Why the greatest song about science proves humans can’t do it

Let me state my opinions as if they’re facts.

I can get away with that in this case because they’re true.

First up, the greatest song about science.

That song is, of course, Still Alive.

Yes, the Portal song.

I remember when Portal 2 came out – so many people squeed over its ending song. “It’s even better than the first one!!!”

Honestly, I was disappointed. Want You Gone isn’t bad – it’s funny, clever and catchy.

But it didn’t say anything.

Still Alive had some delightful commentary on the nature of science:

Humans are too fallible to do it right.

GLaDOS is a superhuman artificial intelligence, fanatically devoted to science. She lives (well, ‘lives’) for testing. She only seems insane because she doesn’t care about humans… except for seeing what they can do.

In Portal, you escape her tests, confront her and destroy her.

A human’s reaction to being mildly injured, let alone murdered, would be a whole lot of angry screaming.

Not GLaDOS, though.

She barely survives you murdering her thanks to remote backups or something… and she’s excited. You did something unexpected, even impossible. Sure, she’s now trapped, unable to move her broken body… but that’s great because it never should have happened!

That’s how science progresses – through the failed experiments more than the successful ones.

A successful experiment tells you your hunch is right. An unexpected result tells you the truth is something you didn’t realise.

That’s the best result for science…

Even if it’s the worst result for your career, your ego and your beloved mental model of how the world works.

Sure, sure, GLaDOS isn’t perfect. She’s a little passive-aggressive towards you about you killing her. And by the sequel, she’s delirious with rage… but that’s because she relived her death in a digital purgatory for, what, centuries? Longer?

My point is, she’s (mostly) happy about the surprising outcome to her experiment.

Even though it led to her destruction.

This is why most people are terrible at science. It’s why most scientists are terrible at it. It’s a rare and exceptional person who can put the noble pursuit of truth before their own ego, let alone what pays the bills.

There are exceptions, of course.

And it’s not impossible to learn this mindset… if only universities taught it.

But just because a scientist is famous, accomplished and a visionary, don’t assume they’re above this.

Don’t think I’m anti-science, though. It’s one of the best things we do – emphasis on ‘we’. Because while humans, as individuals, can’t do science, the collective of humanity can.

A scientist, with their flaws and ego, proposes an idea.

Another one, with the same weaknesses and a different perspective, challenges it.

Over time, the weight of evidence buries one and enshrines the other.

Science, as a social force, works even when it uses broken people.

It takes time, though – longer than it should. Myopathy and ego have taken us down many wrong paths in the past. If you think we’ve got it all figured out now, I admire your optimism. A hundred years from now, people will look at us and wonder how we could have been so stupid.

There are morals to this story.

Trust science, but distrust a scientist.

If something sounds wrong, test it. If you can’t test it, find what the science really says.

Just because a scientist says something, that doesn’t mean there’s any evidence behind it.

Contemporary examples: any covid countermeasure. The physical distancing, the need to sanitise everything, the advice to not/always wear a mask – none of it was based on science, because the science didn’t exist yet. These were policy makers, making guesses as to how the virus might work and what might stop it.

Scientists said it, but there was nothing scientific about it.

Contrast this with climate science. Science doesn’t predict climate, but it knows enough to say changing the atmosphere will be almost certainly terrible. Adding CO2 to the atmosphere will probably make the Earth warmer on average, or it might trigger an ice age, but you can’t keep doing it and expect nothing to happen.

(Again, when a scientist says “by 2050, the only inhabitable place will be Antarctica” – that’s a scientist saying it, not science.)

It’s a subtle distinction. Doubting science is dumb. Doubting scientists is how science works.

The reason I bring this up is in the 1800s and 1900s, plenty of scientists doubted hypnosis.

But why?

Because they conducted experiments carefully and rationally, examined the evidence and followed the logic?

Nah – it sounded too mystical, therefore it was mysticism.

Sure, some of them did some experiments. They disproved the early hypothesis it worked by magnetic fields, and thus discounted the entire field.

If the cause was wrong, they reasoned, then so must be the effect!

But you can know something works without knowing how. If they had shelved their egos and biases, even for a moment, they would have seen their ‘proof’ was inadequate. They had everything they needed to prove hypnosis was real, even if they didn’t understand it.

Instead, they dismissed the entire field.

Science, patient as she is, proved hypnosis is real. But it set the field back so far that, even today, after decades of undeniable evidence from within academia and outside it, millions of people don’t believe in it.

Scientists screwed up, tarnishing the reputation of one of the most powerful tools we have for restoring and enhancing the mind.

Never forget that scientists are only human. Treat them as avatars of truth and you might set the human race back by centuries.

Speaking of hypnosis, you can experience it now.

A great way to start is by signing up for a Neural Reset. It uses your brain’s natural relaxation mechanisms to ease your stress and everything it causes.

You know how everything seems better after a restful night’s sleep? It’s like that, only stronger and in a fraction of the time.

Sleep is random. I’m precise and deliberate.

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