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Posts Tagged ‘speculation’

Child or Picasso?

October 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I love thought experiments, and I’m in pretty good company because so did people like Einstein! If you don’t know, a thought experiment is a way to test an idea by applying logic to it through pure thought. It often leads to new ideas (as it did for Einstein in developing the General Theory of Relativity) which might then be tested with experiments in the real world.

So General Relativity is an example of where a thought experiment was used in physics, but they can also be used in other areas, such as philosophy. In previous posts I have talked about the famous “trolley experiments” (originally in “More Morality” from 2007-11-27, and “Would You Press the Button?” from 2013-07-16) which are probably the most well known thought experiments in the area of ethics, and I have a few more in that area I want to discuss in this post.

This is interesting stuff but you have to go from one point to the next honestly. So let’s go through some of these experiments. Here goes…

Philosopher, Peter Singer, likes to challenge his students with the following question: “I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.”

Unanimously, the students say they are morally obliged to rescue the child. He then asks, “assuming you could still perform the rescue, would the distance to the pond, or the nationality of the child matter?” The vast majority say no, they are still obliged to act to rescue the child. He then points out that a similar “rescue” could be achieved with very little effort in time or money by donating to a charity, like Oxfam, who are concerned with saving many lives every day.

Yet few of the students do this. Why not?

Now imagine a burning building with a child trapped inside. You can rescue the child relatively easily, and almost everyone says they would. But there is also an extremely valuable Picasso painting in the house which you will get a $1 million reward for. If you remove it from the fire you won’t have time to rescue the child as well. What should you do? Almost everyone would value the child’s life more and rescue her instead of the painting.

But what could you do with that $1 million? You could save hundreds of lives by donating it to charities, such as the one which provides mosquito nets in Africa. Still, most people would save the child instead. Also note that, if you did do the “logical” thing and saved the painting in order to help thousands of people later, you would probably be charged with a crime for not making a reasonable effort to save the child, as well as suffering the contempt of your friends and family!

But now imagine the building had two rooms. The first room contains the child and the painting, and the second has 5 children. If you grab the painting from the first room and ignore the single child, you can use the painting to prop open the door to the second room and rescue 5. Do you grab the painting then? If you do, what is the difference between doing that and taking it for the monetary value which could be used to save far more than just 5 lives later?

Finally, consider the burning building again. Behind the painting is a lever which releases the 5 children in the room next door. Do you ignore the single child, remove the painting, and activate the lever? Most people would. What about if the lever, through a complex mechanism, activated a food distribution system in Africa and immediately saved a thousand lives? You might still use it. And if the mechanism had a delay of 6 months before the lives were saved? Well maybe and maybe not. And is that any different than distributing the funds from the reward for the painting? In the final analysis, no, but most people treat it as if it is.

It should be clear by now that people’s ethical choices do not depend on a logical treatment of the facts involved in a particular situation. Not only do most people ignore the possibility of making a much more significant contribution later rather than a lesser one immediately, but they also treat the directness of their action as a major factor, rather than the final outcome.

Consequentialism is a philosophical doctrine which states that the best course of action should be judged by its final consequences. Superficially this seems to make sense, but no one can follow this in the real world. And if they tried they would very likely be condemned by others. Not only that, but trying to analyse the options available in a situation like those mentioned above would probably result in a paralysis of uncertainty to many people.

Maybe it’s just as well we act on immediate instincts rather than a careful analysis of the situation we find ourselves in. No philosophical system, including consequentialism, can really answer these questions. And although the answers are usually not obvious there is a significant amount of agreement in what people would do.

Decisions like this are a complex combination of logic, emotion, and social conditioning. And that’s OK, because the end result is usually fairly reasonable even though they make no sense. General Relativity thought experiments are so much easier!

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The Hard Problem

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Recently, while purchasing a few items at a wholesaler I was asked what I was listening to on my phone (because I had my Apple earphones on). I told the person I was listening to a podcast, and when that got a blank response I explained it was like a recorded radio program automatically downloaded from the internet, and that this one was by a philosopher and was mainly about politics. I was asked “are you listening to parliament?” and decided it was best to not try to explain further by making a joke like: “I wouldn’t listen to that because I want to retain what small scraps of sanity I still have.”

But it did emphasise how little most people know or care about many of the things that interest me, including some of the most difficult and obscure problems in science and philosophy today. Now, please don’t think I’m being elitist or arrogant because I know that I am no expert on any of this stuff, I just find it interesting, and knowing more about it is part of my aim to be good at everything but brilliant at nothing!

More recently I listened to another podcast in the same series which dealt with a subject which exactly of the type I mentioned above. That is the hard problem of consciousness. What is consciousness, where does it come from, and what else possesses it, apart from me?

Before I continue I will say what I mean by consciousness here. Basically it is the feeling that I (and presumably others) have that I am an individual, that I have some continuity of existence from the past, that I have some form of free will (or at least the illusion of that) to control the world to some extent. Where does this come from?

The idea which I find most compelling, and the one which I think is generally accepted by the majority of scientists is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the processes which occur inside a brain of sufficient complexity. But some people, especially some philosophers and a lot of theologians, believe it is better explained through dualism. That is the idea that there is something beyond the physical processes of thought occurring in the brain. Maybe that there is a “soul” (not necessarily in the religious sense) which is in final control of the physical processes.

At this stage, all the neuroscience I have heard of gives me no reason to think that anything beyond the purely material exists. But I want to ignore the good, solid stuff like that and consider some idle speculation and thought experiments instead!

Imagine my personal identity, my mind, my consciousness is an emergent property of my brain processes. What would happen if an exact copy of me was made (in something like a Star Trek transporter which copied the original person instead of moving him). Where would my consciousness them lie? The copy would be identical, with an identical brain and identical processes. If my thoughts arose from physical processes would I experience them in both bodies simultaneously?

Alternatively, imagine it was possible to “back up” all the information in a brain and upload it to a computer, then re-establish it after death or injury. What would happen if it was downloaded into a different brain? What would happen if it ran on an artificial brain in the computer itself?

Another disturbing question is how complex does a brain need to be before it becomes conscious? It certainly seems that many animals are self-aware. Surely chimps, dolphins, etc have similar levels of consciousness to humans. What about cats and dogs? Rats and mice? Flies? Where does it end?

And if consciousness arises through the processing power of a brain, can it also arise in an artificial brain, like a sufficiently complex and properly programmed computer? Or does it only arise in “naturally arising” entities. What about in an alien? What if that alien evolved a silicon brain very similar to a computer?

We know that our cells are constantly being replaced, don’t we? Well no, that isn’t exactly true. Different cells have different “life spans”, from a few days up to apparently the life of the individual. Significantly, it is some types of brain neurons which are never replaced. Is it these cells which give us our individual identity?

Now let’s imagine that duality is a better explanation. There are some anecdotes indicating that consciousness apparently exists independently of the body. There are out of body experiences, various phenomena such as ESP, reincarnation, and near death experiences. Some of these seem quite compelling but they have never been confirmed by any rigorous scientific study.

Maybe the brain is just an interface between the non-physical seat of consciousness and the body. If the brain is damaged or dies the consciousness still exists but has no way to interact with the world. It would be difficult to distinguish between that and the emergent phenomenon hypothesis I outlined above so maybe this is one of those theories which is “not even wrong”.

Finally there is computation and maths. The way maths seems to reflect and even predict reality has been a puzzle since the article called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” was published almost 50 years ago. Some physicists have noted that reality seems to almost arise from a form of computation, which seems to explain the effectiveness of maths.

So now we seem to be getting back to the idea that the universe might be a simulation (see my blog post titled “Life’s Just a Game” from 2016-07-06). If it is then the universe was created by someone (or something). Would that thing be a god? And if the individual entities are “just” part of a simulation do they have any less moral rights as a result?

Maybe all of this stuff is “not even wrong” and maybe it is pointless to even speculate about it, but sometimes doing pointless things is OK, just as long as we don’t take it too seriously.

So I think I will continue to listen to philosophical musings rather than the rather more mundane business of politics I hear in parliament. Actually, I think there is room for both, because politics is also a subject I include in my “good at everything” strategy. And one thing is clear: in most subjects being above average isn’t difficult!

Captain’s Log

August 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Captain’s Log, Mission Day 30476.32

At 0.30 today we deactivated the star drive and approached the planet.

As our astronomers had already discovered, it is a rocky world orbiting a yellow dwarf sun. Compared to our own world it is just slightly smaller and hotter, and its sun is remarkably similar to ours, so it might almost seem like home to us.

The mysterious presence of molecular oxygen in the atmosphere has been confirmed by our observations but we are still too far away to discover what it source is. Whether it turns out to be some complex inorganic chemical reaction or the side effect of life we cannot yet tell.

I don’t need to tell you what a discovery it would be if this planet does have life, because in all the thousands of planets we have visited, all have been barren. Maybe we are the only ones, or maybe we have just been unlucky in our search so far. After all, there are hundreds of billions of planets in this galaxy alone and the few thousand we have visited is just a tiny start in exploring them. But I will end my speculation here because tomorrow we might know.

Day 30477.27

The detail visible on the planet’s surface is increasing rapidly as we approach. This final stage of space travel is frustrating, of course, because inside a solar system we cannot use the star drive and must revert to conventional propulsion systems.

The feature which dominates the planet’s surface is a huge impact crater which we calculate was formed relatively recently. If there was life on this planet it would likely have been virtually wiped out by this disaster.

A spectrographic analysis will be complete later today, and that should reveal the presence of the molecules of life if they exist here. We should soon know the answer to the question we came here for.

Day 30477.34

The spectrography is complete and we are almost 100% certain there is life on the planet. A molecule which is very similar to one used by plant life on our own planet has been detected in great quantities. It seems that all of the oceans (which cover over 60% of the planet’s surface) and a lot of the land contain some sort of organism which can convert sunlight to energy and release oxygen in the process. This explains the excess oxygen in the atmosphere.

Day 30478.72

We have put the ship into orbit around the mysterious planet and our detailed observations are now revealing something which has produced a lot of disagreement among our scientists. There are apparently symmetric structures over many parts of the planet which seem artificial. They are covered with many years of dust and debris from the impact but some of our more radical researchers think they are the remains of great structures built by an intelligent species which one lived here.

We are almost ready to send a party down to investigate these in more detail. This is potentially the greatest discovery of all time. Initially we coud barely hope to find any life here but now we are serious about the possibility of finding intelligent life.

Day 30479.37

The unthinkable has happened. Our landing party has confirmed that the structures are artificial. There seems to be no other explanation except they were built by an intelligence with technology approaching our own in sophistication. We now need to establish whether they survived the asteroid impact.

Day 30479.82

Most of the land surface of the planet has been devastated, but some life in the oceans has survived. We have discovered a massive variety of different species there, a few of which have some level of intelligence, but there is no sign of technology.

Day 30480.21

The exploration of the alien structures (it seems obvious they were cities where large numbers – perhaps millions – of the aliens lived) continues, and we have made a very significant discovery which might allow us to explore the history of the planet. We have found various objects which seem to be storage devices. Our best technicians will work on these and if we can read them we might be able to translate whatever information they contain.

Day 30480.69

The storage devices appear to contain electronic circuits based on silicon technology. We should be able to adapt some of our own computers to read them because they are similar to a technology we have used recently before moving to photonic storage.

Day 30481.11

We have cracked the storage devices! They contain data stored in an 8 bit code which maps to an alphabet. It seems that the symbols in this alphabet form groups which correspond to words in a language. The language is very obscure and is likely something which has changed and become more complex over a long time period. We will continue to work on decoding it.

Day 30482.48

The language decoding is progressing rapidly and we now know a lot about the society that existed there. A lot of what I am going to say here will seem shocking, but our best language experts and anthropologists agree it is what they material we have discovered reveals, and fits in with the physical evidence we see on almost the entire surface of the planet.

The intelligent inhabitants of the planet were called “humans” and the planet was called “Earth”. There were millions of different species on the planet before the impact but 90% of them, including all of the land species, were wiped out.

We cannot find any signs that any of the humans survived, but they did have the technology available to live almost indefinitely in the oceans so some might survive there. They also had space technology sufficient to travel around the solar system, but did not have the capability for interstellar travel.

The humans had a society which had many admirable characteristics. The planet was divided into hundreds of areas called “countries” which had slightly different types of inhabitants, different leadership, economic systems, etc. Most of the countries had a system to choose a leader where the population voted and the most successful person became leader for a period of time. Unfortunately this system became corrupted and the leaders were rarely very competent.

Most shockingly there was constant competition between these countries and this often extended to organised combat between different factions, often resulting in numerous deaths. Reasons for these “wars” included competition over resources, land ownership, and even differences in opinion over philosophy, including (most bizarrely) an amazingly common system known as “religion” where the humans became believers in various supernatural entities. Why they maintained these bizarre beliefs and how one myth was chosen over another requires further study.

You can see at this point that humans exhibited a strange combination of quite advanced science and technology and surprisingly primitive beliefs. It would not be uncommon, for example, for a believer in a supernatural entity who espoused pacifism to use an advanced combat machine of some sort to kill thousands of his opponents who believed in a slightly different deity. Clearly our anthropologists have a lot of work to do in this area.

But finally in this initial report on the history of humans I must discuss the most obvious question, and the one which is both hardest to understand and the most tragic to contemplate. That is, if the humans had the technology available, why did they not divert the asteroid, avoid the impact in some other way, or even move some of their people to another planet?

The initial evidence seems to indicate that they were too distracted with other things, especially their economic system. A lot of resource and effort was applied to things which make no sense, such as persuading people to buy unhealthy drinks which had no benefit at all, or paying participants in entertainment events which no intelligent person could take seriously. Yet all this time completely inadequate effort was put into protecting the planet from obvious threats.

When the asteroid was first seen it was already too late. A small investment in monitoring the sky for asteroids and in the technology required to divert them would have saved the planet. Yet they seemed to believe that other things were more important.

As captain, I shouldn’t really offer a value judgement on what happened here on Earth, but it is so disappointing to find a spark of intelligence, so rare in this universe, has now gone, completely unnecessarily. And I have to say that, given the way they acted, maybe it was for the best.

A Ponzi Scheme

August 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Everyone has heard of Ponzi schemes, right? If not, here’s the dictionary definition: a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a non-existent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors. It is named after Charles Ponzi who set up elaborate money-making ventures based on the system in the early 1900s.

Typically the first few people involved in the scheme promise to pay huge returns to the “investors” and when these are demanded they are paid from the initial investments made from other investors. It can never last, of course, but the original perpetrators usually try to get out before it all turns bad.

A related scheme is known as a “pyramid scheme”. In these the early “investors” are paid a fee by those they recruit and a lesser amount by those the recruiters recruit, etc. It works as long as new people are recruited, but the “deeper” into the scheme you are the less you will get and the more you will be paying those at the peak.

A unique feature of these schemes is that the organisation or individual running the scheme doesn’t actually need to do anything apart from run the scheme. They don’t need to sell anything or provide any service, for example. The scheme is entirely about shuffling money from one place to another (generally from the “suckers” who sign up late to those who were involved in the initial setup of the scheme).

As we all know, there are some pyramid schemes which also sell products (I’m sure we can all name some) but that is more or less just a cover for the dishonest underlying structure.

I was thinking about this recently and realised that there are many aspects of our modern economic system which make it look like just another Ponzi scheme. The economy only works well while there is “growth” or “increased efficiency or productivity”, yet these aims are totally unsustainable in the long term, and even during the short period that they are sustainable they are often undesirable.

In New Zealand a major election issue is immigration. New Zealand allegedly has a healthy and growing economy – and some stats support this view – yet the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they are doing well. How is this possible? Well basically it gets back to the fact that this alleged “growth” we see in our “rock star economy” is all fake. It is primarily due to increased population, provided by immigration, and no real progress has been made at all.

Unfortunately for the politicians supporting this scheme, it cannot last. Like most rock stars our economy will crash and burn when the excesses of its existence overtake any worthwhile contribution it is making. Eventually everyone will realise they are just being ripped off by a giant Ponzi scheme. But by that time the people in government who have created this situation will probably be gone.

Of course I should point out two things here. First, a pyramid scheme is probably a better description that a Ponzi for the economy, but Ponzi just sounds cooler so it better serves my rhetorical narrative; and second, the economy isn’t a pure Ponzi or pyramid scheme and almost everyone would admit that it works well in some ways.

Despite the obvious and numerous faults in capitalism, for example, it does produce the goods and services the First World needs to maintain its lavish lifestyle. As I have pointed out many times in the past, the system is grossly inefficient, poorly focussed, and generally corrupt, but I would never claim it doesn’t have some good points as well, especially for the original investors in the Ponzi or the people at the top of the pyramid (AKA the 1%).

But it will fail because indefinite growth is impossible and because the 99% who support the people at the top of the pyramid will eventually catch on to what’s really happening and rebel. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Like all Ponzi schemes it will fail and it will probably happen through catastrophic collapse rather than a careful restructuring.

When it happens it won’t be pretty, just like poor old Charles Ponzi’s slow and painful decline and death after all his wonderful and elaborate schemes failed.

Boss, Leader, or Team?

July 18, 2017 Leave a comment

I have a cartoon on my wall (amongst my collection of socially and politically relevant material) which depicts two management styles. There are two images of a team of three people trying to move a heavy weight and in one the “boss” is sitting on top of the weight (and therefore making it even heavier and harder to shift) at his desk, giving out orders. In the second the “leader” is at the front of the team, helping to shift the weight, and indicating the best direction to go.

The symbolism is obvious and I’m sure most people would know which category the vast majority of managers belong in. They are the type who not only perform no useful function but actually make getting the job done even harder for the people actually doing it.

I honestly believe that many organisations would be better off just to put their managers in a room where they can have meetings all day but never do anything in the real world. I’m not making a rhetorical point here, I really do believe we would be better to pay them to do nothing (assuming they have to exist at all, but disposing of them all would be too big a step for most organisations).

But my real point is this: is it possible to have a third model where all 4 team members share equally in both the work and the decision making? Could all the team members look at the challenge ahead and decide the best course of action instead of just relying on the opinion of the one who is designated leader?

Because, in the end, the decisions made by management really are just opinions being imposed on other people simply because of an artificial hierarchy which has been created (by managers, of course). They have no natural right to impose their views on others. And they have no real justification for those opinions, because business cases can be used to justify anything, and it seems in most cases that the decision is made first, based on personal preferences, then a case is prepared to justify it.

You might be thinking at this point that this argument is somewhat hypocritical, because it’s just my opinion that management opinions are unreliable and untrustworthy. But I do have some evidence supporting my view. The wisdom of crowds is a well established phenomenon in both social science and statistical theory. Basically, in many circumstances, a large number of opinions, when properly aggregated, lead to far more accurate appraisals of the real world than an individual’s assessment.

So there is the simple fact that multiple opinions are usually better than just one. But it goes beyond that, because the leaders often have a very distorted view of what their decisions are trying to achieve. A positive spin on it would be to say that they see “the big picture” but it would be equally valid to say they see a picture devoid of any connection with reality.

And if none of the above appeals there is one last point I would make in support of my “team leadership” idea. That is the decisions are made by those they affect. In a top-down model the decisions are made by a leader, but the negative consequences are dealt with by those who must carry out the new idea. At least if a team finds themselves trying to implement a bad idea they know it is their own and can fix it.

I’m not necessarily suggesting this model (which I will call the “team” model as opposed to the “boss” and “leader” models in the cartoon) is the best solution, but I am wondering if it could work and why it isn’t considered as an option in more organisations (it has been attempted in some situations with mixed results).

The real danger with these new and radical ideas is that, even if the current system seems fairly bad, it still might be the best we can hope for given the vagaries of human nature and the realities of actual social and political interactions. Maybe the leader model is the best we can hope for. Or maybe – an even more depressing thought – the boss model, no matter how bad it seems on the surface, is best. I certainly hope not!

Let’s Vote on It!

June 15, 2017 Leave a comment

There’s an awful lot I don’t like about the way our society works. If you follow this blog you probably have realised this by now, based on the endless diatribe of negativity contained here. I think my fundamental disagreements can be summarised in just a few statements though, so I thought I might list them here, along with some suggested ways to fix them, of course.

1. I reject the need for politics, leadership and management. Why should one person be able to control another? We need to rid ourselves of politicians by moving to a direct democracy and leveraging the wisdom of crowds. And on a smaller scale we need to do the same thing in the workplace. All managers, CEOs, etc must be eliminated.

2. I reject capitalism. The pursuit of financial gain just encourages people to gain financially, not to make a useful contribution to society. The tragedy of the commons shows us that the pursuit of individual wealth will eventually lead to disaster. And no, greed is not good, except for the tiny fraction of people who are greedy, and even they will suffer in the long term.

3. I reject rules and regulations. It is utterly ridiculous how our lives are controlled by so many pointless and inane rules and laws. No one can possibly know them all, yet if we transgress against them we are punished. This includes laws set by politicians and policies and regulations set by companies and other organisations.

4. I reject special privileges given to both individuals and institutions. I am totally against the automatic right to rule given to royalty, and I can’t see why churches should not have to pay taxes like everyone else.

So, now I need to get on with the ways these issues might be fixed. Each one deserves an entire blog post to cover properly so I will just give a quick summary of the sort of solution I would suggest here. No doubt, in future admonishments of the status quo I will expound on these basic principles.

For leadership I suggest we institute a system of management by the people most affected. So every major decision could go to a vote and could be decided that way. Would that mean that every person would be constantly involved with the pros and cons of every potential change? No, because each person would be given a quota of votes they could use during the year and it would be up to them to choose the issues they wanted to use the votes on.

Everyone would have the same number of votes and voting would be easy because it would all work through the internet. What about people who don’t have a computer or don’t like technology? No problem, they would be given a dedicated device which does all the technical stuff for them and connects through the cell network. Anyone who didn’t have the ability or initiative to do even that probably shouldn’t be voting anyway.

We all know that bad decisions are often made by voters in democratic systems, but I say “so what?” Bad decisions are made by politicians and managers all the time. At least, using my method, the people would have “ownership” of the error and would be likely to fix it since no individual blame would be possible.

So what about a replacement for capitalism? Well we need to have a system which rewards behaviour which leads to the best outcomes for the majority rather than capitalism which does the exact opposite. I would be the first to admit that attempts at traditional extreme socialism (USSR, etc) have not worked well, so that isn’t a good substitute. I would suggest a system based on the internet voting I described above might be better. Individuals, companies, etc could be rewarded based on how much the majority of people think they are worth rather than how much they can extract from the existing corrupt system.

I suspect we would find that people working as cancer researchers would be paid more than those who chose to be currency traders under a system like this. Who would possibly argue with that? – apart from currency traders, of course!

Regarding rules and regulations. I don’t suggest we completely remove those, of course. For a start, we would need some of them to make the decisions arrived at by the systems I have already described binding on society.

But let’s think about the rules and laws we have now. As I said above, no one knows them all, yet we are expected to obey them. The reason this works is that the important rules (against murder, theft, etc) are understood by all moral, rational people so it doesn’t really matter whether they are laws or not, and the the more trivial rules (for example, the blasphemy laws I have discussed in the past) tend to be ignored anyway.

So why not have general guidelines instead, and use the voting system again to decide the guilt or innocence of offenders. Anyone could ask for an opinion on how they have been disadvantaged by another person. If one person stole from another they would probably be found guilty, but there might be special situations where society found the theft was acceptable. For example, if someone steals a small amount from another person who is really rich and uses it to buy some medicine a member of their family needs I would say that is no crime. Of course, if the voting system works as expected there won’t be huge discrepancies between the rich and poor any more so this situation might not even arise!

Finally, the special privileges. I’m fairly confident that a vote would quickly eliminate these odd deviations from what is fair. Churches would not be allowed to operate tax free, corporations would not be people, and tax havens would not be allowed. We all know these things aren’t fair and we all know the sophistry used to justify them doesn’t stand up to any fair appraisal. In my system they I think they would be gone.

So there it is: the new utopia! A world where decisions are made by the people, for the people. Lincoln’s dream might finally really happen. In the end it all seems to be about taking control from the self-serving elite and giving it to the people. I’m not naive enough to think that it will happen in any realistic time frame, but hey, it’s just an idea I’m tossing out there. Let’s vote on it!

Next

April 21, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently finished reading (actually listening to the audiobook version of) the Michael Crichton novel, Next, which I found both compelling and interesting, and hard to “put down”.

I know that his work gets a certain amount of criticism because of his failure to follow what many deem to be the standard mechanisms writers should use to produce the best results (clear leading characters, strong single plot lines, full and complex character development) but I find his books quite engrossing because of the complex plots and interesting treatment of ideas and controversies.

Next was the last book Crichton wrote before his death from cancer in 2008 at age 66. I have read or listened to most of his other books and liked them for the same reasons I liked this one: he includes a lot of credible scientific and technical details; he often has several plots and sub-plots running simultaneously and interacting in complex ways; and he always has a greater philosophical, political, or scientific point to make.

I should emphasise that this is fiction based on science. In the introduction to the book the author says “this novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren’t.” and in a New York Times Book Review they described the book as “a barrage of truths, half-truths and untruths”.

Maybe the best example of this is in another of his novels, Jurassic Park (the one the movies were based on) where the dinosaur DNA is sourced from amber. This is a genuine technique but not one which is likely to allow recovery of material more than 65 million years old.

But the real point of Jurassic Park is not about *how* dinosaurs might be brought back to life but *if* they should. In the book the dinosaurs get out of control – as predicted by the expert in chaos theory (also a real thing and basically well portrayed) – despite the best efforts of the people in charge.

And this is a common theme in other Crichton books. They usually involve failures to allow for all possible problems, greed and unrealistic optimism leading to bad decisions, and incompetent and corrupt people causing systems to break down.

I found it interesting, as the book proceded, to try to guess which parts were true and, if they were based on fact, how much fact. So all of the following are parts of the book which sound odd but are essentially true: cells taken in medical procedures are used for profit by universities without the donors’ consent; body parts are harvested by morgues and funeral directors and sold; transgenic species, including monkeys, have already been created; modern human blonde genes probably originated in Neanderthals; and an artist has used his own fat (obtained through liposuction) to make a meatball served at a dinner party!

Actually, the only “fact” I checked which I couldn’t verify was the existence of a group mentioned in the book called the “society for libertarian biology” which doesn’t appear to exist. No doubt there are many other fictional elements too, that was just the only one I checked.

So here are some of the themes/ideas presented in the book which I agreed with, or at least found interesting…

We need to stop patenting genes. This is totally absurd from a logical perspective, it is intolerable from any reasonable moral viewpoint, and it doesn’t even make much sense from a business or economic angle, except for the company who has the patent for something they have no right to. There are many examples already of gene patents causing great harm to both individuals and society. The processes of science and discovery in general have been warped by business.

We need better rules for tissue storage and we need to enforce them. Again there are many examples of where companies have acted in very morally doubtful ways to profit from cells they “own”. The pursuit of profit has warped basic moral standards.

The real outcomes of research and development must be made public. Research and trials of new drugs and treatments sometimes leads to bad outcomes for the subjects, including death, and this should not be hidden behind commercial sensitivity and trade secrets. In fact (this is just my opinion), commercial sensitivity should always be rejected: all information relating to large organisations (companies, universities, etc) should be public. The pursuit of profit has destroyed basic fairness.

Studies of commercial products need to be transparent and performed by neutral scientists. Under the current system 90% of drug trials give positive results for the person funding the trial. It seems a clear case of where science has been corrupted by business.

We should avoid bans on research. All research is useful although some caution needs to be used in potentially dangerous or morally ambiguous situations. Again we need a scientific approach rather than a commercial one

Universities have become too commercial and their original function as unbiased commentators on society and originators of pure knowledge have largely gone. In public universities the taxpayers pay, the universities profit by selling their new discoveries to corporations who sell them back (with extreme profits) back to the taxpayers who paid for them to start with. Again, science has been corrupted by commerce

Look at the last sentence of each of those points and it is pretty obvious where the problem lies. The problem is the same one responsible for most of our modern problems: uncontrolled capitalism. It’s a point I have made many times and it is interesting that the same point is apparent in Crichton’s work, even though he is often considered a libertarian.

Finally, I liked this book. it was thoughtful but also fast paced, serious but also humorous in parts, based on fact but those were portrayed through fiction. The ultimate recommendation: I started another Crichton novel as soon as I finished this one!