Saturday, July 19, 2008

Touching Base: Quantum Blogging

the latest Touching Base will appear at Wardman Wire later today, but you saw it here first....

Science and God, despite Richard Dawkins attempts to break them up, haven’t stopped dating. Most flirtatious of the lot is physics. At the level of the cosmos, there is an emerging consensus that the universe appears ‘fine tuned’ for life. Had the Big Bang been stronger or weaker by roughly 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% then there would be no habitable universe. And that’s just the Big Bang, never mind all the other factors.

At the micro level, quantum physics keeps throwing up weird and wonderful results. One of the best known, and culturally significant, is the ‘observer effect’ - that the presence of an observer changes the results of what you’re looking at.

Seeing Through Others Eyes
Most of us rely on other eyes and ears for the events we can’t see and hear. TV, press, blogs, online news sources, or just asking around our mates. And those eyes and ears can change the way we see those events. Two examples:

- This weeks crime stats which revealed that the risk of being a victim of crime is at its lowest ever level, and that recorded crime has dropped by nearly half since 1995. At the same time, 2/3 of us think crime is rising. Why? To be completely unscientific for a moment, we listen to the Today Programme over breakfast, and roughly ever other day I find myself talking loudly over a news item so that our small kids don’t hear about the latest ‘brutal stabbing’ or discovery of body parts on Jersey. Crime is news, and knife crime is big news at the moment, so it gets reported.

Crime seems to pay on TV too - during the last 7 days, you could catch the following on primetime TV: Foyles War; Midsomer Murders; Police Camera, Action!; Send in the Dogs (on police dogs); The Bill (twice); and A Touch of Frost. All about crime - real or fictional - and this is the output of just one channel, ITV1.

Good News is No News
The constant stream of news about crime sends a daily message that the once-a-year crime stats can’t compete with. After all, ‘man decides not to burgle house’ isn’t news. And because lack of crime isn’t news, it can’t be symbolic either. The Dewsbury abduction case earlier this year came to stand for more than just one messed up family, and was seized on by many as a symptom of a broken and lawless society. A running story, kept going by on-site journalists and off-site commentators (myself included). I struggle to think of an equivalent story of goodness and lawfulness which got the same coverage.

The Canterbury Coconut-Shy
The second example is the Lambeth Conference, the 10-yearly gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world. Bloggers and journalists are queueing up to report the latest scandals, splits and attacks on Rowan Williams. Frustratingly for most of them, the conference seems to be going well, and there is a decided lack of news. Jim Naughton comments:

To succeed fully, the bishops of the Lambeth Conference must avoid committing news. Any truly newsworthy development initiated by the bishops now gathered at Canterbury would represent a premature attempt to close questions not yet ready for resolution. Left to their own devices, the bishops might just be able to pull this off, but the bishops will not be left to their own devices. There will be a vast horde of media at the conference, and they will have to justify their presence by coming up with stories

Here is the observer effect in action. The journalists require ’stories’, and bloggers like me need something to blog about. If there are no stories, what happens? The machine keeps going - when was the last time the 10.00 news was cancelled or shortened for lack of items? And there is a ready supply of stones for the smooth Lambeth pond, supplied by those who weren’t invited but still came, and those who were invited but didn’t. The overall impression is of a church at war with itself, which contains some truth, but is just as much about a commenting community that would rather report the war than the peace.

One Argument Please, Short and Quotable.
Dissident groups are a godsend for the wordsmiths. Monty Python had a great sketch about a man seeking an argument, all he’d need to do today is log on. But because the argumentative make good news, they are given publicity way beyond their status. The National Secular Society has a very small membership, but because they guarantee an argument with anyone religious, they get quoted (example).

What Are We Doing?
The observer effect can go both ways. As a vocation, journalism is about unearthing and telling the truth, and the best journalism brings truth to light in the service of others. Matt Wardmans’s Zimbabwe series is a case in point. But there is a line crossed where reporting stops serving the truth and starts serving the story. The UK economy is a case in point - there’s no doubt that things are getting worse, with rising inflation and jobless, falling house prices etc. But could we talk ourselves into recession? A big story arc which reads ‘downturn’ seeks out stories which fit the big story, even if that’s not the whole story. So even as retail spending surges, and millions jet off on holiday, we keep on talking about how bad things are going to get. The ‘downturn’ story requires feeding to keep it alive, but the very act of feeding it creates a climate where a downturn is more likely.

…And Who For?
The temptation for bloggers and journalists is to feed stories and chase traffic, rather than chase truth and rest between meals. We can become self-serving. To come back to a regular Touching Base theme, we need a quantum of Sabbath, a routine which takes us out of the waterfall of words every so often, to evaluate what we’re doing, and ask who it really serves.


  1. I'm interested to be told there is often more understanding and feeling for of faith among mathematically based hard scientists (physicisits etc) than life scientists. I wonder...

  2. Well said, David.

    I take regular breaks from the internet, sometimes foe a month or two, and when I return I'm always struck by the fact that nothing has changed. The people who were mad at each other when I left, are still mad at each other when I return, for the same reasons. The same arguments are being repeated over and over again, the same abusive language used. But a violent argument always makes for good blog stats, and so it feeds on itself.

    I can't believe the number of bloggers who are doing their nut because right now the Lambeth Conference is taking place 'behind closed doors'. I feel like saying, "Of course it is - that's because they're on retreat right now!" Perhaps I should be charitable and assume that since most bloggers are too addicted to the internet ever to go on retreat, they don't know what the rules are!!!

  3. The good writers on science and religion such as McGrath and Polkinghorne are, unfortunately, still too hard for the average layperson to read. Which is a shame, because the stuff they write is great, and they're real scientists as well as real Christians. But they're emphatically not 6-day creation Christians.

    The concepts of Quantum Theory, with its infinitely-bounded waveforms and quantum entanglement, certainly speak to me of a Trinitarian/Perichoretic underpinning of creation.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I once heard that most of the folk becoming Christians at British university were scientists, rather than humanities students, because they could deal with the idea of truth (and I guess got the classic evangelical presentations of the gospel as historic truth).

    Archdruid: are you suggesting the Trinity is entangled? I always thought perichoresis was the process by which food travelled through the intestine, but perhaps I'm wrong.

  5. >I'm interested to be told there is often more understanding and feeling for of faith among mathematically based hard scientists (physicisits etc) than life scientists. I wonder...

    I think that hard science is secure in it's own domain while soft science is at least partly opinion/interpretation rather than data-based - and there impacts more on the implementation of a world-view.

    Believing in the reality of gravity (or quantum string theory) does not have immediate implications for your opinions on day to day arguments - whether abortion, market, whether we should de facto make it more expensive to be married, or the welfare of chickens.

    At my university (in the 1980s) the schools most antagonistic to a faith-based viewpoint were around the social sciences rather than the physical sciences. These disciplines are playing on similar turf, and require ideology and values to be addressed.

    I think that is why.

    >I take regular breaks from the internet, sometimes foe a month or two, and when I return I'm always struck by the fact that nothing has changed.

    I'd suggest reading different blogs, and ignoring the flocks of drive-by commenters on newspaper columns!