Sunday, 27 August 2017

Science and Pseudoscience, Religious and Atheist

Science and Pseudoscience, Religious and Atheist, in Stephen Baxter's Titan

Stephen Baxter is a leading British SF writer. He's probably best known for his Xelee series of SF novels, set in a universe in which the dominant lifeform is the mysterious and godlike Xelee, who are locked in a war for survival and control of the universe with the dark matter Photino Birds. The Photino Birds are hostile to ordinary, baryonic matter and are engaged in a campaign down through billions of years to age the universe, until it is cold, dark and lifeless. He also wrote a series of books with the late Terry Pratchett, in which humanity discovers the technology to travel to a series of parallel realities, The Long Earth, The Long War, and The Long Utopia. He has degrees in Maths and a Ph.D in aeronautical engineering and is a writer of Hard SF, the subgenre that insists on grounding the fiction as far as possible in known science, though often extrapolated to extremes with a bit of artistic licence. In the 1990s, he was the scientific adviser to the British SF TV series, Invasion Earth. He is also a fan of H.G. Wells, and has been president of the H.G. Wells Society.

Wells saw human civilisation as a race between education and catastrophe, and Titan, published in 1998 by HarperCollins, shares this pessimism. Its central theme is the conflict between science and anti-science, centred on one last, crewed mission to Saturn's moon, Titan. In it, a NASA weakened by decades of budget cuts is finally closed down by a populist, extreme right-wing president, Xavier Maclachlan, running on a wave of anti-science feeling in a collapsing and fragmented USA. The Agency is finally wound up after a shuttle accident, and the remaining rump given to a violently paranoid USAF general, Al Hartle. Hartle, who has the same attitude towards the Chinese as General Jack D. Ripper did to the Russians in Stanley Kubrick's classic nuclear black comedy, Dr. Strangelove, orders the remaining scientists and technicians to develop a technique of delivering a genetically engineered virus that kills only Han Chinese.

As a reaction against the Agency's closure, a team of astronauts, scientists and mission control leaders launch a last crewed mission to Titan, where the Cassini probe has discovered the chemical signature of life. They hope this will provoke the same public enthusiasm for space exploration as the first moon landings did, though they are now all but forgotten. They hope that a new administration will either send another mission to rescue them, or, failing that, send equipment and supplies to allow them to live permanently on the ice-bound moon of Saturn. Maclachlan instead cancels the entire programme, leaving the remaining astronauts stranded.

Meanwhile, the Chinese respond to the germ warfare attack by launching a crewed mission to an Earth-grazing asteroid. Ostensibly for scientific purposes, this is a suicide mission. The single female taikonaut sets off a nuclear explosion to nudge the asteroid into a new course, so that it will hit America. The Chinese have, however, miscalculated. The asteroid is too large, and the resulting impact has the same force as that which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, destroying humanity. The two remaining survivors of the Titan mission realise what has happened. The pair's scientist, Rosenberg, prepares a germ culture that, properly inserted in one of the lakes on Titan containing liquid water, will preserve the microscopic seeds of terrestrial life against the time when the moon will finally be warmed into a suitable environment billions of years in the future when the Sun becomes a Red Giant. He dies, but Benacerraf, the last surviving astronaut, manages to do this one, final act, before she too, faced with dwindling supplies and sickness, kills herself out on one of the icefloes.

Billions of years pass, and the Sun swells into a Red Giant, swallowing the inner planets. Rosenberg and Benacerraf, however, find themselves resurrected on a warm Titan by the moon's indigenous lifeforms, who have evolved after the Earth crew landed. These creatures' biochemistry is based on ammonia, rather than water. Titan has become too hot for them, and so they are retreating into refrigerated cities, while developing an ecology based on terrestrial biochemistry, derived from the germ samples planted by Benacceraf and Rosenberg, to colonise the areas of their world which are now unsuitable for their form of life. They are also engaged in a massive panspermia project, launching robot vessels to nearby stars in order to seed them with the microscopic spores of water- and ammonia-based life against the final extinction of the solar system by the expanding Sun.

Last and First Men. A history of the future, and the post-human civilisations that succeed ourselves, the first men, this culminates in the final variety of humanity, who have established a mature civilisation on Uranus. The sun is cooling, however, and so this ultimate civilisation, the pinnacle of human evolution, also seeds space with the germs of human and terrestrial life. The great astronomer and science populariser, the late Carl Sagan, also appears in Titan. In his afterword, in which he pays tribute to him, Baxter says

As well as showing the influence of H.G. Wells, this part of the book also follows the ideas of the British philosopher and SF writer, Olaf Stapledon, in his Last and First Men. A history of the future, and the post-human civilisations that succeed ourselves, the first men, this culminates in the final variety of humanity, who have established a mature civilisation on Uranus. The sun is cooling, however, and so this ultimate civilisation, the pinnacle of human evolution, also seeds space with the germs of human and terrestrial life. The great astronomer and science populariser, the late Carl Sagan, also appears in Titan. In his afterword, in which he pays tribute to him, Baxter says
Like H.G. Wells, Sagan seems to have believed that the future of mankind would be a race between education and catastrophe. In 1984 he co-authored the concept of nuclear winter which may, perhaps, have helped avert that very catastrophe from befalling us. As we near the end of a millennium still largely gripped by the madnesses which dominated its opening, we cannot afford to lose Sagan's brand of clear-thinking, cheerful, communicative rationality.(p. 581).
Titan is science fictional exploration of the ways in which rising anti-science irrationalism may not only pose a threat to the space programme, but also to the very survival of humanity itself. Someone once observed that all Science Fiction reflects the concerns of the times in which it is written. In the case of Titan, these are the Christian fundamentalist religious right, aggressive nationalism, the militia movements, and rising interest in the paranormal and fringe therapies of the 1990s, along with a number of secular and even atheist brands of irrationalism. Although written two decades ago, with the action beginning in the-then near future of 2004, this is still a very contemporary book. The description of the policies of the new president, Maclachlan, could almost be that of Donald Trump. As well as anti-science, Maclachlan is supported by White nationalists and the militia movement. He is an economic isolationist, withdrawing America from international trade agreements like NAFTA, and the United Nations, whom he throws out of New York.

On his election, he also declares that America is under Israeli occupation. He is also a Creationist, who passes legislation demanding that Aristotelian cosmology, including the crystal spheres, is taught in schools. He also has NASA's extensive engineering, launch facilities and administrative stations and offices destroyed, except for a few, which are turned into museums. One of these is dedicated to moon landings, but the exhibits have a strong religious bias, so that the recorded voices of Apollo astronauts, like Buzz Aldrin, tell the visitors only about the religious experiences they had while on the moon.

The book also mentions other subjects and ideas, that are part of the wave of anti-science irrationalism promoted or common in Lachlan's America. One of the planners of the mission to Titan hopes that it will encourage more people to take up engineering, rather than homeopathy and aramotherapy. The NASA religious exhibit also includes Pete Conrad's ESP experiments on the moon. So much of the irrational beliefs criticised and described in the book are those, which were attacked by Sagan and the rest of his colleagues in CSICOP as it was then, before it rebranded itself as CSI. Which stands for the Committee for Scientific Investigation, and not 'Crime Scene Investigation', the title of an American cop programme. He also includes UFOs as one of the religious or irrational parts of the NASA exhibit.

The book goes further to add some of the technological, scientific and cultural trends, which are presented as also opposing or perverting pure scientific rationality. These include Virtual Reality. The Net in America has all been shut down, due to fears over its use by terrorists. These are neo-Nazis, rather than Islamists, but it's another part of the narrative that's still very contemporary. What's left is run by the corporate giants, including a future conglomerate made up of Coca-Cola and Disney. Benacerraf at one point expresses the opinion that VR is also a symptom of America's decline, as Americans have retreated from space exploration into elaborate Virtual environments. Large numbers of young Americans are also turning their backs on civilisation altogether, to live as hunter-gatherers in a giant preserve set up by the Central American nations. Other characters are also troubled by changes in gender roles and reproductive technology. Benacerraf's daughter, Jackie, is troubled by one of her teenage sons, who has decided that not only he is gay, but that he also wants to become pregnant by his boyfriend, using cloning techniques and implanting the resulting embryo in his stomach lining.

And among the other cults of unreason are the Nullists, young people, who have become convinced that science teaches them that they do not really exist. They cover themselves with computerised tattoos, which bend light so that they are all but invisible. Fahy, a NASA mission planner, sees them for the first time in a Chinese teashop during a diplomatic mission. Her guide, the female taikonaut Jiang Ling, explains that rather than being a protest against the Net's shutdown, the Nullists are
a consequence of the way we explain ourselves and our world to the young. Science and economics: science, which teaches that we come from nothing and return to nothing; economics, which teaches us that we are all mere units, interchangeable and discardable. Science is already a cult of non-existence, in a sense. The most extreme adherents cover their bodies in image-tattoos, hiding themselves utterly. The Nullists are a strange mixture of scientific and Zen influences.(p. 260).
This leads Fahy to contemplate Maclachlan and the anti-science movement he was tapping. Ling then asks her what she feels the Nullist say about the world they are building for the young. Fahy replies that perhaps it is indeed hell, and there is no escape.

Although she is not mentioned, this looks like an extrapolation from the bizarre theory of the non-existence of human consciousness developed by Sue Blackmore, a psychologist at the University of the West of England. Blackmore was one of the New Parapsychologists, who appeared in the 1990s. These didn't believe in psi or the paranormal, but were interested in the psychological states behind the phenomena. She caused something of a controversy with her research, which suggested that the tunnel of light seen by some people during the Near Death Experience was due to neurons firing in the dying brain. She also appeared on the Beeb wearing the 'God helmet' designed by Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Canada. This was supposed to generate feelings of a mysterious, supernatural presence through magnetic fields acting on the brain. Other researchers have failed to replicate Persingers results, and it seems the helmet doesn't actually work.

Blackmore came to the conclusion that consciousness didn't exist partly through the work of Benjamin Libet, whose work may also have influenced Baxter in the creation of the fictional Nullists. Another of the book's characters, a female astronaut, also has Libet as her surname. The real Libet conducted experiments that seemed to suggest that the brain took the decision to perform an action a fraction of a second before the conscious mind appeared to do so, which suggests that free will is an illusion. Blackmore's views on consciousness were included in her book, Consciousness Explained. She also appeared to give a talk on the subject in July 2006 at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. As well as Libet and other psychologists and neurologists, Blackmore also mixed her ideas with a garbled version of the Buddhist doctrine of atman, or 'no-mind'. Part of Buddhist meditation involves the examination and stripping away of levels of the mind, until one realises the illusory nature of the self. However, in an interchange of letters in New Scientist, the British philosopher Mary Warnock challenged her about this, claiming that she had misunderstood the doctrine. The mind may be held to be illusory in Buddhism, but there is still believed to be an immortal aspect to humanity, and all other living beings, which is subject to the wheel of rebirth, and which enters nirvana when one achieves enlightenment and becomes a buddha.

The Nullists, with their idea about the non-existence of the self taken from science, economics and Zen Buddhism, appear to be a fictional depiction of what would happen if people took Blackmore's ideas seriously. Which is why most people don't. Blackmore also shared some of Daniel C. Dennet's views on memes, which she developed further in her book, The Meme Machine. Dennet was an American philosopher, and one of the New Atheist 'Four Horsemen', along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Dennet was impressed with Richard Dawkins' theory of memes, self-reproducing units of culture – jokes, anecdotes and so on, similar to genes in biology, which he proposed in his book, The Extended Phenotype. Blackmore took this idea still further, and claimed that the human mind arose through purely naturalistic evolution as a biological strategy for processing and reproducing memes, in the same way that computers are designed to process and act according to software.

The idea of memes has taken a battering since, as many philosophers and scientists have pointed out that the concept is too imprecise and vague to form a workable scientific hypothesis. The idea has survived, and is used by computer nerds to describe certain recurrent tropes and images on the Net. Although some did see Blackmore's views on the non-existence of consciousness as the ultimate development of purely materialist views of the human mind, in fact very few atheists seem to have shared her view that the self didn't exist. Furthermore, while the book's characters say that the non-existence of the self is a product of science and the way it is communicated to the young, this is in fact only true of specific attitudes in the philosophy of science, positivism and scientism. It's only a problem if people believe in science as an absolute system that rules out or invalidates other ways people have used to give meaning to their lives.

Most people throughout history turned to religion, philosophy, art and literature, to supply meaning to existence and make sense of the human condition. Science could also be a part, and a very large part, of this, but people of faith and some humanists have also made the point that while science is immensely successful, it also has its limits. Von Carnap and the positivism of the Vienna circle has collapsed and given way to Critical Realism, because their views were contradictory. Von Carnap and his followers claimed that science had utterly discredited and supplanted metaphysics, but by making this claim they themselves were making a metaphysical statement. More recently Curtis White has pointed out that people need art and literature to make sense of the world, as well as science, in his book against Dawkins, Krauss and the other New Atheists, The Science Delusion, published by Melville House. People take on certain scientific findings as part of their worldview, but supplement these with other, non-scientific views, views and beliefs which, while not grounded in the hard sciences, may nevertheless be equally valid on their own terms.

Baxter is fair in his treatment of some of the secular movements against civilisation and the space programme, with the possible exception of the USAF. They are not presented as cardboard villains, with strawmen arguments to be easily defeated by the heroes, who have an answer to their every objection. The USAF, on the other hand, are presented simply as paranoid militarists, who view NASA not just as rivals for the exploitation of space, but almost as collaborators with America's enemies. NASA is a civilian agency which stands for the peaceful exploration of space, thus taking resources and personnel away from, and blocking, the militarisation of the High Frontier against America's external foes. Baxter's portrayal of NASA, in this and his other book, Voyage, about a similar expedition to Mars, is grounded in the Agency's history. The portrayal of the USAF and their hostility to civilian spaceflight is probably nevertheless historically accurate.

Jackie Benacerraf's son also grounds his arguments for wishing to become a modern day hunter-gatherer in solid archaeology. He states that archaeologists have found that humans were more unhealthy and less well-nourished after the invention of agriculture. While the USAF's bitter resentment of NASA and its objectives is clearly stated as being wrong, the son's statement of the detrimental effects of the invention of agriculture is true, and a genuine problem for archaeologists. They have solved the problem of why agriculture has nevertheless been adopted by cultures across the globe by arguing that population pressure forced societies to settle down in order to feed their growing numbers on diminishing amounts of land, which would be insufficient to feed the same amount of hunter-gatherers.

Similarly, when Jackie Benacerraf argues with her mother over the exploration of space, she makes the perfectly valid point that people lost interest in the space programme because the other worlds of the solar system were dead, offering nowhere interesting for humanity to go, colonise and explore. This is true for very many people. The solar system, dead as it is, is still important scientifically for the information it may offer regarding its origin and that of life on Earth, as well as the possible existence of life elsewhere in the solar system at an earlier period, such as Mars. But for many people, space exploration is at best uninteresting, at worst a waste of time and resources, for precisely the reason Jackie Benacerraf says.

This also makes the ending even more ironic. Rosenberg, contemplating the high civilisation of the ammonia-based creatures on Titan, states through tears that this is precisely what they went into space to find, like Ray Bradbury's Martians. It's just that its billions of years too late.

However, the book does not tackle one of the main problems facing anyone concerned with sorting out genuine, real science from pseudoscience. For example, Titan presents the Apollo astronauts experiments with ESP as irrational pseudoscience, but at the time psychical research had been, or was well on its way to becoming an accepted academic discipline by the American Society for the Advancement of Science. Conversely, the Soviet Union lagged behind America in the development of information technology because Stalin's scientific advisor, Lysenko, who was responsible for some truly astonishing pieces of bad science himself, considered it a pseudoscience.

Even some of Carl Sagan's ideas have not been immune to critique. Sagan was a staunch advocate of SETI. He argued that the best strategy for looking for extraterrestrial intelligence would be to scan the skies with radio telescopes looking for their transmissions. In one edition of his popular science series, Cosmos, he imagined an advanced alien civilisation painfully hauling their old radio telescopes out of museums and exhibitions, in order to return them to use to signal to younger civilisations like ourselves. But as the writers here have pointed out, this makes a number of highly questionable assumptions. It assumes that intelligent aliens, if they exist, must possess our kind of intelligence and consciousness, and be engaged on much the same kind of technological projects as ourselves. But this is anthropomorphism, a projection of human characteristics onto creatures, which may be culturally and psychologically, as well as biologically, so different from ourselves that they are far beyond such human thinking or projects. I don't know if Sagan would recognise it as such, but SETI is essentially a religious project. And other scientists have certainly attacked it as pseudoscience. I remember coming across one book in the popular science section of Waterstones a few years ago, whose author included it in a list of pseudosciences, which needed to be tackled as an obstacle to real science.

There is also another, related problem, in that not all 'unscientific' ideas and their adherents are necessarily anti-science per se. Parapsychology is a case in point. While it might be considered a pseudoscience to many orthodox scientists, nevertheless the experimental standards of psychical researchers may be higher than those in conventional science. Psi may not exist, but this does not mean those looking for it are bad scientists, or that they are opposed to conventional science. Indeed, rather than rejecting conventional science, they wish to see it expanded to include their subject.

It's the same with UFOs. Flying saucers, as C.G. Jung said way back, are 'a modern myth of things seen in the sky'. And as Magonia's writers and Kevin McClure, a long time commenter on the paranormal, have pointed out, it has had very serious and damaging effects through the Abduction myth. But it can't be said that all ufolks are necessarily opposed to conventional space exploration, despite the bonkers utterances of some channelers and contactees. Some years ago I went to a meeting of one of the UFO societies in Bristol. Part of the evening was taken up with a couple of entirely conventional talks on space and astronomy by members of the local astronomical society, one of whom was an astronomy student at Bristol university. One of the speakers remarked that she was surprised to find so many members of the Astronomical Society in the audience. And the Birdsall's UFO Magazine, when it was around, also carried perfectly orthodox pieces on possible developments in space vehicles and extraterrestrial life, along with the stupid and harmful material about alien abductions and the bizarre views of Tony Dodds.

Titan is an entertaining, and highly thought-provoking SF novel, and it's to the author's credit that it includes secular, even atheistic ideologies among the cults of unreason threatening civilisation, human survival and the exploration and colonisation of the universe. And some of the political trends, such as the increasingly strident nationalism that could easily lead to a military confrontation with China or Russia, is a serious problem. Trump's administration also has an anti-science agenda in its determination to suppress any government research supporting climate change and the need to protect Earth's precious environment. The problems facing space scientists and the supporters of crewed missions to the planets and their colonisation also remain the same: funding cuts from hostile governments, and an uninterested or even actively hostile public.

Bad science, such as that discussed and attacked by Ben Goldacre, in his book of the same title, is a problem. But nevertheless, the identification of what counts as pseudoscience, and going further, harmful pseudoscience, is nevertheless always going to be somewhat subjective. Goldacre's book, for example, does not take on Creationism, as it's held by a minority of people on this side of the Atlantic, and isn't as actively dangerous as some of the fringe medical fads, which may damage people's health. And the attempts of some reductive scientists to explain away religion, and displace and discredit philosophy and the arts and humanities as equally valid fields in their own right, can certainly also be viewed as another, dangerous pseudoscience.