Orwell or Wells—Can Science Save Humanity?

Will Science save humankind, or lead us to our doom? The Internet is buzzing lately with various online outlets reprinting this article by Richard Gunderman in The Conversation, about a debate between H. G. Wells and George Orwell on this topic.

H.G. Wells, best known for his science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, believed science was the best hope for humanity’s future. George Orwell, an essayist, critic, and author of 1984 and Animal Farm, took a less optimistic view.

The article makes it sound like a lively back-and-forth argument ensued, but from the essays cited, it seems rather one-sided. In the early 1940s, H.G. Wells was in his late 70s and near death. George Orwell was in his late 30s, (though not too far from his own death at 46). From what I can glean, this was mostly Orwell criticizing Wells, not the other way around.

Before we explore the ‘debate,’ let me define terms. Science is a systematic process for gaining knowledge about the universe through experimentation. Since it involves the accumulation of knowledge, it’s unlikely that Science, by itself, can either save or destroy humanity. I think of Engineering as the application of scientific knowledge to design, invent, and produce useful products.

When both Wells and Orwell refer to Science, I think they meant to include Engineering. For the purpose of this blogpost, I’ll use that same shorthand meaning of Science.

Wells grew up in an era far different from Orwell’s. He saw the rapid development of science—automobiles, submarines, airplanes, relativity, skyscrapers, rocketry, and medicine—and foresaw amazing wonders that would benefit mankind. He figured the same scientific process that could produce those wonders could also lead to better government if we placed scientists in charge.

Let’s give Wells some credit, though. He was no Pollyanna. Many of his novels portrayed the misuse of science for destructive ends. But George Orwell seized on some of Wells’ more optimistic—though lesser known—writings.

In the early 1940s, Orwell watched with growing horror at the growth of Hitler’s Germany and saw it as the embodiment of Wells’ ideas, a nation of submarines, rockets, and airplanes, with science-minded people running the show. To Orwell, Deutschland was no Utopia. He castigated Wells in a couple of scathing essays.

In his article in The Conversation, Gunderman claims the debate is still relevant today. It’s been 75 years since Orwell penned his criticisms; have we learned enough to settle the argument?

Since that time, Science has split the atom to provide electricity, visited the Marianas Trench, landed on the Moon, built and commercialized the Internet, put instant communication in our pockets, sent probes to explore the outer planets, multiplied crop yields, mapped the human genome, and extended lifespans through medical breakthroughs.

On the other hand, Science also brought us nuclear weapons, the Apollo 1 fire and two space shuttle disasters, Chernobyl, computer viruses, armed drones, and electronic spying. Soon, perhaps, an artificial intelligence Singularity may be looming.

In my view, science is a tool, like a knife or hammer. People can use it for good or evil. It amplifies our capacity for both. The concepts of good or evil reside in the individual human mind. To ask if Science will save humanity is like asking if a hammer will save humanity. It depends on how we use the tool.

The real question is whether our good natures will prevail over our evil ones. I think there are far more good people than evil ones, but the evil ones have greater influence per capita. For some reason, a few clever evil people can sway many good people to their side.

So far, across the span of human time our good natures have won out and the products of science have proffered more benefits than harm. On average, life is better now than in the past, for most. But it’s a close thing, and our history shows frequent backsliding.

Whether humanity achieves Utopia, destroys itself, or some outcome in between, Science will deserve neither credit nor blame. Only the human capacity for love or hate will determine our future. And that’s the realm of fiction writers like—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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An Analysis of Effortless Story Writing

“That story wrote itself,” I’ve sometimes said. But I exaggerated; it didn’t really happen that way. Still, it got me thinking. What if a story could write itself?

I decided to find out. Being rather sciency, I reckoned I’d conduct a careful and thorough experiment. I would give a story every conceivable chance, every possible opportunity, to write itself. Not because I’m lazy, you understand. This was for Science.

It’s time to shift the tone of this blog post to scientificalic language, lest you start to suspect I’m some kind of…not scientist.

Laboratory Setup – laptop still not writing

Ahem…the laptop was positioned in a roo—I mean—laboratory accustomed to having stories written in it, at a temperature of 24° C at normal atmospheric pressure. The laptop was turned on, plugged into a 120-volt alternating current power source, and word processing software was accessed.

The experimenter then left the laboratory and engaged in other, non-writing activities. These included cleaning other rooms, mowing the lawn, reading books, making and consuming lunch, and driving around town on various errands.

After a period of 8 hours and 24 minutes, the experimenter quietly re-entered the laboratory and discovered that a story had not been written. Even a part of a story had not been written, not a paragraph, sentence, word, letter, or punctuation mark. Neither had any new computer files been stored.

To gather more data, further opportunities were presented to the laptop on subsequent days. Longer time periods were tried, durations up to 73 hours and 53 minutes, with the same result. The experimenter engaged in a wider variety of non-writing activities, at greater distances from the laptop. Some trials were conducted with the laboratory door open, and some with it shut. Actual writing occurred in 0% of these cases.

Similar experiments were conducted with ink-filled pens and reams of blank paper. This served to eliminate the laptop and its software as the causal factor. Despite every opportunity and considerable time provided, the pens created no marks on the paper.

The experimenter tried to “spur” or “seed” the process by writing a first sentence, and allowing both laptop and pen to merely complete the story. These attempts likewise resulted in failure.

Numerous graphs were developed to document the results of these trials. They are not included here because the independent variable refused to depart from the axis; that is, the results were 0 in every case. 0 writing produced no matter what other quantity was being tested.

One common factor in all these trials was the experimenter himself. He therefore consulted several other writers and 100% of them reported the same outcomes in their “experiments,” though their trials were far less scientifical, with no white laboratory coats anywhere in evidence, and they had utterly failed to note the temperature. Mention of them here is included as anecdotal evidence only.

The experimenter is therefore forced to a surprising, though tentative, conclusion—it may be possible that stories do not, in fact, write themselves. The creation of stories appears to require the active participation of a writer. Significant participation actually, in every written story so far. At least this seems true for stories involving this single experimenter.

Further research is clearly indicated to validate or (hopefully) disprove this conclusion. Perhaps some necessary initial condition was overlooked, some nuance of temperature, pressure, time duration, or distance. Maybe positive results might occur under certain lunar phases or planetary alignments. A breakthrough may well await some future experimenter in this exciting research field.

For the advancement of Scientificness, this experimenter encourages others to conduct similar trials, particularly those authors writing in the same competitive genres as this experimenter. Feel free to send your own scientilic trial results as comments to this blog post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Arte/Scienza

Here is the fifth post in my series. I’ve been discussing how the seven principles put forth by Michael J. Gelb in his book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci relate to fiction writing. Today’s principle is Arte/Scienza, or “Development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination, ‘whole-brain’ thinking.”

ArteScienzaIn the book, Gelb demonstrates how Leonardo embodied the kind of balanced thinking intended by the term Arte/Scienza. His artistic paintings contain precise mathematical shapes and geological features. His scientific and engineering drawings are, themselves, works of art. Da Vinci didn’t distinguish between the two.

Sure, you’re saying, that’s all very well for ol’ Leo, born way back in 1452. But a lot has happened since then, particularly on the science side. There’s too much to learn to be an expert in both art and science. The two are way too different these days.

Artists are all about brushes and canvas, lighting and shadow, color and imagery. They’re out to discover beauty, or deliver a message, or say something significant about human nature.

On the other hand, scientists groove on equations and numbers, test tubes and Bunsen burners, experiments and technical papers. They’re out to discover truth, and to solve the mysteries of how the universe works.

In our modern world, we’re used to a high wall between Arte and Scienza. The two are so specialized, require such different talents, and their practitioners use such different jargon that it’s difficult to imagine one person combining the two in equal measure. Even books discussing Leonardo da Vinci separate the chapters for his artwork from those of his scientific endeavors.

Today we speak of being left-brained or right-brained, as if each of us is putting only half our brain to work and leaving the other half idle.

Michael Gelb discusses how you can use the philosophy of Arte/Scienza in your everyday life, and promotes the use of mind maps, which I also advocate.

My purpose is to discuss how Arte/Scienza applies to fiction writing. Most fiction writers identify more with artists than with scientists. They consider fiction writing a kind of art, and believe their creative temperament matches that of painters more than that of researchers. (The exception would be science fiction writers, who must use science in their writing.)

Here are some ways that even an author of magical fantasy, a writer who disdains all things scientific, can benefit from applying the Arte/Scienza principle:

  • Use mind-maps to aid in the writing process. These combine the logical orderliness of outlines with the free-form, colorful, image-laden right-brain preferences. Mind-maps can help you solve plotting problems, create characters, even plan book promotions.
  • Apply the experimental method to the development of your craft. The heart of science is the experimental method, used to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. You’re trying to become a better writer, so experiment!
  • Add a scientifically minded character to your story, even if he or she is the antagonist, a person of pure evil. Pour all your negative feelings about science into that character. You may just find, as you develop this antagonist, that he or she becomes one of your more engaging and interesting creations.
  • Embrace the overlap between art and science. If art searches for beauty, and science seeks truth, are those really that different? In the end, you’d like your book to say something new about the human condition, to expand reader’s knowledge about the theme you’re exploring. While working your art, haven’t you just committed an act of science?

Listen to your inner artist and your inner scientist. The more you do, the more you’ll find them getting along well together, and your writing might improve, too. So far, it’s working for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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September 27, 2015Permalink