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The Clueless Technocracy
What the video game Starfield tells us about our society's failure to think scientifically
Düsseldorf, 11 September 2023 Filed under: Culture
I've spent the last couple of weeks playing Bethesda's new RPG masterpiece Starfield, first for a review on the German tech news site heise.de and then because it's generally a very good videogame that's right down my alley. Starfield is set about 300 years in the future, where humanity has mastered faster-than-light space travel and is exploring the solar systems in the immediate vicinity of Sol and Alpha Centauri. Obviously, as one would expect in a science fiction game like this which is centred around space exploration, science plays a big role in the story. And this is where the trouble with the game starts — a sort of trouble that is emblematic for much of our culture these days and points to a very dangerous future for humanity.
The problems with Starfield started to occur to me as I was playing a side mission chain that focuses on the threat to humanity by a dangerous alien organism called a terrormorph. During these missions, you investigate the threat and then progress to helping a number of scientists find a possible solution to the problem. Your goal is to eradicate the terrormorph species from all planets inhabited by humans. So far so good, that is an understandable goal, as the terrormorphs (as the name would suggest) are incredibly dangerous and can’t be otherwise contained. What is worse: They seem to somehow travel the stars with humans, turning up on every planet that has been settled by humans sooner or later.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
What is more disturbing than eradicating this species, however, is the solutions the scientists in the game come up with at the end of this questline. At the final conclusion of it, the player is asked by the governing body of the largest space nation in the game to choose between two possibilities to solve the terrormorph problem. Both of these solutions, which are being pushed by the top scientific advisors to the government, are terrible. No ethical scientist in the real world would ever endorse anything like this, but the fictional scientists in the game actually think both of these ideas are great. It is a damning indictment of how poorly the writers of this questline understood scientific thinking.
So what are the solutions we are being presented with here? We can either artificially breed an alien species — which humanity used to use as livestock and then almost eradicated — to spread it among the settled planets and moons, as it turns out that this species once was a natural predator which eats the terrormorphs. Or, the player can tell the government to artificially engineer a "microbe", which is genetically manipulated to target the terrormorph organism and kill it. When I objected to the second option, on the grounds that genetically engineering a “microbe” like that might be very dangerous, the lead scientist in the game admonished me, telling me my objection was silly and that the “microbe” was “solved science”.
The Three Glaring Issues with This Writing
Now, from a sane scientific viewpoint, this storyline is worrying in several respects:
The idea of releasing an alien organism into countless ecosystems is obviously a dumb one, no matter how convinced "leading scientists" are that it is safe. We learned this as early as the 18th century when Thomas Austin thought it was a good idea to introduce rabbits to Australia to hunt for sport. Now, it's one thing to make this mistake on a global scale in the 18th century, but it takes an inordinate amount of stupidity to repeat it on an intergalactic scale in the 24th century. And to even think any scientist — a xenobiologist no less — worth their salt would even suggest such a thing…
Gene-targeting a micro-organism to eradicate a species is incredibly dangerous. Not only because of unforeseen consequences should it actually work as intended — who knows what would happen if this weapon is let loose on an intergalactic scale, interacting with hundreds of ecosystems? The possibility that the micro-organism would mutate and start attacking other species or cause Darwin knows what kind of problems is even more scary. The game actually tries to head off this possibility by assuring the player that the possibility for mutations is "only about one in a million", without realising that a one-in-a-million chance of mutation is actually pretty high when you're talking about a micro-organism that would probably exhibit close to exponential growth in the wild. With other words: The chances of this "microbe" doing something unintended is close to one hundred percent. And the chance that this unintended consequence would be really bad also seems to be at least significant and only increasing the longer the organism is out there and the more alien ecosystems and environments it is exposed to.
Probably the most unscientific aspect of all of this is that the game keeps talking about a "microbe". But what kind of "microbe" is it? If we discount fungi, the two obvious possibilities seem to be a virus or a bacterium1. Now, in any real dialogue between scientists discussing something like this, anyone participating in the discussion would specify what it is they are talking about. Anyone who has ever heard experts talk about their field of expertise knows this. An IT specialist talking about a faulty SSD would call it what it is. They wouldn't keep going on about a "storage device" — faults in SSDs have very different causes from issues with hard drives, after all. In the same way, it would be very important to a biologist if they are talking about a bacterium, a virus or some kind of fungi. Writing like this makes it very obvious that the writer has no idea what they are writing about.
Not only does this game make me choose between two very dangerous and dumb options, it also does it in a way that makes it clear that the writers had no clue about these options even being dangerous. And what is even worse is that, after I picked the seemingly less dangerous one — the interstellar equivalent of introducing rabbits to Australia — the scientists in the game kept telling me off for picking the wrong option in their opinion. Only the security guy on the cabinet could see my side of the argument — all the “experts” argued that I was wrong.
Subtle Social Criticism?
At this point, it occurred to me that the government in question (in the game) is a stereotypical technocracy and for a short time I wondered if all of this was actually some very elaborate and subtle social criticism: A technocracy built with people who have no idea how to even think scientifically. Resulting in a group of people running a government built on technology, who think they understand technology, but who in reality are totally incompetent and clueless. Remind you of anything?
Now, while this storyline in the game seems to resemble our current reality in many Western societies somewhat, I don't think this is because the Starfield writers managed to pull off some genius social commentary here. The guys who wrote this storyline aren't smart enough for this. So much is obvious by the actual dialogue that’s in the game. Rather, this is life inspiring art, I feel. And once again, the press is a big part of the problem.
What Even is Science?
The dialogues in this Starfield questline often mention a concept called "the science". As in: "The science is clear here". Or: "The science tells us…" You also hear phrases like this in real-world politics and in the press a lot. And it should immediately signal to you that the speaker is full of shit. There is no such thing as "the science". Science is a process. One that is entirely based on constantly challenging the currently held beliefs and understanding of any topic. At no point in his process is there ever a situation where one can rest on one's laurels to say "it has now been conclusively determined that…" To do so is to give up the scientific method for good. There is no body of knowledge known as "the science" that one can simply revisit to find an answer to any given question.
Science, by its very definition is a approach to answer questions. It is not the answer to said question. It is therefore plainly wrong to attach a definite article to what amounts to a collection of best practices that change with the process and, moreover, are subtly different for every scientific field and every practitioner of science. People who do not understand this don't understand the very nature of the thing they are talking about.
It’s All the Press’ Fault
Where then, does this unscientific idea of "the science" as a body of definite knowledge to be consulted on any given subject come from? It is obviously prevalent among politicians of all colours and stripes these days, but it does not originate there, I feel. In my opinion, this idea originates with journalists. You see, it is a journalist’s job to write about the things that are important right now, even if they have no idea of the subject matter. Journalists usually deal with this lack of knowledge by going to experts in the field (often scientists) and having them explain the intricacies of the issue at hand. This is a time-honoured strategy in journalism that is very understandable and, in itself, not a problem.
But what has happened is that journalists have forgotten that this practice is simply a means to an end — a meagre substitute for what they really should be doing, which is invest time and effort into actually understanding what they are writing about. They got too used to going to scientists and asking them about an issue and they are now confusing this which the actual scientific method. A journalist asking 100 scientists and then noting that 98% of them are in agreement is a good basis for an article. The problem is that journalists then started to think this is how science actually works — they probably deluded themselves into giddily thinking they themselves were doing science — and started writing about it in these terms.
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That is where the popular notion that "98% of scientists agree on this" is the same as "this is true" comes from. There is no absolute truth in science. Ever. A majority of scientists agreeing on something just means that the thing they are agreeing on is the best theory, at this moment, of what we are trying to explain. The expectation is always that the theory will be further refined or, in some cases, that a new discovery will make it entirely obsolete or disprove it outright2. This is how the concept of a black hole went from an outlandish theory most scientists in the field thought of as madness to an idea "98% of scientists agree on” and one you get a Nobel Prize for. But since we can't sent a probe into a black hole, this theory is far from being an absolute truth we can conclusively prove with empirical data and — by the very nature of black holes — will probably never reach that level of scientific certainty.
Society as a Whole Is Impacted by This
Sadly, journalists and activists (and people who can't tell the difference between the two) have gotten used to this kind of misunderstanding of what science is to such an extend — especially lately when it comes to global warming and SARS-CoV-2 vaccines — that the general public now thinks the goal of scientists is to produce "the science" on any given topic. The Science3 being an almost mythical body of knowledge that one can go to if one needs to find the truth about something. People have forgotten what scientists actually do: Challenging long-held beliefs by postulating theories (that sometimes sound outlandish at first) and then backing them up by collecting data using reproducible experiments.
Which would lead a real scientist to very carefully consider when thinking about the release of an artificially-modified organism to gene-target and exterminate another species across multiple ecosystems on an intergalactic scale. When confronted with the question if such a thing is dangerous, a real scientist would probably reply: "We don't know. We'd have to run experiments on this and analyse the data very carefully." They certainly wouldn't ever reply: "It's definitely not dangerous. The Science™ proves that it isn't."
I find it very scary that we are building a society that is on one hand built on the worship of technology and science, but on the other inhabited by people who understand neither. The greatest achievement of the Age of Enlightenment, the widespread understanding of the scientific way of thinking, has somehow been lost. Instead, a blind and imbecilic worship of a false religion of Science now permeates our culture to such an extend that even a video game that's deeply invested in scientific progress as the driving force of its whole fictional world doesn’t have the slightest understanding of the very thing it is centred around.
I am assuming here that the writers of this particular storyline think viruses are microbes. They are not (because they're generally not classified as living organisms), but based on the rest of this storyline I am sure the writers don’t know this. Nor do I believe they understand what archaea are, which are actual microbes.
There is a brilliant scene in Nolan’s Oppenheimer, where the titular character learns from a newspaper that the Germans have split the atom. Believing this to be a mistake by the newspaper people, he then spends twenty minutes at a blackboard proving (he is convinced), with immaculate theory, why you can’t split an atom by bombarding it with neutrons. Only to have a guy run in to tell him a lab colleague has just replicated the German experiment with the cyclotron next door. This is one of the most succinct encapsulations of what it actually means to practice science that I’ve ever seen on screen. The whole movie is worth a watch, by the way.
We might as well start capitalising it now, it’s what all the other religions do, too.