Four Years Later – “Science, Pseudoscience, and My Love of the End of the World”

[Commentary]

It has been over four years since I relaunched Frontier Channel as a news and commentary site with a discussion of pseudoscience and the Technological Singularity. The commentary – “Science, Pseudoscience, and My Love of the End of the World” – began with me listening to Coast to Coast AM with George Noory, a habit I dropped soon after except for a rare listen when particular guest speakers are scheduled. The show remains popular but the problem I mentioned four years ago also remains: the mix of legitimate scientists with pseudoscientists and crackpots dilutes science education. All guests’ topics are treated as equal night after night.

Those people well versed in rigorous day-to-day science can quite easily tell the real from the fantastic, and when they cannot they temper any enthusiasm with an appropriate level of scepticism. It is not clear to me that many in the general public can do the same. Some might claim that this radio show is all about entertainment with a dash of learning thrown in. However, in a world of rapid technological change, where science fiction sometimes becomes science reality, where questions of science become political quagmires based on belief systems rather than empirical evidence, reason, and logic, the ability to tell the difference becomes increasingly important. Coast to Coast AM simply does not help.

Radio shows are not the only problem, and four years after my commentary it seems there is more talk of pseudoscience in the mainstream media than ever before. Mixed in with truly amazing scientific discoveries and technological progress are articles about prayers for rain in areas suffering drought, ghosts allegedly captured on video camera, New Age drivel masked as quantum mechanics (think “The Secret”), and nasty commentary about the evils of progress. It is as if serious news reporting never went away, but instead began to meld with stories previously found only in the tabloids, resulting in the hybrid major news websites of today.

What then to make of my own rather consistent coverage of the Technological Singularity here on Frontier Channel, as well as increasing attention to cryonics, transhumanism, and other ideas many legitimate scientists consider to be pseudoscience, or at best, fringe science? Has Frontier Channel itself become an example of the problems I find with mainstream news outlets? I have admitted in the past that in high school and college I was a rapt fan of pseudoscience. Have these new topics led me back to those silly days?

Unfortunately, the answer lies somewhere along the fine line between science and pseudoscience, a line blurred by the trends of today. On the one hand we do appear to be experiencing technological progress at rates never before experienced. Breakthroughs that were science fiction only a decade ago have become old news. Legitimate scientists sometimes report extraordinary advancements, like parallel computing in nanoscopic devices, reasoning avatars in Second Life, epigenomic understandings of diseases, an increasing number of spots in our own solar system that might harbor extraterrestial life, etc. Real life sometimes comes across like a tabloid article or science fiction story!

However, there are tools we can use to explore each one of these breakthroughs. Today’s breakthroughs require tomorrow’s confirmation. That excited moment of awe requires many moments more of critical analysis.

Pseudoscience, unlike science, is often very entertaining even at its most detailed. Pseudoscience has to be: it is competing for your entertainment time budget. Proponents must tell the most exciting tale possible, glossing over anything that might poke holes in the idea or decrease the entertainment value. Pseudoscience can be boring, of course, but not in the same way the minutia of peer-reviewed science can leave even the most enthusiastic defender bleary eyed and brain dead. Science does not have the luxury of glossing over details Further more, it is written in languages many people do not have a good grasp of, like the language of statistics, of graphics and charts, of images that without context make little sense in our macroscopic existence. Pseudoscience only requires the language of mainstream storytelling.

Pseudoscience is not hard. There is no rigor to its practice. Science, on the other hand, plumbs new depths everyday and requires rigorous checking and rechecking, confirmation, reporting, peer review, and other activities that are really designed to falsify the working theory. Scientists put in long hours for a reason: science is hard work.

So then, back to the Technological Singularity. There is not currently a rigorous “Science of the Singularity”, though there is compilation of statistics related to exponential technology trends and there is active and increasingly mainstream scientific and engineering attention to Artificial General Intelligence.

Without a “Science of the Singularity” it is hard to say why such an event should occur, trace its constraints, or fit it properly within various contexts. This is addressed somewhat by the activity in the AGI and AI fields, and therefore Vernor Vinge’s idea of the Technological Singularity appears to be on firmer scientific footing than Ray Kurzweil’s idea.

Partly because of this lack of a specific “Science of the Singularity” my focus on these ideas have been greatly modified in the past four years: instead of the heady far future, I am much more interested in near term prospects, benefits, and consequences understood within a framework of “technology”, “engineering”, and similar contexts. It is all I can do to keep up with accelerating technological progress over the next few years, let alone over the next several decades. At the most recent Singularity Summit I saw this in many other attendees and speakers. There was a shift of emphasis from the Singularity itself to business plans for emerging technologies coming much sooner.

In this I find support for the direction Frontier Channel has taken. The Technological Singularity will remain a framework by which we can explore emerging technologies and trends and how they may potentially merge, but the emphasis will be on the near-term rather than more “fringy” speculation. With cryonics I will focus more on the science of cryopreservation and scientific breakthroughs related to retrieving viable biological material than the possible technologies that might someday bring a person back to life. With transhumanism I will focus on the social movement and recognition of the impact of science and technology on humanity rather than speculate about a posthuman future.

And of course I will continue to report on the latest planetary science findings, an exciting field far removed from the fringe but even more compelling than science fiction led us to believe in those days before spacecraft visited the planets and their moons and before astronomers captured the first visible light images of exoplanets. Discovery backed by compelling evidence and data provides a depth of joy and consequence pseudoscience can never provide and fringe science cannot until it has been built on a firmer foundation.