Planet 3.0: Making the Future Interesting Again

iPhone imagined, ca. 1910

iPhone FaceTime imagined, ca. 1910

NONSENSE IS BORING

It’s not just environmental issues. Lots of people with lots of agendas are pumping out lots of half-truths. Many of them are quasi-organized. They are encouraged to spend an hour or so a day looking for newspaper articles on topics of interest, and spammng them with extreme and implausible views. The purpose is to make their extreme view look plausible, thereby moving the window of publicly tolerated ideas closer to their positions. This sort of tactic is well-known in some circles as “moving the Overton Window”.

Their purpose is not to engage your mind. Their purpose is to disengage your mind and fool your gut.

One of the main points that Al Gore made in his recent ’24 Hours’ Climate Project initiative was to convince people to engage. In particular, he notoriously suggested that just as his generation had the courage to stand up and not accept casual racism, present day youth ought to stand up against climate denialism. This position was widely (and rather idiotically) mocked. “Al Gore says questioning Catastrophic Global Warming is as Bad as Racism” etc. etc. Even allowing for the obvious spin, Gore made no such comparison. He just suggested that making claims that are against the evidence should be challenged.

The trouble, of course, is that this is difficult. Spouting nonsense is a less demanding skill than refuting it. It’s asymmetric intellectual warfare when your opponent is essentially indifferent to the truth of falsehood of their argument. We can’t answer the flood of nonsense invading our discourse without getting smarter about it. And the way to do that is to build a community that collectively has the skills to address and defuse nonsense.

We’ve made some good starts. The Skeptical Science collects and collates counterarguments. Various blogs, notably including RealClimate, and various scientific institutions, try to convey the content of what the active topics in science really are, and where the balance of evidence stands.

But there are a couple of problems. First of all, and most importantly, this attack on science is a proxy argument. People whose philosophy (or income) does not allow room for a reasonable response to the problem are motivated to deny the existence of the problem. This moves conversation away from how to respond to the problem, replacing it with the relatively harmless questions of the underlying science. (Harmless, that is, unless you are one of the practitioners of science who happens to be in the crosshairs of the most vicious
lies in any particular year.)

THE SNOOZE FACTOR

The hard work of science is detailed and fussy. Even scientists occasionally find themselves blinking in amazement at how monotonous some of our tasks are, how dry our reading matter, how fussy our mathematical and statistical distinctions. When challenged on technical grounds, it is burned into the scientific culture to patiently respond, in the event that a real error can be revealed, which would constitute progress, after all. Even when the supposed errors are flung as accusations with overtones of malfeasance, the scientist is expected to look past the foibles of the questioner, and respond calmly and in as much detail as is requested.

The opponents of addressing the scientific evidence thus have a filibuster weapon which is not subject to a vote of closure. And hoo boy, do they ever use it!

What is more, it’s a weapon that not only distracts, it also repels. It drives attention away. Hairsplitting debates are offputting to those not participating, as well as confusing to all but the most informed on the topic at hand. The press lacks the skill and patience to get to the bottom of it and happily gets away with calling it a “controversy”, creating yet another victory for obfuscation.

And the result is a grand success for those who want the future to be boring.  The real outlines of the state of knowledge are constantly ignored in favor of the false controversies. Thinking about our collective future is further reduced to “unsettled, technical, and dull”.And the real issues of how to couple science, politics and public information remain unaddressed.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

The future used to be a topic of excitement, interest, and engagement in the popular culture.

Speculation about the future was expressed most directly in “science fiction”, a field which has had pretty much all the science squeezed out of it. At its best,  SF is good social extrapolation, but much of what we see nowadays is simply outer-space based fantasy, hardly different from “sword and sorcery” fantasy except in its motifs.

The core mission of Planet3.0 is to tie science back to thinking about future, and make it interesting again. Whenever the future looks boring, the people who want us to concede control of our destiny win another small victory.

The future may be good, or awful, or mixed, but it remains unwritten. What the future looks like depends very much on what we do now. And what we do depends on what we think. And what we think depends on how we think. In this time, with incompetence and cowardice written all over the political and economic leadership, with problems bearing down upon us from all directions, and yet, with tools and skills that make those of our predecessor look like kindergarten playground toys, we tend to think the future is out of our hands.

Boredom and futility are the goal of those who fear a vigorous dialog among free people. But whatever the future may be, as Lou Grinzo once said, “boring ain’t on the list”.

It’s our planet, and our social contract. Let’s not concede the future.

 


Arthur Smith comments: Your post here echoes, at least in my mind, Neal Stephenson’s provocative recent essay, Innovation Starvation, where he laments our seeming inability to do “big stuff” any more, with various candidate explanations. Stephenson’s slant is from the SF writer’s perspective of course, and he’s proposing to solve the problem with “the Hieroglyph project, an effort to produce an anthology of new SF that will be in some ways a conscious throwback to the practical techno-optimism of the Golden Age.”

But we’re after much the same target, perhaps more realistically from the science side of things. What is possible, what can make the future really interesting, enjoyable, life-fulfilling for human beings? Neglect sustainability and you guarantee eventual misery, so it has to be part of the equation.
 
Image: How to be a Retronaut (public domain)

Comments:

  1. Your post here echoes, at least in my mind, Neal Stephenson's provocative recent essay, Innovation Starvation, where he laments our seeming inability to do "big stuff" any more, with various candidate explanations. Stephenson's slant is from the SF writer's perspective of course, and he's proposing to solve the problem with "the Hieroglyph project, an effort to produce an anthology of new SF that will be in some ways a conscious throwback to the practical techno-optimism of the Golden Age."

    But we're after much the same target, perhaps more realistically from the science side of things. What is possible, what can make the future really interesting, enjoyable, life-fulfilling for human beings? Neglect sustainability and you guarantee eventual misery, so it has to be part of the equation.

  2. Do young Chinese people expect the future to be boring? I suspect that some of our problem here is end-of-empire doldrums.

    American selfishness is both cause & effect. Playing Zero-Sum stifles real pie-growth ("real pie" is not mere money) & burns through real resources faster, forcing everyone else to play the same game - until we're playing Nega-Sum (ouch).

  3. Perhaps one of the problems is the nature of the 'enemy'. I've often contemplated the differences between the effects of the two 'outsider' presidents of the USA of my lifetime. The catholic JFK and the black Obama.

    How come Kennedy could inspire education and engineering to embark on the 'go to the moon' endeavour and simultaneously inspire idealistic young people and their families to support them in the Peace Corps? Obama has used similar words and concepts at various times but gets very little traction. Anyone looking at the words and ideas out of their historical contexts wouldn't see much difference in the rhetorical power or the word choices.

    My conclusion, for the time being, is that Kennedy was offering an exciting opportunity to deal with an external threat. He was able to draw on this bank of enthusiasm, vigour and drive when it came to the problematic issues of racism. Obama's stuck with trying to get people to deal with threats posed from within - but without the backing of general positive economic and political excitement. Much more difficult, much more complex, much less success.


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