“BEGIN with an earthquake and work up to a climax.” That aphorism, usually attributed to legendary film producer Samuel Goldwyn, epitomises Hollywood’s attitude to movie-making: when you’ve got no better ideas, simply throw everything at the screen and hope to dazzle the viewer.
This year has felt like one of Goldwyn’s movies, beginning with the first-act earthquake in Japan and working up to the financial crisis in Europe, via nuclear disaster, tumult in the Middle East, the assassination of the world’s most wanted man and particles that travel faster than light. At times, the news was more gripping than anything Hollywood was producing.
And more bewildering, too. To put it in cinematic terms: this year’s storyline has been pretty difficult to follow. Even the “experts” have been left struggling to anticipate or explain the course of events.
Why? Because they, like the rest of us, have been seduced by simplistic models of complex systems that range from social policy to market economics to the environment. Ideology has come to prevail over evidence; among some factions, blind faith – in markets, destiny or deities – has triumphed over reason.
Social inequality has become
a massive concern everywhere from the Arab street to Wall Street. Yet our understanding of whether or how it should be addressed has only recently advanced beyond trickle-down dogma. In general, trials of social innovation – in drugs policy, say – are flimsily designed, and politically inexpedient outcomes rejected. Genuinely evidence-based policymaking remains the exception, rather than the rule.
Behavioural psychology and agent-based modelling have long undermined the foundations of neoclassical economics, in which investors are deemed all-knowing
and speculative bubbles no more than occasional blips. Until now. Are financial markets too free, or not free enough? No one yet knows how to answer that question. Only recently have we started to look for clues in network analysis (see page 31).
The problems of perpetual growth have long been discussed, too: we are clearly consuming resources at an unsustainable rate. But alternatives are dismissed as woolly crankery, and change fiercely resisted: witness
the furore over climate change.In short, the world doesn’t just
resemble a blockbuster movie; it’s being run like one too. And that can’t be good. As acclaimed writer William Golding said about Hollywood in his 1983 memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade, “nobody knows anything”. Rules of thumb, hunches and received wisdom have proved time and again to be no substitute for genuine understanding.
Now the movie business is trying to change that, using computers to pace films and brain scans of viewer reactions. That may sound far-fetched and perhaps even sinister. But the best way to make progress is to consider fresh new ideas, test them and accept the lessons learned, no matter how unsettling they may be.
When researchers discovered in September that neutrinos might be able to travel faster than light, they did not simply dismiss their findings out of hand. They checked them carefully, published them and awaited confirmation. While few physicists may expect it to come, most would be delighted if it did. Some are already cooking up new models of reality. That speaks to a willingness to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. We should go into 2012 in that spirit. n
A blockbuster yearNext year let’s deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be
“Ideology has come to prevail over evidence; blind faith has triumphed over reason”
HERE at New Scientist we aim to keep you up to date with the wonderful world of science, from cosmology and quantum physics to evolution and the brain. By necessity we have to be brief: so much to report, so little time.
Now and then it is a pleasure to delve deeper. That is one reason why our CultureLab section exists – to
keep track of popular science books and bring the very best to your attention. For bibliophiles, 2011 has been a bumper year. Here’s an opportunity to fill your shelves with 10 of the best. We have three sets of the year’s best science books to give away, including a signed copy of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven
Pinker and copies of books by Mark Changizi, Richard Dawkins, David Deutsch, David Eagleman, Richard Fortey, Brian Greene, Daniel Kahneman, Lisa Randall and Robert Trivers.
For your chance to win a set of all 10 books, visit newscientist.com/bestbooks2011. n
Win the 10 best science books of 2011
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