June 12, 2012

Science is Stupid

So, to no-one's great surprise, Prometheus turned out to be a very stylishly-appointed dog's breakfast. Hovis King Ridley Scott -- who we somehow have come to think of as one of Britain's great moviemakers despite his having basically churned out dud after dud in the three decades since the probably accidental double of Alien and Blade Runner -- buffs the film's surfaces to a very pretty sheen, while Lost perp Damon Lindelof ensures that the plot is splashy idiotic hogwash and every character a forgettable crib list of two quirks and a haircut. Fine actors bravely do battle with one of the dumbest scripts in living memory, but it's a fight they can't possibly win.

Literally nothing that anyone does at any point in the film makes any fucking sense at all, other than in completely external terms: to manhandle the film toward its next unearned set piece, to motivate the next meaningless twist, to thicken the plot -- or just to appeal to some important audience demographic. The latter, with dreary inevitability, means engaging with religious faith -- something that rarely ends well in popular SF, though there are honourable exceptions -- and, as a lazy consequence, pandering to Intelligent Design fuckwits and leftover readers of Erich von Däniken. Ian contends that this is entirely a venal marketing strategy, while I think it's a consequence of letting middlebrow admen and TV hacks delude themselves they're philosopher princes. I'm not sure which verdict is the more damning.

Among its many other egregious aspects, the film stands as an object lesson in how people, especially media people, just do not understand science at all -- by which I mean not the content of science, the facts and theories and how things work and what may or may not be physically possible, although they don't understand that either, but just the general shape of it: what it is for, what kind of endeavour it is, what the people involved with it actually do. Science, for Hollywood writers, is not difficult or complicated or precise or any of those things that they find off-putting about it in reality. Rather, it is esoteric and magical and divinely revealed; in essence, it's all about wizards.

Another, even more grotesque example of this can be found in the vaguely culty JJ Abrams TV show Fringe, a slavish Alias/X-Files cross which manages to exhibit every single thing that was problematic about both progenitor series and throw in some new issues all of its own. (It is, of course, also similarly entertaining in its stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid way.) The John Noble character, Walter Bishop, is the absolute Mad Scientist archetype, absent-minded, brilliant, asocial, fatherly and infantile at once, with a perfect grasp of everything sciencey and the ability to do anything from solving complex equations to reviving the dead to building a time machine on a whim out of washing machine parts and suet. Crucially, he can do all of these things despite having been out of touch with the scientific world for 17 years, while no-one else in the world can, because he is a "genius". Once again there is an obvious external motivation for all this, allowing the show to be structured in sitcom fashion around a handful of main characters and locations and so on, while being able to throw around whatever weirdo spooky phenomenon or cyberpanic happens to fit the plot contortions of the week. But it also clearly plays to a writerly sense that science is all about magical insight and panache, and nothing at all to do with material reality.

And, y'know, I can even sympathise to some extent with this complete failure to comprehend what science is, because these are people whose entire existence revolves around cooking up sensational bollocks that doesn't need to make sense as long as it grabs the punter's attention between ad breaks. If you're totally used to having whatever ludicrous tripe you scribble down get magically translated into pseudo-reality, you might just about allow your coke-addled brain to think that the physical world is just stuff that bends to the creative will. Almost. Except that all of that movie magic and stuff-bending has to be done. You know it does. You know it takes actual physical (or at least virtual) work. Everything onscreen has to be deliberately put there. You know that, Lindelof. You know that Scott and Abrams. You know how much effort has to go into fakery, into sidestepping the obstinacy of stuff to create the illusion of magic. You know the wizardry isn't real, so why do you insist on portraying it otherwise?

Ultimately, I suspect these people think they're doing scientists a favour. It's some kind of Magic Circle code of silence deal, a striving for honour among thieves. A misplaced respect for the showmanship of science. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! Look! Oooh! Flashing lights! Incantations! Dark matter! DNA! Aliens! Not realising that this is exactly, perfectly, diametrically WRONG. Catastrophically wrong on a biblical scale. Because science, first and foremost, has to be grounded in reality. It cannot be about appearances. It cannot be about illusion. And it cannot be about honour among thieves. Because if it becomes that it cannot be trusted. And that's enough of a problem already without your fucking help, thanks very much.

All of this was intended to be a preamble to a more serious rant, which I now probably don't have the patience to write properly. Suffice to say that there are a number of profound structural failures in the way science works, in how it is constituted and performed and funded, and in how that exists within a wider society that is both fearful of science and utterly dependent on technology. The situation is considerably worsened by the universal entrenchment of neoliberal free market cargo cult theology and the disastrous concentration of resources in a financial sector that trades in intellectual capital. The reward structures for the scientific endeavours that drive much of what our society depends upon cannot hope to compete with those for essentially unproductive fields like investment banking and hedge funds; this is by now a hackneyed truism. And the scientific environment is insecure, highly competitive and unwelcoming, so why would a smart young scientist stay in it anyway? A massive brain drain is inevitable.

But beyond that, the structures of science incentivise all sorts of behaviours that work counter to scientific progress. The race to publish means results are presented without proper testing. Wrong things enter the literature and remain unchallenged for years because no-one bothers to replicate them; there's just no prestige in doing so. The huge premium on publishing first encourages secrecy and territoriality. The difficulty of publishing negative or poor results means people end up revisiting the same blind alleys time and again, wasting years of effort doing things that others have already demonstrated won't work but just haven't fucking told anyone about. The drive to translate research into monetary rewards means both that potentially important research areas are neglected because there is no short term route to profit, and also that there is a huge amount of defensiveness around techniques and theories that are basically no bloody good but around which some kind of translational profit-making entity has been constructed. Dead horses are flogged endlessly, but no forward motion results.

I do not know what the solution is to these problems, but I know that the way things are now is not good enough. If science can't hold on to the likes of James and Sam and Dave and many others equally unknown to you, we're bloody well doing it wrong.

Posted by matt at June 12, 2012 12:53 PM