Tuesday 28 February 2023

REVIEW: The Future of Humankind (2023)

 From The Philosopher CXI No. 1 Spring 2023

The Future of Humankind?
In his new book, John Hands tells us not to worry so much…

The Future of Humankind is a snapshot of current thinking about science, more than a real attempt at futurology. It is a deftly written book, that contains a lot of fascinating facts and information - while also keeping the reader active and thinking. The reader may not agree with a lot of it, but that’s a virtue as much as apparently a fault.

As a gloomy Capricorn, I’m not very optimstic about the future and so I am always happy to read a disaster book, and at first glance, the contents list of John Hand’s tale of what awaits humanity promises to be just that. But a few pages in, talking about spacerocks httting the Earth, the gloomy reader will already be a bit puzzled at what seems to be Hand’s indefatigable spirit of technological optimism. On this wonderfully awful prospect, we’re told that thanks to NASA scientists:

“…we now know that there are no comparably large asteroids (diameter greater than 5km) in orbits that could potentially hit Earth.”

Well, boo to that! But, I’m sure the scientists have their reasons. They usually do, which like Grouch Marx, the also offer to swap for other ones later if need be. But I recall from reading about Newton, that the ability to predict the movement of things like asteroids is not just difficult (lack of observations) but maybe actually impossible, due to the so-called three-body problem. This is that taking the initial positions and velocities of three point masses and solving for their subsequent motion is mathematically impossible. A tiny influence can create a sequence of effects - in the manner of the butterfly wing that causes a hurricane in chaos theory.

More mundanely, there’s certainly plenty of sources saying all the significant asteroids have now all been tidily registered and their movements calculated – but it is almost every year that a previously unindentified rock almost hits the earth, so I would have thought a little more scepticism is warranted.

A similarly optimistic note is struck a little later on, now in relation to the novel mRNA treatments for the corona virus, when we’re told:

“What is significant is how effective most of these vaccines have been. Two injections of the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine spaced 21 days apart proved 95 % effective at preventing Covid-19 in those without prior infection and 100 % effective at preventing severe disease.”

I googled this and it seems that even the rather pro-Vax medical journal, the Lancet, reported that if this vaccine’s effectiveness against the Delta variant was 93% after the first month - after the first month mind!- it declined to just 53% after four months. Against other coronavirus variants, efficacy declined to 67%.

Likewise, a New York State Department of Health study at the end of 2021 found that the effectiveness of Pfizer’s vaccine against Covid infection plummeted from 68% to a ridiculous 12% for young children during the omicron surge from December 13 through January 24. Protection against hospitalization dropped from 100% to 48% during the same period.

As I say, Hands just seems to be an optimistic soul. Take comets, notoriously mysterious. These, he allows, constitute unknowns but he says they are behind “less than 1% of all impact events in Earth’s recent geological record” and none at all in historical times so “it is safe to conclude that impacts from asteroids or comets pose no existential threat to humans”. I don’t quite get where the “so” comes from here. One is reminded of Bertrand Russell’s unfortunate chicken who is used to receiving a handful of grain every morning from the farmer’s wife - for as long as the chicken can remember - until one fateful morning, the wife wrings its unfortunate neck.

Okay, what about the risk of nuclear war? At the time of writing this review, the Russian television is full of pundits threatening to wipe out Britain and American with nuclear tipped hypersonic missiles. The risk of nuclear war seems very real. Yet here too, Hands is optimistic. He says that treaties plus international opinion mean the risk of Armageddon diminishes steadily.

Talking about nuclear, I have to take particular umbrage with the account of the risk from nuclear reactors. Hands uses UN sources to reassure us that hardly anyone died either after the Chernobyl or Fukushima partial meltdowns. Yet I looked in detail at these for my own book on nuclear energy and I found that the UN account was woefully skewed towards defending the “peaceful use” of nuclear energy while neutral reports found convincing evidence of a huge toll, particularly after Chernobyl, a toll solidly recorded in hospital records, as well as a more speculative but potentially very significant toll worldwide due to things like plutonium particles entering ocean foodchains. Now neither of these nuclear disaster actually qualifies as apocalyptic, but Hands neglects how very close – a matter of hours – both plants came to much greater explosions, which it is generally agreed could have caused global radiation poisoning.

I am more sympathetic to the conclusion to a long chapter on the dangers from either population explosion or climate change or a combination of the two. The short story is that, again, Hands is optimistic, concluding there is a negligible probability either will result in the extinction of the human species. Okay, on this I agree! But again, is this really demonstrated or rather a rosy assessment based on cherry-picked data?

A more unusual doomsday topic is that of the supposed threat of humans being replaced by robots. It’s a good account this, but again, the rosy assuarance at the end that we really do not need to fear that “artificially intelligent machines built by humans will exceed human-level intelligence and thereafter bring about the extinction of the human species” seems to go beyond the evidence, not least because surely we do not know at this point in time what the capabilities of machines will be within a relatively short timescale.

Perhaps the more significant part of the book, certainly the part I like best, is entitled “Reflections and conclusions”. It is here, that Hands details his working methods and describes what he found when he attempted to discuss the doomsday scenarios with the relevant “experts”. As philosophers of science, like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabvend could have predicted, he seemed to find that within each field “most” of the experts cohered around one opinion, but there were invariably one or two outsiders with dissident views. The message from philosohy of science is that this is not because most people are right and one or two are laggards, though. It is because scientific debates are rooted in dominant ‘paradigms’. Acceptance and career success in a field requires researchers to conform. Yet, the point about these paradigms is that they change. To the point: identifying the firm opinions of the majority of scientists is not the route to certainty it pretends. Next year, the majority of scientists may think something different. That is how science works. 

At this point, I might mention that there was another book in this general area a few years ago, Why Science is Wrong...About Almost Everything, by entrepreneur Alex Tsakiris. which noted that the great majority of material in in textbooks from the pervious generation, written with such confidence then, is now equally confidently considered to be plain wrong, So we should be very sceptical about the value of surveys of scientific opinion. To be fair, Hands does himself describe, towards the end of the book, some of the strange cases of erroneous scientific predictions, for example that “heavier than air” machines cannot fly – but this is not the message of the bulk of the book.

Instead, there’s not enough sense of this need for caution about the pronouncements of ‘experts’ here. This contrasts with the caution about political claims and pressure groups. For example, Hands cites the case of XR (Extinction Rebellion) cofounder Gail Bradbrook who was quoted, in October 2019, saying that 97% of the world’s species, including humans, would perish within her daughter’s lifetime – unless everyone on the planet stopped producing CO2 by 2025, as evidence of the dangers of allowing your opinions to drive your analysis, but the same danger seems to have shaped this book, even if the opinions are backed by respectable authorities. 

As Part Two of this look into the future of the human species, Hands again takes a brief Cookes Tour of the current theories, such as ‘colonizing space’ or ‘using technology to extend the healthspans of individuals’, but here the optimism changes to a more sceptical approach. Indeed, he eventually concludes few things stand much chance of ever coming to be.

Some ideas do seem rather wild and to oppose our current understanding of physical laws – such as the speed of light. But then, in a closing chapter, Hands allows himself to step aside from the straitjacket of what we know to speculate that “the next stage of human evolution” could be a new kind of consciousness. He writes:

“I speculate that, in its fourth stage of evolution, the human cosmic consciousness will be able to comprehend such a higher reality. Furthermore, the human cosmic consciousness may well constitute that higher reality and be the cause of all the physical and chemical laws and parameters that enable it to evolve in an eternal, continuous cycle of self-creation. That is, it forms a cosmic consciousness that underlies everything and from which everything unfolds.”

It’s a nice idea, and it comes more intriguingly as part of an otherwise, as I say, determinedly “scientific” account. But to me, it seems to be driven more by optimism than anything as mundane as the evidence.

Reviewed by Martin Cohen

THE FUTURE OF HUMANKIND: Why We Should Be Optimistic
By John Hands 
Castleton, 2023
ISBN 978-0993371943


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