For at least the last sixty years, observers of everything from epidemiology and weather to economic activity and social trends have been building ‘models’ to explain the existing and future behaviour of disease, clouds, inflation, fashion and a thousand other things.
At base, what happens is that a number of “known” variables and factors believed to have causal effects are thrown into a computer program, and then various events ‘fed in’ to gauge the effect upon the subject in question. It’s known as modelling.
There is an old adage in the modelling business that says, “Shit in, shit out”. Put simply, this means that if the variables are either badly chosen or themselves in turn less than properly understood, the model will give inaccurate results.
Because I am just a little sad and short of drinking pals at the minute, I subscribe to a total of seven science sites. These tell me that, variously, pointy heads are engaged in measuring the weight of the Milky Way, the sustainability of the Assyrian economy several thousand years ago, the likelihood of financial goolies in the Chinese investment markets, and – over the last three days of surfing about – ways of getting to distant parts of the Multiverse without being turned inside out, alongside the likelihood of meeting other “intelligent” life forms along the way.
Bear with me while I focus for a bit on those last two areas.
There are two near-certainties in the modelling space: models have a pretty awful track-record of predicting what will happen, and very little in the way of genuine creativity has been applied to reducing the margin of error.
I don’t make that observation lightly. During the last decade of my marketing communications career, I helped construct models, and then interpret the “results” vomited out by technology. The commonality across fourteen entirely different markets was that the results predicted little of any value, but much that one could call Totally Wrong.
One major reason for this was the Curved Ball – the event or events that nobody saw coming; and connected to that, the Straight Line mentality of Homo sapiens…that is to say, the relative importance of various factors being somehow seen as constants.
Above all however, the feeling I often left with was ‘Have we been measuring the right thing in the first place?’
Returning to recent interfaces with Multiverse models, my feelings are as follows:
- Is the only way round the Speed of Light (E=MC² and all that) finding ways to reduce the mass of space vehicles and exponentially improving the fuelling of speed….or do Einstein’s musings make all that irrelevant?
- Why are all ‘serious’ attempts to model the likely life-fecundity across Galaxies based on the assumption that we haven’t been contacted by alien life?
Regarding the Speed obsession, Einstein calculated (and nobody has ever proved him wrong) that if we switched 70 kilograms of human mass – ie, a person – into energy, it would release energy in excess of a one thousand megaton H-bomb. We could beam somebody almost instantly to Proxima Centauri by doing that, but dear old Albrecht thought it might be the Devil’s own job putting Neil Armstrong II back together again.
Rather, he saw Time (for example, that involved in getting from one place to another) as something that could be manipulated by gravity. Not just Time but also Space are an illusion. The one thing we lack is the ‘gravity rope’, as Bert Onestone once called it, to get from one place to another instantly.
As to the existence of Alien life – and the “why-haven’t-we-been-contacted?” question – there are several ways to turn all that upside-down.
If you were a super-bright species of bluebottle on a planet in Andromeda, would you contact a species investing millions in new ways to kill bluebottles?
If you were a race of reptilian Übermenschen from the Tadpole Galaxy, would you advertise your presence, or keep quiet about it until you’d established exactly why Earthlings seem to be so childishly addicted to untenable belief systems?
The last estimate I saw from the Outer Space community was that, based on their model, there might be 56 planets sustaining life in our immediate constellational proximity…or 79 billion. I need models like that like I need a sixth cranial orifice between my eyes.
Things get even sillier when you connect the two. Would we race around this region of the Multiverse utterly devoid of intelligent conversation? Or would we find a traffic jam of wannabe Time-benders on Interstellar Twitter exchanging banalities about the distance between spinning electrons?
Models are not of much use when it comes to such burning issues. This is because we don’t really understand anything very much. Random events worry our species, and enlightened philosophies terrify us. Faced with “Nothing is forever, everything is in transition, all things must pass”, we demand to now what infinity is, what the rate of change might be, and when exactly (on GMT) the pass will be made.
The truth is, we lack humility. Human beings simply cannot accept their existence as an accident: we must be part of a grand plan, for We Are Special. We need to assert certainties. Things we can then call assertainties. Because Uncertainty is our greatest fear: what was that bump in the night? What was that spectre walking through the wall? Why do autistic kids seem able to defy knowledge and Time on occasions?
This explains why we had (and have) the Spanish Inquisition, Oliver Cromwell, Nazism, Jihadists, Communists, Friedmanites, feminists, EU federalists and neocon geopolitical foreign policies.
What they all do is raise Homo sapiens to a level miles beyond our capability. We are aggressive, violent, censorious, deniers of fact and paranoid. But all ideologues and religious fanatics start from the ridiculous assumption that we can be – almost overnight – perfected.
Just as with modelling assumptions, so the same rules apply to belief systems: “Shit in, Shit out”.