Friday, 27 May 2016

Here Comes the Science Bit

This post is part rant, part commentary. I fear it's uninformed, misinformed and orphaned. It comes from a part of me that has watched internet science enthusiasts wax lyrical, long and loud, over the indignities that their love is subjected to by the media and by general knowledge. There are videos railing against how unscientific Science Fiction often is, or how terrible the reporting of science is in the news.

I can understand why this irks, though I feel that in many cases the complaints miss the point and that in the modern age very little is factually reported or without spin. There is a plethora of sexing up and soundbite media as the networks and newspapers grow more desperate for an audience. The received wisdom is that the internet is killing traditional media, and this hasn't helped with communicating anything complex. Added to the fact that newspapers, in particular, are shedding journalists and sub editors like nobody's business (though not I note editors who seem to be trousering more and more cash despite the warnings of their industries impending doom) and it's no surprise that standards are slipping .Often press releases will simply be reprinted in the body of the newspaper without any questioning. in the same way that industry wires are transferred. The process of gathering and printing news is growing ever slighter and those hacks that do have full-time gigs are often so hurried and stressed they don't have time to work pieces properly. Investigative journalism, contrary to the impression granted by both the MPs expenses scandal and the Panama Papers, is increasingly rare and what does go on is largely a matter of putting in Freedom of Investigation requests and going from there (as far as I can tell). We should applaud the fact that Private Eye still maintains the Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism as I'm sure it encourages the practice to continue.

In addition to this, we should bear in mind that everything is targetted towards a demographic, The most pertinent example of this is Lord Beaverbrook's assessment of the Daily Mail: that there should be something to frighten the reader on every page. In the same way, this piece from Yes Prime Minister catches the spirit of it well. I imagine television works the same way, and has the added wrinkle of being akin to a public lecture, a sole voice addressing the many and needing to make it all as understandable for a complete novice as it is for someone who is at least a journeyman in the subject, A friend's daughter is dinosaur mad, and complains that anything on TV about palaeontology is simple; I feel the same way about history programmes (unless it's something like the history of food)

This problem extends across all of Knowledge (a term I use because I grow increasingly convinced that school subjects are artificial divisions to make them easier to teach, and that even the art/science divide is essentially bunk), I hope my example above demonstrates that it's a widespread issue, not something that is only affecting STEM subjects. In the UK the education system is poor, I'm afraid to say, and I know for a fact that History often vanishes from the school curriculum as schools scramble to meet their literacy and numeracy targets.

There is a feeling, to me, that there is a scramble towards science, not for the love of it but as a way to make money and that, just as the media has become increasingly driven by Capitalism so too is education. I've seen people in comments under Guardian articles argue in all seriousness that the study of anything but hard science should be abandoned at University level as if it doesn't matter if artists, economists etc are trained, educated and able to do their jobs. It all feels very materialistic as if only designing and producing the next level of technology is important.

Part of this feels as if it contributes to a rejection of social science and deeper philosophical thought; something we see in the embracing of genetics and biology to explain behaviour and social trends. Issues like poverty, deprivation and so on seem to be swept away under the blanket of hard work or bad genes. It makes it hard not to feel as if genetics is in danger of becoming almost a junk science, something that's thrown out to simply wave about in an effort not to do anything to help the poor. Similarly, political and economic theories seem to have vanished out of the public sphere, perhaps a sign of the 'they're all lazy bastards' or 'it doesn't matter because x, y, or z, will stop anything we do' attitudes that are so prevalent (in this context it is easy to see why nationalistic parties are becoming popular across the world, they offer the spectre of control, without letting on that it's only an illusion. The ability to control our own economy and politics slipped out of the bag long ago).

Similarly, science seems to be pushing the sexes and genders farther apart. Men are men, women are women and ne'er the twain shall meet. We use terms like female brains and male brains, both terms that seem to have sprung from gross generalisations, This is despite the fact that we have seen changes to both masculinity and femininity, and our expectations of both sexes, within the last century. The obsession with pink for girls would seem very strange to the Victorians, who dressed their boys in the colour for example,

We have ceased to try and understand society and, sad to say, it feels as if the science enthusiasts' interest ends at the laboratory door. It is left to writers to try and interpret what is happening, and the pace of scientific discoveries is so fast now that they find it impossible to keep up. I fear our concepts of how our world works is hopelessly out of date. William Gibson has said that the SF community missed the mobile phone's ascension for instance, and so we had no fiction to discuss their usage. The same is true of the way that policing is changing, moving away from the bobby on the beat to a more forensic approach. In Japan mobile phone signals are collated so that in the event of an earthquake people can be found more easily.

Science Fiction writers, in general, seem to be either setting their works so far in the future that it makes no difference or in the past to avoid the problem of science changing the rules of what they can do, making their work obsolete. This last happened to Warren Ellis' series Global Frequency, which had super duper advanced phones in it. Within five years the industry had caught up with him, and he struggled to make the next iteration. The other point I would make about SF is that while it does strive for scientific accuracy... it's there to tell a story, to take us out of ourselves for a bit and that means you sometimes have to gloss over the facts in favour of a piece of whimsy. Otherwise, you can kiss most of the things we wonder at on the page or the screen goodbye.

This may explain not only our sense of anxiety but also the very idea of future shock, where we are unable to settle and adapt to our world properly. Everything really is moving too fast, and humans as much as machines now seem to be in danger of becoming obsolete. Where once you learned your skills and got on with it, now it feels as if you must retrain every year or so, learning the new systems the IT people throw out.

It also contributes to the way we talk about science, the dumbing down is used to explain it... but not explain it at the same time and to make us want stuff. That's the point of it all at the end of the day, our lovely masters in the political sphere don't want us to think, or understand, only to consume. Newspapers and TV networks want your money, not your understanding and if you think they're really there to educate you, well, you must come from a country which gets the BBC.

I'm interested not so much in science as the way that it gets used in society. Nobody foresaw the rise of sexting, or bullying, in the same way that nobody could have predicted that cars and televisions have led to the demise of 'communities' in the sense that politicians use the term, or even the humble pub. With technology attributed to the rise of depression as we become increasingly isolated, it's obvious that the fruits of science are not always positive.

Where we go from here I'm not sure, Science is important, and it needs to be studied (though it would be nice if it was kept to the practical realms rather than being used for what feels as if it's just SF with numbers attached). I feel, though, that if the uses we put science to become dehumanising or isolating we should question that, and ask if it's actually useful.