computer couldn't solve more quickly than a human.

I don't know. Even though I'm fortunate enough to enjoy it, there are certainly some parts of my job I'd happily let a computer handle all by itself. There are also parts of my art projects I'd like assistance with. But not all. That a computer could have emotions and express itself wouldn't prevent me from wanting to do the same.  But if I could formulate any question, say, "Is ram pressure stripping the dominant gas loss mechanism in galaxy clusters ?" and have a robot go away, plan the necessary observations, build the best possible instrument to answer the question in some time allotted, and knowing that its conclusions would be both better and faster than my own... would I even want to ask the question ? Without any effort on my part, what's the reward of knowing the answer ? That, not killer robots, is the real challenge presented by A. I.

A guaranteed universal basic income coupled with A. I. looks an awful lot like the scenario the Time Traveller first proposed : not just having all humanities needs fulfilled, but all its desires as well. Again, there wouldn't be any selection pressure against intelligence - but there would be essentially the reverse situation of Star Trek. Rather than encouraging intelligence, technology might, in this case, actually encourage people to be lazy, to not bother using their natural abilities and let them waste away. Instead of being born stupid but then educated into intelligence, the exact opposite might happen.

But would a world without any intellectual pressure simply degenerate into nothing but physical and emotional enjoyment, with no drive to self-improvement, no urge to explore, no need to seek answers to higher questions ? I don't know. Yet I cannot imagine doing nothing all day except lounging around eating fruit and having sex. Well, I say that...

I mean, fruit is rubbish, and I've got to watch Game of Thrones as well, right ?
I'm not saying a universal basic income isn't a very good idea in the short term, just that it might not a complete solution to all the problems on the horizon. Something more may be needed.

I don't know if we'll ever reach a state of total utopia or dystopia. There is, however, a glimmer of hope suggested from universal basic income studies : when people have their base needs provided, they don't become fat and lazy. Instead, they generally shift their goals to something more ambitious - entrepreneurship actually increases (video is worth watching if you've got a spare half-hour). Will this also hold when the machines can think as well as doing the dirty jobs no-one else wants to do - when absolutely every task can be automated ? Will we have no choice but to endorse cybernetics - preserving our will, our souls if you like - whilst gaining power that computers might otherwise take away from us ?

Maybe. Advancing technology, of course, doesn't necessitate a moral deterioration. For now at least, academic jobs aren't under the immediate threat that robots pose to physical labour - a UBI is still at least a valid solution. But make no mistake : you can't stop the future. The only sure conclusion is that to avoid a dystopian future, and to have any chance of a utopia at all, we need one thing above all : a beer-drinking cat. Err, compassion, I meant compassion ! Yes. And possibly a beer-drinking cat.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Time Machine again (II)

Part Two : Social Fiction

Last time, we left the Time Traveller eight hundred thousand years in the future, on an alien Earth that resembles nothing so much as Risa. In that distant future the Earth had been transformed by man's insatiable quest to conquer nature, and the ecosystem remade into nothing more than a life support system for humanity. Or so it seemed. Actually, as the Time Traveller learns more about the world, he realises he's made some pretty wrong-headed conclusions. Like any good scientist he revises his theories as more data becomes available.

In the novel, the different conclusions the Time Traveller reaches provide the reader with different possible visions of the way the future might unfold. All of which are pretty startling and, given the way technology is making more and more jobs redundant, more relevant than ever. You might pick up The Time Machine for its sci-fi element, but you'll keep reading it for its social commentary. This isn't a book about temporal paradoxes or even time travel, really - it's a book about human behaviour and society. It really is a masterpiece of science fiction, exploring not just interesting technologies, but the ultimate effect those technologies have on us.

To keep things at a readable length, this post will examine only the first conclusion the Time Traveller reaches. The two others are essentially modifications (albeit very important modifications) of this first scenario, and we'll look at them in part three.

This Other Eden

Let's begin with the first scenario the Time Traveller concludes from his initial inspection. The Earth is an artifical paradise. The climate is warm, the soil fertile, and "nature" provides such an abundance of fruits that there is no need to farm any more. The Eloi - the short, happy simpletons of the far future - exist entirely as gathers (not hunter-gatherers because most large animals are extinct, and they're vegetarians). Work has gone the way of the dinosaur.

There's no need to build anything because the grand structures of the previous generations provide shelter from the wind and rain. Heating isn't needed because the climate is much warmer. Farming isn't needed because of the abundance of natural food. All harmful bacteria have been eliminated, so the water is clean and drinkable - no need for advanced sewage and water processing systems, or medical care*. Even fire is unnecessary because it's always warm and there are no dangerous animals to hunt and/or eat. All of the basic needs of man are now provided by this artificial nature, the final, ultimate result of nearly a million years of human technological advancement. In that everyone's material desires are now effortlessly fulfilled, it's strikingly similar to the world's of Star Trek's United Federation of Planets. It deserves a detailed comparison.

* Occasional injuries and deaths result, and the most shocking thing about the Eloi is that they just don't care very much. They don't value things any more, but they don't value people either.

Why Star Trek is a Utopia and The Time Machine is a Dystopia

In Star Trek, we see a utopian society provided for by a combination of advanced technology and human social development. Both work in harmony. Technology has given mankind almost unlimited resources - more than enough for everyone to live in luxury - and the impulses of aggression, greed, and most especially hatred, have all been drastically reduced (though not eliminated completely). That is partially a direct result of the technological development, and partially from other social factors (WWW III and alien contact being the most significant). The utopian society of Star Trek functions and remains functional for several reasons :
  1. Access to free, unlimited clean energy (anti-matter).
  2. Humans no longer value things above people. They still value things, but, "the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives". Greed is dead, unless you're a Ferengi.
  3. Humans have a fundamental drive for self-improvement : "We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity"; "The challenge, Mr. Offenhouse, is to improve yourself... to enrich yourself. Enjoy it". The determination to do things is now the primary driving force, not the determination to get things.
  4. Machines are not sentient. Only humans are capable of understanding, and they possess a strong desire to do so. Machines are never (with rare exceptions) more than useful tools to help with this, and those few that are truly sentient are still essentially defective in some way compared to humans. Most importantly of all, being able to understand how technology works is vital.
  5. Everyone is basically on the same page. Although there is exceptionally high tolerance toward alien cultures, in humans there are almost no fundamentally clashing ideologies. When there are, people are free to leave the system and set out on their own.
  6. Menial labour is basically non-existent. No-one has to do demeaning jobs or is disrespected because of their chosen career (at least, any stigma attached to certain jobs is nowhere near as dramatic as in today's world).
  7. Competition is still high. It's possible to "win" by, say, getting a job on the Enterprise, but if you end up on the USS Tedious, no-one thinks much less of you - hey, you still made it into Starfleet ! You can be rewarded for success, but not punished for failure.
In short, Star Trek features a potent combination of technology (free energy), social equality (a direct consequence of the lack of greed), whilst maintaining human ambition and the need for humans to do things machines can't - especially the need to think. It's the combination of the social and technological factors that make the Federation a utopia, not one or the other.

Now in this first scenario of the Time Traveller's imagination, points 1,2,5, and 6 are all realised. But it's much more than that. Points 3 and 7 are utterly gone : humans have no determination to do anything very much, and they certainly don't compete (as for point 4, there aren't machines of any kind because they're not necessary). Quite unlike Star Trek, and hence the resulting dystopian future, the total lack of any real need to do anything has led directly to a total lack of desire to do anything :
I thought of the physical slightness of the people, their lack of intelligence, and those big abundant ruins, and it strengthened my belief in a perfect conquest of Nature. For after the battle comes Quiet. Humanity had been strong, energetic, and intelligent, and had used all its abundant vitality to alter the conditions under which it lived. And now came the reaction of the altered conditions. 
Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness. Even in our own time certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure. Physical courage and the love of battle, for instance, are no great help--may even be hindrances--to a civilized man. And in a state of physical balance and security, power, intellectual as well as physical, would be out of place. 
For countless years I judged there had been no danger of war or solitary violence, no danger from wild beasts, no wasting disease to require strength of constitution, no need of toil. For such a life, what we should call the weak are as well equipped as the strong, are indeed no longer weak. Better equipped indeed they are, for the strong would be fretted by an energy for which there was no outlet. No doubt the exquisite beauty of the buildings I saw was the outcome of the last surgings of the now purposeless energy of mankind before it settled down into perfect harmony with the conditions under which it lived--the flourish of that triumph which began the last great peace. This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.
Perhaps the most important difference between Wells' vision and Trek's utopia is that Trek still requires human intelligence. Although there are plenty of machines in Star Trek, they are seldom truly intelligent. There is always a need for humans to be able to think and understand. In this first scenario of the year 802,701, there isn't even a need for machines. There is absolutely no reason for anyone to think any more - they don't even need machines to think for them. They have regressed, stagnated, become happier, stupider - and dull.

Would this really happen ? In Trek, the excess energy of man is used to good purpose. Now that he doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to do, he gets on with things he enjoys - growing vines, riding horses, running cafés, and negotiating peace treaties with the Klingons (as one does). Not because he needs to, but because he wants to. In Well's dystopian future, doing things unnecessarily is a waste of energy, a hindrance rather than a help.

On second thoughts the back-breaking manual labour is starting to sound more appealing.

Idiocracy ?

There are arguments for both sides. Intelligence is biologically expensive to maintain, and if not needed, the body could devote its resources to becoming stronger, faster, better... except even that's not an advantage in this alter-Eden. There's no advantage to competition even at the biological level here - there's always more than enough to go around for everyone. Fighting off your rivals simply wastes energy, because you haven't diminished their access to resources one jot. Ultimately, it won't mean you have any more children (human sexual desire evidently no longer favouring the biggest or the strongest, especially given the genetic uniformity of the species).
Then, in a flash, I perceived that all had the same form of costume, the same soft hairless visage, and the same girlish rotundity of limb. It may seem strange, perhaps, that I had not noticed this before. But everything was so strange. Now, I saw the fact plainly enough. In costume, and in all the differences of texture and bearing that now mark off the sexes from each other, these people of the future were alike. And the children seemed to my eyes to be but the miniatures of their parents. 
Seeing the ease and security in which these people were living, I felt that this close resemblance of the sexes was after all what one would expect; for the strength of a man and the softness of a woman, the institution of the family, and the differentiation of occupations are mere militant necessities of an age of physical force; where population is balanced and abundant, much childbearing becomes an evil rather than a blessing to the State; where violence comes but rarely and off-spring are secure, there is less necessity--indeed there is no necessity--for an efficient family, and the specialization of the sexes with reference to their children's needs disappears. We see some beginnings of this even in our own time, and in this future age it was complete. This, I must remind you, was my speculation at the time. Later, I was to appreciate how far it fell short of the reality.
On the other hand, with all our base needs catered for, we might simply raise our game and become more concerned with higher matters. That's the philosophy behind the utopia of Star Trek. Like upgrading a computer - you don't simply run the same old programs but faster : you develop new, more capable programs that weren't even possible on the old machine. The problem, however, is sex.

Already people with conditions that were untreatable a hundred years ago are living long, productive lives and having children of their own, thanks to modern medicine. In Star Trek many more such problems can be alleviated through technology, as our own society does. That is a fundamentally good thing. But, at the same time, it might seem that there's almost no selection pressure any more. Having children is essentially a choice - virtually everyone, no matter how differently-abled, tall, short, skinny fat, intelligent, moronic, or just plain ugly - can have children if they want to. You don't really need any special attributes to raise offspring that will survive to have children of their own.

Err, on the other hand...
In Trek, the solutions to many social problems are technological. At the most basic level that forces a selection pressure to exist once again since if intelligent people started decreasing in number, there would be fewer people to maintain the medical equipment (for example) and so more people would start dying of untreatable diseases. Thus the remaining intelligent people would start outbreeding the stupid people again*, and the system settles into a natural equilibrium : enough clever people to provide for everybody.

* This is rather crude and insulting language. What I really mean by intelligent here is, "people able to understand and operate complex equipment". Of course, it's perfectly possible to be very intelligent and be completely unable to set the timer on a video recorder. Whether intelligence is entirely genetic I know not, but I'm assuming that to be he case here for the sake of simplicity. Genetics are surely a factor, at the very least.

Alternatively, it's also possible that all learning disorders can be medically treated. Stupid people might be born, but maybe they're "cured" (the Federation is quite rightly dead against any eugenics programs to "improve" the species, but that's no reason to avoid treating disorders - assuming stupidity really is a disorder). Then again the education program is highly advanced, with children learning calculus at around age 10. So maybe it's good enough to overcome most natural low intelligence levels - perhaps they've found a way to unlock everyone's proverbial hidden potential. Again people might be born stupid, but educated into thinking rationally. That's certainly the nicest, least offensive option.

In The Time Machine medical problems have been solved mostly through eugenics* (everyone is genetically very similar with an extremely low chance of producing significantly different offspring) - whether through natural selection or genetic engineering doesn't really matter. Technology played its part initially, but since the system is set up to be in perfect, stable equilibrium, it is no longer needed. It doesn't matter if the intelligent people all die - the system keeps going. There's no selection pressure to maintain intelligence.

* Wells was outspoken against racism. In his day, eugenics and racism weren't linked - improving the species didn't mean eliminating different races. It meant getting rid of undesirable traits, but Wells didn't think those traits were any more or less common in different races.

The end result is profoundly different to the purely technological scenario of Star Trek. No selection pressure, no evolution, no change, no reason to favour the intelligent over the stupid. It is perhaps the ultimate expression of a universal basic income. Not only has everyone got everything they need, but they've also got everything they want. Admittedly, what they want has become very simple : food, shelter, and sex. Though not necessarily in that order or all at the same time.

Star Trek also explored the planet-of-happy-stupid-beautiful people trope, of course.
And yet all that doesn't mean the intelligent won't exist (especially while the geoengineering projects are still in development), because there's nothing really to prevent them pursuing their own projects and having babies. Indeed, this will be easier than it is today, since they won't have to worry about the mundane concerns of staying alive. True, they won't necessarily be the most successful people on the planet... but there's no selection pressure against them either. So in Star Trek, not everyone is very intelligent, but everyone is successful. Intelligent people don't stop breeding just because stupid people are also breeding.

There's not much reason to think the same wouldn't happen in Wells' dystopia either; more cerebral desires and simple curiosity are not so easily crushed. The Time Traveller's argument that excess energy would become a hindrance is unconvincing, and lacks imagination. The great industrial projects of his own day were becoming more and more advanced, and not entirely dedicated to the base needs of humanity - it's not really a credible suggestion that if all our material needs were catered for, we'd stop being creative. More likely, as we'll discuss, the reverse is true.

So if the intelligent people won't be filtered out, where are they ? Did Wells simply make a mistake ? That, as it happens, is what the Time Traveller is about to discover. Tune in next time for the third and final instalment.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Time Machine, again (I)

Part One : Science Fiction

I first read The Time Machine when I was ten years old - it was probably one of the first grown-up pieces of science fiction I ever read. It's a classic not just because of its surprisingly good science, but because it looks in detail at the effects our scientific and technological discoveries may have on us. In most media sci-fi, the revolutionary breakthrough is kept secret - usually because the writers want to keep the story grounded in contemporary society, or are just too lazy to fully explore its effects. Not H. G. Wells. The whole point of The Time Machine is to see just how far our we might advance, and how our own discoveries may effect us both as individuals and in society.

With technology getting ever-more sophisticated at a faster pace, The Time Machine has never been more relevant. An ever-growing number of jobs are now directly threatened by technological advances. The Time Machine is essentially a Victorian's attempt to answer the question : if you teach a robot to fish, does everybody eat or everybody starve ?

However, it's pretty obvious that while the robot apocalypse may or may not be inevitable, it certainly isn't imminent.
In this first part, I look at the more straightforward scientific aspects of the book. In the second post I'll examine the far more interesting nature of its social fiction.

Time travel

1895. The British Empire is by far the world's largest superpower. Electric light bulbs have been around for about twenty years. Steam trains have been whisking people across the country for about seventy years. The first cinema is still in the future, as is the internet, though telephones have been around for twenty years. Fax machines, on the other hand, have been present, if not very common, for fifty years. Simple mechanical calculating devices were present, but not very sophisticated - though more complex, programmable devices were conceived of. The average life expectancy in Britain is 50, and the infant mortality rate something like 15%.

The theory of relativity is still a decade away, but much of the mathematics needed is already known. Science fiction authors have been exploring the prospect of time as a dimension for some years. But The Time Machine is by far the best known example.

The 2002 movie wasn't up to much, but it did have a very nice prop.
`Clearly,' the Time Traveller proceeded, `any real body must have extension in FOUR directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and--Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.'
Of course, Wells had no idea that relativity would show that time travel into the future was perfectly possible, while travel into the past was probably not. Strictly speaking it says that travel into the past is possible in certain special circumstances, but never to a point before the machine was created. Wells' machine is much more like a TARDIS, except it only moves in time, not space.
`And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.'
`My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present movement. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave. '
It's worth noting that the Time Traveller also mentions the possibility of a fourth spacial dimension, but this isn't explored much. In the novel, this dimension is time : it is no different to the other dimensions, except for our perception of it. Other than this vague reference to consciousness, we're given no clue how the Time Machine works, because that's not the point of the story. Still, Wells' description of time travel is a classic, which deserves to be quoted at some length :
As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing... I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness; the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous colour like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; the moon a fainter fluctuating band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a brighter circle flickering in the blue.
 And so my mind came round to the business of stopping,
`The peculiar risk lay in the possibility of my finding some substance in the space which I, or the machine, occupied. So long as I travelled at a high velocity through time, this scarcely mattered; I was, so to speak, attenuated--was slipping like a vapour through the interstices of intervening substances! But to come to a stop involved the jamming of myself, molecule by molecule, into whatever lay in my way; meant bringing my atoms into such intimate contact with those of the obstacle that a profound chemical reaction--possibly a far-reaching explosion --would result, and blow myself and my apparatus out of all possible dimensions--into the Unknown.
Wells made a determined effort to think fourth-dimensionally. His mode of time travel isn't possible in conventional contemporary physics, but he tried to think through the consequences of moving through time at a different rate to everything else. In his model, conveniently, objects moving at different rates through time don't interact - at least not much. Just enough, one assumes, to allow gravity to fix the machine to the earth, and electrical forces to prevent it from falling through the floor or the air molecules from penetrating the Time Traveller's internal organs.

Wells at least was aware of the problem, though he had no idea about nuclear fusion or even basic atomic structure. When the Traveller brings the machine to a halt, the sudden resumption of normal molecular interactions throws him from the machine. It can't do much more than that otherwise the rest of the story wouldn't advance.

Deep Time

While the main story takes place a mere eight hundred thousand years in the future, Wells finishes the time travel sequence with a look much further ahead. Thirty million years is now known to be not so very much, but then radiometric dating was still ten years in the future. Still, Wells was entirely aware that vast geological processes would come into effect on such long timescales. With continental drift still seventeen years in the future - and not widely accepted for sixty years - Wells nonetheless has his machine end up somewhere quite different from central London :
The machine was standing on a sloping beach. The sea stretched away to the south-west, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring. Only a slight oily swell rose and fell like a gentle breathing, and showed that the eternal sea was still moving and living. 
More than that, Wells considers what might happen on a planetary and even larger scale. Considering that the theory of nuclear fusion wasn't known at the time, he gets the description of what happens to the Sun remarkably correct :
At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat, and now and then suffering a momentary extinction.
 So I travelled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the earth's fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old earth ebb away. At last, more than thirty million years hence, the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens.
Wells could not possibly have known that such events would take more like three billion years than thirty million. It's still remarkable that he got as much correct as he did. He also speculates that the Earth has become tidally locked to the Sun and that the orbits of the planets have shifted - hence, although the Sun has swollen into a red giant, the Earth is cold and barren.
I cannot convey the sense of abominable desolation that hung over the world. The red eastern sky, the northward blackness, the salt Dead Sea, the stony beach crawling with these foul, slow-stirring monsters, the uniform poisonous-looking green of the lichenous plants, the thin air that hurts one's lungs: all contributed to an appalling effect.
All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives--all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.
A poetic, if chilling, vision of things to come. All the more remarkable for being written 120 years ago. But it's in the social side of things that Wells is even more pertinent - and that takes place in a bright, warm, false Eden a mere eight hundred thousand years in the future.


Though not everything is stated directly, it's pretty clear than mankind has been engaged at remaking the planet for his own purposes. The whole Earth has become a garden :
I was on what seemed to be a little lawn in a garden, surrounded by rhododendron bushes, and I noticed that their mauve and purple blossoms were dropping in a shower under the beating of the hail-stones.
...   his legs were bare to the knees, and his head was bare. Noticing that, I noticed for the first time how warm the air was... My general impression of the world I saw over their heads was a tangled waste of beautiful bushes and flowers, a long neglected and yet weedless garden. 
But this warm, damp paradise is not the result of natural chance. It is the result of millennia of projects to improve the world for human habitation. Today, we worry about whether climate modification projects might do more harm than good. Wells was audacious enough to see the long-term trend and speculate on the ultimate result of modification of nature :
The work of ameliorating the conditions of life--the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure--had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw ! 
 After all, the sanitation and the agriculture of to-day are still in the rudimentary stage. The science of our time has attacked but a little department of the field of human disease, but even so, it spreads its operations very steadily and persistently. Our agriculture and horticulture destroy a weed just here and there and cultivate perhaps a score or so of wholesome plants, leaving the greater number to fight out a balance as they can. We improve our favourite plants and animals --and how few they are--gradually by selective breeding; now a new and better peach, now a seedless grape, now a sweeter and larger flower, now a more convenient breed of cattle. We improve them gradually, because our ideals are vague and tentative, and our knowledge is very limited; because Nature, too, is shy and slow in our clumsy hands. Some day all this will be better organized, and still better. That is the drift of the current in spite of the eddies. The whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move faster and faster towards the subjugation of Nature. In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable me to suit our human needs.
The air was free from gnats, the earth from weeds or fungi; everywhere were fruits and sweet and delightful flowers; brilliant butterflies flew hither and thither. The ideal of preventive medicine was attained. 
No disease, no dangerous animals, no hunger, no cold, no drought, no floods -  no threats. Wells speculates that the Sun has become hotter to explain the change in climate, though if he were alive today he surely would have made this the handiwork of man as well. The point is that man has remade the world according to his own desires. A lot of animals have gone extinct along the way, but from the point of view of the human species, the world is now - apparently - perfect. This is a remarkable vision for a man of an age when people generally didn't live much past fifty.

Remember, this was age when steam power was still a pretty neat idea, the electron wasn't even known, compulsory education ended at age ten, and the workhouse was still a thing, Wells' genius was to be able to see through all the technical inadequacies of his own age and see the long-term trend. That's something people would do well to do more often. We sometimes forget just how much progress we've made. For all the social problems of the world - and there are many - the general standard of living in the Western hemisphere has never been higher. Oh, sure, if you think on timescales of a few years, this isn't necessarily true, but in the Western world it is (almost) possible to talk with a straight face about banning the word poverty and talking about inequality instead.

Yes, there are still people at the very bottom of the pile, in all countries, whose living conditions are squalid and miserable. That has been the case since the beginning of time. But the general standard of living for the majority of people near the bottom has risen immeasurably. Forgetting that, and failing to realise just how much worse things were in the pre-industrial era, is a major reason why technology hasn't made us any happier.

Undeniably the environment was in a better state in the pre-industrial era than it is now. But that does not mean things were better for people - quite the opposite. No central heating, no electricity, no disease prevention... food had to be obtained by either hunting or back-breaking manual labour, and childbirth was a dangerous time for both mother and baby. The key, of course, is to strike a balance between the left and right pictures. Wells' vision was something altogether different. The ultimate subjugation of nature he explores is, as we'll see, not such a utopian vision either.
But Wells wasn't content to stop there. What technology can do for us is all very well, and the technical details are interesting, but... that's not really the point. Wells' vision doesn't (exactly) have a world filled with robots catering to our every whim - it has the planet so carefully fine-tuned to our needs that technology is, apparently, unnecessary. But the essence of the thing is the same. The real point is : what happens to us when we achieve our ultimate dreams ? What do we do when we have all our desires fulfilled ? That's what we'll look at in part two.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Ask An Astronomer Anything At All About Astronomy (VI)

Resuming after holidays and suchlike. As always, the complete list is found on the Q&A page.

I really wish blogger had proper support for internal links. As it is I have to edit the html, which is simple enough but unnecessarily tedious. I'd probably have started this as a wiki if I'd known how incredibly simple wikis are to setup. Problem is that deep down I'm very shallow. I like seeing the number of likes and views a page gets, and wikia doesn't support that. So I'm keeping this as a blogger page for the foreseeable future.

1) How can photons live for billions of years ?

2) Do photons get chilly ?

3) Can you really rip a hole in the space-time continuum, cap'n ?

4) Do neutron stars and proton stars repel each other ?
No, because proton stars are not a thing.

5) Could the Sun spit out a mini-Sun ?
No, but asteroids might spit out mini asteroids.

6) Could we find new elements on other planets ?
Probably not, but we might find much weirder stuff than other elements.

7) Would a positively charged black hole and another positively charged black hole repel each other ?
Yeah, but charged black holes probably don't exist.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Night at the Museums

Prague's things-that-not-only-the-tourists-visit attractions are dirt cheap at the worst of times. Prague Zoo* costs a paltry 200 CZK (about £5). Large museums are similarly priced. But if even this meagre sum is too princely, every year they open their doors for free from 7 PM to 1 AM. Due to the sudden and unexpected** dropout of a mutual friend I ended up spending the evening with a total stranger. A surreal start to a surreal evening.

* I've been there three times but somehow forgotten to write about how awesome it is. Huh. I'll remedy that at some point.
** As in "seriously, how the hell did you manage that ?"

We began with the Technical Museum. My ever-helpful guidebook says :

If you are put off by the rather uninspiring name, then don't be, as a visit to Prague's Technical Museum is a rewarding experience. Without doubt, the most impressive displays are found in the large Transport Hall, crammed full of  vintage planes, trains and automobiles. Among the many exhibits here are examples of Czech engineering at its best - Skoda for example was one of the foremost engineering companies in Europe before WWII.

Oh, great. A big room full of old Skodas. Sounds like Top Gear's ultimate nightmare. But, having been told by several people that the Technical Museum is really very good, I wanted to see it. I've been spoiled by the Smithsonian, but still.

And actually, yes, it is good. We didn't have to queue much to go in but it got very busy inside, and hot. Having lost all my climate adaptations this became unpleasant so we only saw the main hall. But it was worth seeing. It's always helpful to remember that what is now the Czech Republic - viewed in Britain, if I'm totally and unpleasantly honest, as somewhere of basically no real importance to anyone - was once Bohemia, the industrial heartland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bohemians were producing planes, trains and automobiles practically as soon as they were invented. They were experimenting with weird alternative ways of generating lift*. They were even involved in German shipbuilding.

* Actually the model on display had circular rotating wings, facing upwards. I have no idea how that was supposed to work.

They also have a Spitfire, since there were many Czech pilots who joined the RAF. I Mentally recalled the Dambusters theme tune just because I wanted to troll myself. As one does.

The recently installed monument to the Czechoslovak pilots is fairly badass and makes Pegasus look a bit wimpy.
Oh, and there were Jawas.

After the Technical Museum we tried to go to the Coffee Museum. I don't even like coffee but it was something my unexpected friend wanted to do. So did an awful lot of other people, because the queue was probably about 100m long (the queue for the Technical Museum was by now two or three times longer than that) and static. So we avoided that one and instead headed for the Museum of Historical Chamber Pots and Toilets, which was something that all three of us had voted for. And with good reason :

"The collection includes about 2,000 objects and is the largest of its kind in the world. The aim of the exhibition is to present the artistic and utilitarian level of the objects themselves and the field of human waste disposal, and present to the public aspects of this neglected part of human culture. Among the unique items in the collection are chamber pots made for Napoleon Bonaparte, the Titanic, the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, the Chinese Emperor Chi-Lung and many others."

Who could possibly resist the opportunity to see where Napoleon himself took a poop ? Surely, I thought, this would make my French housemate green with envy. Well apparently a lot of other people had similar ideas. This was by far the longest line for a toilet I've ever seen, especially for one you can't actually use. The line wasn't even moving.


I mean crap that's a long queue.
So we gave that one a miss too and went through a series of smaller exhibitions by various Faculties of Sciences departments. I do not remember which ones exactly, apart from the Botanic Gardens which were separate. The gardens are worth a look, but not at all designed for night viewing. In some places we had to use phone torches to see where we were going. So I only took the one photo inside.

Fortunately the other exhibitions, though mostly in Czech, were rather well done. Science outreach in the Czech Republic, from what I've seen, looks to be of high quality and people are enthusiastic about it*. There were still queues for the Faculty of Medicine at midnight.

* Cynical unexpected Czech associate says that they're enthusiastic because it's free.

Although we missed Napoleon's toilet, we did manage to see Napoleon's dinosaur. At least I assume that's what the reference "Bonaparte" is about, and no amount of proper citations will convince me otherwise.

Yes, it's got a saddle on its back. That's because Napoleon was very ahead of his time and planning to ride it into battle against the British at Waterloo (rather satisfyingly, this week sees the 200th anniversary of the battle). Cue the internet doing what it does best.

Found somewhere on Pintrest. Author unknown.
Upstairs in the same building there were app-based demos. A big Bond-esque display continuously displayed the number of people alive. Meanwhile volunteers designed islands for the citizens of the New Order to live on once the rest of the planet was rendered uninhabitable... by which I mean there was an app which could translate hand-drawn contours plots into 3D relief maps. My island looked like a sheep. There was also one that could age you 30 years in a few seconds. Fortunately I never got the email of the picture so readers are spared The Horror.

Then I had a drink of something with extra science. I think it was supposed to be vodka mixed with something else (the green things are lime globules). However, since the bottle of vodka was nearly empty, the nice young lady decided to replace the mixer with more vodka.

After that we ventured into the creepy displays of anatomy and biology. This next part may not be for the squeamish. There are things floating in jars here. Let's start with something gentle, like the artificially deformed skulls from the Dark Ages.

Or how about death masks ?

Amongst the racks of human and gorilla skeletons there was also a complete gibbon floating in a jar.

Few things say "mad scientist's laboratory" than a monkey floating in a jar.
In the next room there were Egyptian mummies (whole ones plus heads), racks of skulls, and human foetal skeletons. If the monkey was too much for you, I strongly urge you to stop reading at this point.

Like the Bone Church, there's not really any way of presenting this that isn't macabre. You wouldn't need to do anything to convert this into the set for a horror movie. Well, at least I wouldn't anyway. Which is probably why I'm not a biologist.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Consensus and Conspiracy

This post expands on my recent Google+ post (for which there is some text overlap at the start) and draws on my all-purpose philosophy of science article.

Recently American presidental hopeful Rick Santorum has used the "I'm not a scientist" defence to justify why he's allowed to disbelieve in human-caused global warming. Sounds bizarre ? That's because it is. Especially since Rick has expanded this to justify why the Pope shouldn't talk about it (because he's not a scientist), but apparently Rick should (because he's not a scientist).

"Fox News host Chris Wallace pushed Republican presidential candidate to expand on his criticism of Pope Francis for talking about climate change.... “if he’s not a scientist, and, in fact, he does have a degree in chemistry, neither are you …So, I guess the question would be, if he shouldn’t talk about it, should you?” "

It's not often I agree with Fox "News" about anything, but I've been saying this for a while. The "I'm not a scientist" defence is fine provided you don't then express an opinion about scientific matters - or at the very least also state that your opinion isn't as valid. You don't somehow magically become more qualified to have a scientific opinion by not being qualified to actually do science. That's not how it works.

Just to clarify, the Pope doesn't exactly have a degree in chemistry, but he does have something more than a high school qualification. Still, he isn't a scientist. But that's not really the point - the point is that Rick Santorum certainly isn't a scientist at all. He's a lawyer. Even weirder, apparently it's OK for him to go against the scientific consensus, whereas the marginally more qualified Pope is somehow making a mistake by agreeing with most scientists. Cue confused animal meme.

"To that Santorum essentially said that politicians have to talk about things they’re not experts in all the time so anything is fair game. ...  And Santorum pushed back that fighting action on climate change is about defending American jobs."

Yes, politicians have to talk about things they're not experts in. But you wouldn't formulate a financial strategy without consulting the bankers. Rick, you're either saying that a) you're more qualified than the experts but non-experts shouldn't talk about science, which is self-contradictory, or b) you understand the scientific consensus but just don't care about it. Which is like saying that if a team of engineers have told you a dam is about to burst and flood a town, you don't need to evacuate that town.

At this point, Rick, I see no way to avoid labelling you as an idiot.

"At one point, Wallace notes that “somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of scientists” who have studied the issue agree. But Santorum is having none of it, calling it a “speculative science” and saying that he doesn’t believe anyone who is so sure of their facts. “Any time you hear a scientist say the science is settled, that’s political science, not real science, because no scientists in their right mind would say ever the science is settled.”

Yes Rick, I agree you shouldn't believe anyone who says an issue is settled. But perhaps you should believe everyone if they say an issue is settled. If a single engineer says the damn will burst, then perhaps you've got a problem or maybe you've just hired an incompetent engineer. If, however, 45 out of a team of 50 engineers say the dam will burst, treating that opinion as mere speculation is a recipe for disaster.

Note what we mean by "settled" here. Amid the continuous furore about whether there's been a slowdown in global warming in the last 15 years or not, or whether it's ocean temperatures or ground temperatures or whatever that we should be monitoring, or individual scandals and allegations of fraud, there's been one single shining constant statement that pretty much every climate scientist has agreed on for decades : it would be a good idea to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as quickly and as much as possible. The rest is just detail.

I'm going to try and avoid climate change specifically for much of the rest of the post, though there will be a few references. Really I'm more interested in the implication that it's OK to disagree with the scientific consensus.

Well, of course it is - up to a point. Scientific consensus does not claim to be the definitive truth, set in stone for all time. It does, however, claim to be the best, most-well informed conclusion possible. Decisions which ignore the consensus view aren't necessarily wrong, but they are based on inferior lines of reasoning (we'll get back to how science achieves and justifies such an exalted status shortly). Even the very word "consensus" implies that some scientists disagree, but when a non-expert chooses to act in a way that goes against the mainstream grain, they ought to have a very good reason for doing so.

The problem is that in practise they usually don't. The two main alternatives to following the consensus are to claim that either scientists are, against all evidence to the contrary, stupid, unqualified and ignorant, or that there's a conspiracy.

1) Scientists don't understand science.

This is what the first argument boils down to. It's essentially saying that scientists understand things just enough to come up with a clever theory, but then somehow they decide to abandon all the logical thought that got them there and jump off the cliff of sanity and be eaten by the Sharks of Madness. Or that every single one of them has somehow just plum forgot about some "obvious" piece of the puzzle that some dude on the internet has been smart enough to uncover. Essentially, the argument goes, scientists don't understand their own theories. It's a mind-wrenchingly silly idea that's somehow very popular with certain Republican politicians.

Basically, this is saying that the people who discovered electricity, created particle accelerators and the internet, discovered how to cure diseases and pretty much made the modern world have no idea how the thing works. Apparently it was all just blind luck with no understanding of theory at all.

Creationism provides a superabundance of such absurdities. Apparently, scientists are clever enough to measure radioactive decay and cunning enough to use atomic theory to flatten cities, but aren't clever enough to realise that it means the Earth is only 6,000 years old. They can design instruments capable of measuring distant galaxies, but don't realise that those galaxies are either very much closer than they think and/or that the speed of light has altered just so as to make the Universe still be only 6,000 years old. Or they think that scientists are just clever enough to understand that time is relative, but don't realise that this too means the Universe is 6,000 years old.

Sadly this line of thinking is by no means limited to Creationists. Most people with radically different alternative ideas espouse much the same thing - which is why I came up with the idea of Wegener's Law*. Anyone comparing their idea to Wegener's (initially ridiculed) idea of continental drift ought to instantly loose the argument. Much like Godwin's Law (anyone who mentions the Nazis instantly loses the argument), you can prove anything you like with extreme examples. Most of the time it's a false comparison.

* Well, guideline, like any debating tactic. But "Wegener's Guideline" lacks pazazz. 

2) It's a cover up !

A conspiracy can take many forms with many different proposed motivations. All of them have one thing in common : they allow you to claim anything. If you think people are simply lying about something, you can make up whatever you like in its place. Which, at a stroke, makes rational debate impossible.

The most blunt form of this is that They don't want you to know The Truth. That form of un-thinking is usually safely confined to the internet where it belongs. However, a much more subtle variety of conspiracy theory has very successfully embedded itself into mainstream thinking : scientists aren't being truthful about climate change because they don't want to expose how badly they've got things wrong, or because their funding depends on following the herd (a false consensus), or even that there is no consensus at all and that's the conspiracy.

The first option is to totally misunderstand the scientific method. Disproving ideas is the heart and soul of discovery. Yes, people who've invested a lot of time and effort into one idea aren't going to be particularly keen on overturning their own work - that's human nature. But by the same token, there most certainly will be people interested in overturning their competitor's work. That's part of the reason peer review (see link for a personal experience) is so important : scientists like to disagree with each other. Something which can stand up to your rival trying to shoot it down is a lot more likely to be correct. Peer review isn't perfectly objective, it's just a damn sight more objective than not doing it at all.

The second option - trying to follow the herd for funding - is by far the most dangerous, because it's the only one that comes close to plausibility. There is a real danger of establishing a false consensus. That's why it's so important that scientists pursue alternative ideas and that there is always some level of funding for this. Indeed, if the alternatives weren't examined, it wouldn't be science at all. But consensus doesn't just magically happen - it happens because lots of people disagreed with each other, considered lots of ideas, had a big row and eventually, largely independently, reached the same conclusion. You don't reach a consensus without at least considering the alternatives first.

In the specific case of climate change there's another factor - absolutely no-one in their right mind would want humans to be the cause of global warming. So the claim here is that thousands of scientists who all want to disprove each other and have no interest in seeing humans destroy the planet must be trying to fool everyone into this awful conclusion to justify their own funding. Yeah, as opposed to, oh, I don't know, oil companies. Now of scientists and oil companies, who do you suppose has the most money at stake ?

The third option - that the existence of a consensus is a lie - is similarly ridiculous. If there wasn't a consensus, there'd be an awful lot of angry scientists who'd be shouting quite loudly about it if people were falsely proclaiming that there was. There aren't, so there is. That still doesn't mean the consensus is necessarily correct, but denying that there is one is an act of desperation.

How a consensus is reached

Slowly and painfully. It is not a democratic process where everyone votes for what they think is most likely and decide to run with it. Unlike electing a government, there is (ideally) no constraint that everyone has to play ball and Obey The Consensus whether they want to or not. Nor does it involve everyone having a big discussion to try and sort things out. A consensus, when done properly, is what most people honestly think is the most likely explanation. It isn't The Truth, it never claims to be the final answer, but it still claims to be the best source of information on which to make a decision - precisely because it isn't reached in a democratic way.

A consensus is reached by everyone brutally attacking everyone else's ideas until all the other ideas have slunk away to lick their wounds and soothe their battered, aching limbs. A consensus isn't the winner of some Athenian democratic election. It's more like a Roman gladiator who's faced down vicious tigers and hordes of screaming barbarians and had his limbs hacked and face mutilated but keeps going.

Image source.
Now in this analogy it's very rare indeed that the victorious gladiator actually kills all of his opponents. He may have cut their legs off or knocked them unconscious but generally they're all still very much alive. And it's just about possible that someone is going to surgically replace the missing limbs of one of the apparently broken theories with a machine gun, and said theory will rise again to blast our unfortunate gladiator into smithereens. Is this likely ? No, you twerp. They didn't have machine guns in Roman times. If you were to bet on a fight between the gladiator and one of his wounded opponents, you'd be wise to choose the gladiator.

A consensus arises not because all alternatives have been disproved (though a few might be) but because they have been shown to be much less likely than the main idea. People often keep researching unlikely ideas long after most people have discredited them - and that's a good thing. We have to have disagreements to make progress, by definition. And, crucially, experts in a field have to be allowed to investigate alternatives - but just because they are doesn't mean that there isn't a consensus.

An expert is like someone sitting in the front row of an arena. They're the ones prepared to fork out the most cash (in realty : invest years of their lives studying to understand something as fully as possible) to get the best seats and look at the action in all its gory detail. They might - on occasion - spot a wounded competitor reaching for a dagger. The people further away are progressively less and less interested and/or able to understand what's going on. And there's nothing wrong with that. Maybe those people aren't much interested in gladiatorial combat [science] but are huge fans of mock naval battles [errr... architecture, sure, why not].

The point is that just because some members of the audience are at the back when one particular show is on in the arena, doesn't mean they couldn't be in the front when something different is happening. And vice-vera. When science is under scrutiny, it's the scientists opinions that matter most. When it's social work, you tell the scientists to shove off and you listen to the social workers instead. Being expert in one area doesn't make your opinion on other subjects more important than anyone else's... but it does mean that your opinion counts for more in your specialist area.

Thus, the people at the back can hardly see anything of what's going on in the arena itself. If they're sensible, they'll bet on the gladiator if he's ordered to keep fighting. Sometimes they might hear people in the front start cheering for someone else. At that point they should expect to find that perhaps one of the competitors isn't so wounded after all, or perhaps someone new is entering the arena : the consensus is changing. But unless that happens, it would be foolish to bet on anything other than the consensus. The people at the front, by and large, are cheering for the least-wounded gladiator.

This even holds if you include the effect of the crowd's support on the contestants. Experts might shout out useful advice ("he's behind you !") and so give a theory a way to stave off death for another minute. Non-experts cheering may at least encourage the gladiator to keep going a little longer. But, if a bigger, stronger, faster gladiator enters the arena, then no amount of cheering will save the once-proud hero. He's doomed. The better theory always wins eventually, though it can take considerable time.

Occasionally, audience members (even experts) can be so blinded by the heroic efforts of one fighter that they'll persist in cheering for him when he is, in fact, quite dead. They live in the optimistic hope that he's merely unconscious, but no amount of cheering will revive him. Eventually, even these devoted fans have to admit defeat - though usually their numbers first dwindle to such small levels that the rest of the audience has forgotten about them by that point.

Finally, no human gladiator can last forever. It's interesting to consider whether the trend thus far of inventing better and better theories - bringing on bigger, better gladiators - will last forever, or whether one day we'll reach a Final Gladiator. Some sort of robotic uber-mech with a nuclear power source, able to sweep away whole ranks of human gladiators with lasers for eyes, perhaps. Or maybe our theories will just keep getting better and better, never reaching ultimate truth.



If you aren't an expert in something, but need to make a decision on a specialist area, by far and away your best bet is to go with the consensus. Consult many experts. If they're all saying something very similar, then the chances are that you're on sound footing. It's not certain - there are almost never any guarantees - but this is the best source of information you've got. Anything else is using an inferior source of knowledge.

Experts aren't omniscient. The price of being the best source of information is that that's limited to a very narrow field of expertise, and specialist knowledge takes a long time to acquire. Those experts who think they are somehow an elite because they happen to know a lot about a very small area of research ought to go back to the Apology* :

"Last of all I turned to the skilled craftsmen. I knew quite well that I had practically no technical qualifications myself, and I was sure that I should find them full of impressive knowledge. In this I was not disappointed. They understood things which I did not, and to that extent they were wiser than I was. But, gentlemen, these professional experts seemed to share the same failing which I had noticed in the poets. I mean that on the strength of their technical proficiency they claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject, however important, and I felt that this error more than outweighed their positive wisdom. So I made myself spokesman for the oracle, and asked myself whether I would rather be as I was - neither wise with their wisdom nor stupid with their stupidity - or possess both qualities as they did. I replied through myself to the oracle that it was best for me to be as I was."

* Seriously, why isn't this compulsive reading in all primary schools ?

So, to finish, let's return to climate change. I am not a climate scientist, so my opinion is at best equivalent to someone cheering from the second tier of an arena. Or in this case booing since I would desperately like the idea that humans are causing global warming to be false. Yet that theory still stands. It's been jeered at by scientists and is still being jeered at by the public, but it still stands. Could it be, therefore, that all of these scientists who'd prefer it to be false, who take a lot of stick from the public for defending a very unpleasant theory, who are continuously defending it against rich oil companies and politicians... could it just possibly be that they're doing this because they really believe the theory is correct ?

That doesn't tell us that it is correct. But the alternatives, as we've seen, are that scientists have a very peculiar and wholly implausible kind of incompetence, or are lying. Neither of these looks remotely likely. Attempts to confuse the issue by drawing attention to every petty disagreement look, to me, like attempts to discredit something people would rather was not true because they'd rather it was not true, not because of what the facts really say. That's why for me, although I'm not a climate scientist, I side with the consenus. I hope I'm wrong... but in the worst case :