Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Notes Upon Notes

* Mark Lilla has an interesting discussion in the NY Times on political theology, from his new book, The Stillborn God (ht). It makes for interesting reading, and there are some important things right in the discussion. I'm a little unclear, though, about what he means by 'political theology'. There are a number of different things that could be intended by such a phrase: the politics of someone with a religious perspective; providential history, i.e., a theological account of the human race through time; civil theology, i.e., the political form of natural theology, which is supposed to be a sort of metaphysical foundation for politics (a fairly standard example of which is found in the Declaration of Independence); religious law insofar as it touches on political matters; or a revelation-based theology of politics. They are all radically different. I have difficulty determining which of these Lilla has primarily in mind, since he seems to mean now one, now another. But this may be due in part to the fact that we only get a selection of the argument here.

Gabriel McKee at "SF Gospel" has some critical discussion of Lilla's article, and makes a number of good points.

* Carnivalesque 30 is up at Recent Finds (with a supplement due to unavoidable problems with getting the edition out).

* Ron McK, in discussing Demand Deposit at "Blessed Economist" has a post on the Bank of Amsterdam in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, noting that it was favorably mentioned by both David Hume and Adam Smith. He quotes the passage from Adam Smith; Hume's mention can be found in Hume's Essay on Money.

* A lot of people have been talking about this paper on bad science in movies (PDF). A few of the examples, though, are stated in ways that just show bad movie-watching. Magneto, for instance, doesn't have to "fuel the magnetic fields"; as anyone who knows anything about the X-Men knows, Magneto doesn't primarily create the magnetic fields (although he does this it has never been clear even in the comics the degree to which he is able to do it) but manipulates those that already exist (through an unknown process). (With the comics, it is a matter of some dispute the degree to which he can create magnetic fields, in fact; and even those who think he can create immense magnetic fields recognize that he usually just manipulates them.) All the long exposition about calories is not really to the point; and it sticks out in a paper that pompously moans and groans about moviegoers not engaging in critical thinking that it never once seems to have occurred to the authors of the paper that they might be wrong in their characterization of the problem to begin with, when that is obviously one of the most important places in which critical thinking is required.

No doubt this still leaves plenty of issues to quibble about. I suppose you could note that to levitate things you need very strong magnetic fields, and Magneto's primary instrument, the magnetic field of the earth, is very weak in comparison, and that the force required to wrench the bridge free would no doubt have to be very great, and then work out the equations from there. But that, I think, is not so much a serious issue; it's obvious poetic license proportional to what is required by the character in the first place. The real problem with the way Magneto is portrayed is that his powers are always confined to influencing metal. But anyone who can do what Magneto can do with metal should be able to levitate lots of non-metallic things as well, because the magnetic fields would affect their electrons as well. You can levitate a little frog, for instance, with a sufficiently strong magnetic field. You can levitate anything with sufficiently powerful magnetic fields; the only difference between metal and non-metal is that metallic things would be tend, as a rule, to be easier, i.e., you wouldn't need magnetic fields that are as strong. HFML has a good set of introductory pages on diamagnetic levitation. In any case, the real error is in treating magnetic fields as if only metals were affected by them. (It would be understandable, of course, if Magneto preferred metal because (1) it's common; and (2) it's relatively easy to manipulate compared to most non-metallic things in everyday life. But it's clear from the way Magneto has always been characterized that, while not strictly confined to metals, his abilities when metals are not involved are not generally significant.)

And this, I think is the point. 'Bad science' in movies does not consist in the liberties deliberately taken for moving forward the characters and the plot. Those are easily placed under willing suspension of disbelief; if you are going to admit the existence of a man who can without any instruments manipulate magnetic fields on a massive scale, it's silly to fuss about the strength of the field unless the plot really turns on it. You should just shrug your shoulders and enjoy the spectacle, because, as there are no genetic mutants with the ability to manipulate the earth's magnetic field to levitate the Golden Gate Bridge, and as it's obviously an impressive thing to do, nobody is going to start thinking, Hey, it's a piece of cake to levitate the Golden Gate Bridge with magnetic fields. The thing you should worry about is where it might feed into genuinely flawed assumptions (e.g., that magnetic fields don't affect non-metallic things). And the major issue, actually, is that it is often very difficult to pin down the real violation of physics in cases where the story-world is not supposed to be highly realistic, precisely because the event is fictional and there are any number of things one could make up to save the phenomena. In that sense there's no bad science in movies if they are not clearly intended to be realistic; only events likely to result in misleading impressions about the world. And as someone has pointed out somewhere, the reason these exist (when they aren't simply posited for the story) is that widespread scientific confusion exists, not vice versa. Make the facts more generally known, and failure to conform with them will be less tolerated when it is not strictly required by the story; and when they are less tolerated, movies will stop making them.


* People have also been talking about Anne Rice's endorsement of Hillary Clinton as someone she could vote for in good Catholic conscience; although I actually found more interesting her discussion of why she hasn't repudiated her earlier vampire novels, farther down on the same page. In essence, her point is that the books tried to capture a mood that really exists -- alienation and a search for meaning in an apparently meaningless world -- and that they still serve that function; all that has happened as a result of her re-conversion to the Catholic Church is that she has now shifted her interest for future works from alienation to reconciliation.

* PZ Myers and Seed (which hosts ScienceBlogs) are being sued for millions of dollars, for defamation and libel. Timothy Sandefur points out that the suit is dubious on the face of it. (Myers is not currently discussing it, for legal reasons.) But it's unfortunate nonetheless; no one should have to face a hassle like this on such weak grounds. Here's wishing Myers good fortune in the matter, and hoping that this absurd event doesn't interfere too much with his life.

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