What we still don’t know

Channel 4 in the UK just finished showing What We Still Don’t Know, a new science show presented by Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal. The aim was admirable, discussing science’s open questions, rather than presenting the usual heroic fait accompli of pop-science.

Somehow, the series got hijacked over the course of the episodes, becoming instead a bizarre (and false!) claim that science was pointing us toward believing in a creator. One of the participants, Max Tegmark, said “It is only life that gives the Universe meaning”, but this, and many other comments by him and others, seemed to be willfully over- (or mis-) interpreted as statements about a creator. The narrator said “their own discoveries were pointing them toward an intelligent designer” but none of the participants claimed anything like that (and, reiterating, there is nothing at all in contemporary physics arguing that); especially galling, and perhaps revealing, is the use of the term “intelligent design,” claimed by crypto-creationists attempting to get pseudoscientific cover for their ridiculous ideas.

The show went over the top toward the end, featuring Philosopher Nicholas Bostrom who seems not entirely unreasonable, but blathered on about the so-called “simulation hypothesis” — basically the not at all new idea that we don’t really exist, that we’re just a brain in a vat, or a simulation in some super-duper computer somewhere. If this sounds familiar, it is of course the plot of The Matrix, a fun film but a bad basis for a world-view.