Adonis Diaries

Archive for December 9th, 2014

 

 

Putting New Age Pseudoscience in Our Science Fiction: Stop it!

If the pseudoscientific woo about love and time travel in Interstellar pissed you off, you aren’t alone.

Though Christopher Nolan’s gorgeous space opera isn’t the first science fiction film to descend into a morass of new age platitudes, here’s why it should be the last.

Spoilers for Interstellar ahead.

Do you know of any science fiction movies that “get it right” perfectly when it comes to physics and other areas of science.

Any story that involves interstellar travel is by definition based on speculation.

We have no idea how faster-than-light travel would work, so we rely on semi-scientific tropes, from wormhole travel and interdimensional jumps to hypersleep and brain uploading.

These tropes are all based on contemporary scientific understanding, but of course they are also wild extrapolations that may ultimately turn out to be complete bullshit.

But there’s a difference between wormhole travel, which is depicted superbly in Interstellar, and the idea that love is a “fifth dimension” that can allow a man to jump inside a black hole and travel backwards in time to communicate with his 10-year-old daughter.

This is what we are asked to believe in Interstellar, whose climactic scene involves Cooper flying into the black hole Gargantua. Once he’s gone inside, he’s rescued by mysterious, fifth-dimensional beings who put him inside a tesseract box where time behaves like space — we can see millions of versions of his daughter’s room around him, each representing a slice of time.

So far, we’re on weird but still relatively solid ground when it comes to speculative science.

Physicist Kip Thorne, who consulted on the movie, writes in a book called The Science of Interstellar that he could imagine such an event being plausible.

Other physicists disagree with him, but that’s not the problem.

The real issue is that Cooper figures out how to contact his daughter by recalling what his colleague Brand told him — that love is a “force” that transcends dimensions just like time does. Using the force of “love” to guide him through the bewildering array of time-rooms, he finally finds the exact right version of his daughter to communicate with. And then he sends a message to her through time.

This is an example of confusing physics with metaphysics, or assuming that observable phenomena like gravity are the same as psychological states like love. Put another way, it blurs the line between science and spirituality without ever admitting that’s what’s going on.

Anyone who has seen the movie The Fifth Element is no stranger to this idea.

The “fifth element” of the title is, in fact, love. Which turns out to be a physical force that can save the world. This idea is hinted at in widely-condemned pseudoscience documentary What the Bleep Do We Know, which suggests that quantum mechanics have revealed that anything we believe can come true — because our minds affect quantum reality. That is most definitely not what quantum physics suggests.

Again, the issue here isn’t with saying that spiritual beliefs can intermingle with scientific reality. The problem is with category confusion. Just because two things are equally important does not mean they are the same. There is absolutely no evidence that love transcends time, but there is significant physical evidence that other dimensions do.

This notion that love “transcends” space and time also makes an appearance in the otherwise rationality-centric movie Contact.

In that film, based on work by Carl Sagan, the main character takes a journey through space/time and communicates with aliens who take the form of her father. The idea is that they are so alien that they can only appear to her by taking on the form of a person she loves.

Ultimately, the suggestion in Contact — like in Interstellar — is that love is a force we can measure using physics.

Stop Putting New Age Pseudoscience in Our Science Fiction 

Expand. Illustration by Luke Toyer

We can probably trace a lot of these tropes back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was written by Arthur C. Clarke back in the 1960s. In that film, we discover that humanity was uplifted by godlike aliens who have been observing us benevolently for hundreds of thousands of years.

Now that we are leaving Earth, they return to greet us — and that experience is represented as some kind of epiphany or spiritual rebirth. This should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with Clarke’s work, which included (among other things) stints hosting the shows Mysterious World and World of Strange Powers, which were both about taking “unexplained phenomena” far more seriously than they should be.

Like Contact, 2001 offers totemic images an effort to represent something that is profoundly unrepresentable. Fair enough, but it leads to a lot of sloppy thinking about what is scientifically plausible. Which is pretty much unacceptable in movies like 2001, Contact, Interstellar and many others that want to lay claim to some kind of scientific validity.

These are films that aim to popularize science and our quest to colonize space, and yet they basically lie to audiences about how space works. Suggesting that love can bend time, or that space travel is a psychic journey, does not simplify these concepts in a way that makes them more understandable to people without formal science training.

It simply misrepresents them. Instead of making science more exciting and accessible, these movies make it more confusing.

It’s particularly disheartening to see these pseudoscientific tropes being reawakened at a time when politicians in the west are trying to cut funding for science. We’re facing a future where many people will learn about science for the first time from pop culture.

But all too much of that pop culture will teach them that science is actually no different from “beliefs,” as if the laws of gravity were as mutable as our emotional attachments.

I’m not saying that science fiction needs to adhere to a boring formula of only telling stories that hinge established scientific theories. But I worry when science is collapsed into spirit.

There are truths out there, discovered by science. And we shouldn’t forget them or the future is truly lost.

Note: All that we know and retained are in our belief system. Truth is a smokescreen, and does not withstand the chaos in one generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Axing a blog? Nafeez Ahmed’s and The Guardian

Nafeez Ahmed’s account of the sudden termination of his short-lived contract to write an environment blog for the Guardian is depressingly instructive – and accords with my own experiences as a journalist at the paper.

Ahmed is that rare breed of journalist who finds stories everyone else either misses or chooses to overlook.

He regularly joins up the dots in a global system of corporate pillage. If the news business were really driven by news rather than a corporate-friendly business agenda, publications would be beating a path to his door.

Jonathan Cook from Nazareth, December 4, 2014

Nafeez has been mostly ploughing a lonely furrow as a freelance journalist, bypassing the media gatekeepers by promoting himself on social media, and placing his articles wherever a window briefly opens. His 43,000 followers on Twitter are testament to his skills as a journalist – skills, it seems, that are in short demand even at the bastions of liberal journalism.

That neglect looked like it might finally be remedied last year when the Guardian gave him a blog.

Let’s be clear: the Guardian is now a raucous market-place of opinion – its model for monetising the mostly voluntary labour of desperate journalists, writers, academics and lobby groups. The paper calls it “Comment is Free” – free for the Guardian, that is.

But it is certainly not “free” in the sense of “free expression”, as I know only too well from my many run-ins with its editors, both from my time on staff there and from my later experiences as a freelance journalist (more below).

The Guardian’s website covers a spectrum of “moderate”, meaning  conventional, opinion from right to left, with a couple of genuinely progressive staff writers – currently Seumas Milne and Owen Jones – there to offer the illusion of real pluralism.

Recruiting Ahmed was therefore a risky move.

He is a voice from the genuine left, and one too independent to control. The Guardian did not offer him a column, or the more interesting – and suitable – position of investigative journalist, a platform that would have given him the opportunity and resources to explore the biggest and most under-reported story of our era: the connection between corporate greed and the destruction of the life-support systems necessary for our continued existence on the planet.

Instead he got a minor leg-up: a raise out of the morass of CiF contributors to his own Guardian blog.

Rather than waste inordinate time and energy on arm-twisting the Guardian’s ever-cautious editors, he was able to publish his own posts with minimal interference. And that was the beginning of his downfall.

Ignoring the real story

In July, as Israel began its massive assault on Gaza, Ahmed published a post revealing a plausible motivation – Gaza’s natural gas reserves – for Israel’s endless belligerence towards the enclave’s Hamas government.

(The story had until then been confined to minor and academic publications, including my own contribution here.) Israel wanted to keep control over large gas reserves in Gaza’s waters so that it could deny Hamas a resource that would have bought it influence with other major players in the region, not least Egypt.

This story should be at the centre of the coverage of Gaza, and of criticism of the west’s interference, including by the UK’s own war criminal Tony Blair, who has conspired in the west’s plot to deny the people of Gaza their rightful bounty. But the Guardian, like other media, have ignored the story.

Interestingly, Ahmed’s article went viral, becoming the most shared of any of the paper’s stories on Operation Protective Shield.

But readers appear to have had better news judgment than the Guardian’s editors. Rather than congratulate him, the Guardian effectively fired Ahmed, as he details in the link below. No one has suggested that there were errors in the story, and no correction has been appended to the article.

In axing him, the Guardian appears to have broken the terms of his contract and has failed to offer grounds for their action, apart from claiming that this story and others had strayed too far from his environment beat.

There is an obvious problem with this justification.

No responsible employer sacks someone for repeated failures without first warning them at an earlier stage that they are not fulfilling the terms of their employment.

So either the Guardian has been wildly irresponsible, or – far more likely – the professed justification is nothing more than a smokescreen. After all, the idea that an environment blogger for the liberal media should not be examining the connection between control over mineral resources, which are deeply implicated in climate change, and wars, which lead to human deaths and ecological degradation, is preposterous beyond belief.

It is not that Ahmed strayed too far from his environment remit, it is that he strayed too much on to territory – that of the Israel-Palestine conflict – that the Guardian rigorously reserves for a few trusted reporters and commentators. Without knowing it, he went where only the carefully vetted are allowed to tread.

I know from my own long years of clashing with Guardian editors on this issue. Here is just one of my many experiences.

Comment is elusive

I moved to Nazareth in 2001 as a freelance journalist, after a decade of working for the Guardian and its sister publication, the Observer. I knew many people at the paper, and I had some kind of track record with them as a former staff member.

I arrived in Nazareth at an interesting time. It was the height of the second intifada, and I was the only foreign reporter in Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s large Palestinian minority.

In those days, before Israel built its concrete and steel barrier, Jenin – one of the most newsworthy spots in the West Bank – was a 20-minute drive away. I have previously written about the way the paper so heavily edited an investigation I conducted into the clear-cut execution of a British citizen, Iain Hook, in Jenin’s refugee camp that it was effectively censored (see here and here).

But I also spent my early years in Nazareth desperately trying to raise any interest first at the comment section and later at Comment is Free in my contributing (free) articles on my experiences of the second intifada. Remember CiF, then as now, was a cacophony of competing opinions, many of them belonging to dubious lobbyists and interest groups.

I was a former Guardian staff member, now located not only in one of the world’s hot spots but offering a story no other foreign journalist was in a position to tell.

At that time, CiF had several journalists in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem detailing the experiences and traumas of Israeli Jews. But Israeli Palestinians – a fifth of Israel’s population – were entirely unrepresented in its coverage.

It exasperated me that no one at CiF, including the paper’s late deputy editor Georgina Henry, seemed to think this of any consequence.

I finally broke briefly into CiF after the Lebanon war erupted in summer 2006. Pointing out that I was the only foreign journalist actually living daily under threat of Hizbullah rockets finally seemed to get the editors’ attention.

I survived at CiF for just a year, managing at great effort to publish 7 stories, almost all of them after difficult battles with editors and including in one case sections censored without my permission.

My time with CiF came to an end after yet another baffling exchange with Henry, after she refused to publish an article, that I have previously documented here.

Escaping scrutiny

Why is writing about Israel so difficult at the Guardian? There are several reas

1.  as I have regularly observed in my blog, is related to the general structure of the corporate media system, including the Guardian. It is designed to exclude almost all deeply critical voices, those that might encourage readers to question the ideological basis of the western societies in which they live and alert them to the true role of the corporations that run those societies and their media.

Israel, as an intimate ally of the US, is therefore protected from profoundly critical scrutiny, much as the US and its western allies are.

It is okay to criticise individual western policies as flawed, especially if done so respectfully, but not to suggest that the whole direction of western foreign policy is flawed, that it is intended to maintain a system of control over, and exploitation of, weaker nations. Policies can be dubious, but not our leaders’ moral character.

The problem with Israel is that its place in the global order – alongside the US – depends on it being a very sophisticated gun for hire. It keeps order and disorder in the Middle East at Washington’s behest and in return it gets to plunder the Palestinian territories and ethnically cleanse the native population.

It’s a simple story but not one you can state anywhere in the mainstream because it questions not just a policy (the occupation) but Israel’s very nature and role as a colonial settler state.

Beyond this, however, special factors pertain in the Guardian’s case.

2. As Ahmed notes, in part this is related to the Guardian’s pivotal role in bringing to fruition the ultimate colonial document, the Balfour Declaration. For this reason, the Guardian has always had a strong following among liberal Jews, and that is reflected in its selection of staff at senior ranks.

In this sense, the editorial “mood” at the Guardian resembles that of an indulgent parent towards a wayward grown-up child. Yes, Israel does some very bad things (the occupation) but, for all its faults, its heart is in the right place (as a Jewish, colonial settler state practising apartheid).

3. And then there is the Jonathan Freedland factor, as Ahmed also notes (including by citing some of my previous criticisms of him). One should not personalise this too much. Freedland, an extremely influential figure at the paper, is a symptom of a much wider problem with the Guardian’s coverage of Israel.

Freedland is a partisan on Israel, as am I.

But I get to write a blog and occasional reports tucked away in specialist and Arab media in English. Freedland and other partisans for Israel at the paper get to reinforce and police an already highly indulgent attitude towards Israel’s character (though not the occupation) across the coverage of one of the most widely read papers in the world.

Given that Israel’s character, as a colonial settler state, is the story, the Guardian effectively never presents more than a fraction of the truth about the conflict. Because it never helps us understand what drives Israeli policy, it – along with the rest of the media – never offers us any idea how the conflict might be resolved.

And this is where Ahmed tripped up. Because his piece, as the Guardian’s editors doubtless quickly realised, implicated Israel’s character rather than just its policies. It violated a Guardian taboo.

Ahmed is hoping to continue his fiercely independent reporting by creating a new model of crowd-sourced journalism. I wish him every luck with his venture.

Such initiatives are possibly the only hope that we can start to loosen the grip of the corporate media and awaken ourselves to many of the truths hidden in plain sight. If you wish to help Ahmed, you can find out about his new funding model here.

https://medium.com/@NafeezAhmed/palestine-is-not-an-environment-story-921d9167ddef

UPDATE:

The Guardian has issued a short official statement that manages to avoid addressing any of Nafeez Ahmed’s complaints about his treatment or throwing any further light on the reasons for the termination of his contract. It’s a case study in evasiveness and can be read here.

CORRECTION:

I have amended the section of my post concerning my early struggles to get published in Comment is Free. I inadvertently suggested that these related to my whole time in Nazareth. In fact, CiF was set up in March 2006, and my earliest travails concerned efforts to get published in the main comment section, battling with many of the same editors who would later join CiF.

Immediately CiF was launched, I contacted those editors asking to be included among the many contributors who were being taken on. As I explain above, my repeated approaches were either ignored or rebuffed, while many journalists and writers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were recruited to write from an Israeli Jewish perspective.

That finally changed in July 2006 when I persuaded the CiF editors that my unique perspective on the Lebanon war needed to be included. Interestingly, it seemed their interest was finally piqued not by the perspective I could share of how Palestinians were treated in a Jewish state but by the fact that Palestinians in Israel were under threat from fellow Arabs, in this case Hizbullah.

– See more at: http://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/2014-12-04/why-the-guardian-axed-nafeez-ahmeds-blog/#sthash.ghx0brFi.dpuf


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

December 2014
M T W T F S S
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Blog Stats

  • 1,418,739 hits

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.adonisbouh@gmail.com

Join 770 other followers

%d bloggers like this: