Democracy in Crisis: How to question science without becoming a chemtrail-chasing cynic

Donald Trump rode to the White House on a wave of widespread distrust of institutions, a cynical view that sees truth merely as a discourse of power. In that, this view resembles the skepticism of postmodernism and deconstruction (a word Steve Bannon has come to favor). The same theory can be applied to virtually any field and come up showing that all of its norms are designed primarily to protect and project the power of a particular class. So the media is fake news and intelligence agencies are partisan wiretappers and science is a Chinese conspiracy. 

But there is a deep divide between skepticism and cynicism. They are often conflated—both skeptics and cynics distrust conventional wisdom. But cynicism is really the inverse of skepticism and, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, inseparable from gullibility. "In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true," Arendt wrote in the "The Origins of Totalitarianism."

So the person who does not believe in global warming because it lacks evidence is ready to accept that aliens built the pyramids because of a cable show or believe in chemtrails after listening to Alex Jones for a few moments.  

Scientists at NASA and other federal agencies, such as the EPA and the DOE, are worried about the anti-scientific view that has swept into power and fully politicized the idea of scientific fact—within certain fields. But the fact of the matter is that science has grown so specialized, so difficult for the ordinary person to comprehend, that scientists may as well be medieval priests speaking Latin. 

This is the environment into which Lawrence Weschler's peculiar and beautiful new book "Waves Passing in the Night: Walter Murch in the Land of the Astrophysicists" (Bloomsbury) falls. It too questions the insular and self-protecting nature of science, as the practice of a community of scientists, but it does it for the sake of opening up dialogue rather than shutting it down, and it does so in the most humane and quizzical ways: It documents the efforts of Walter Murch, legendary sound and film editor, to prove that an archaic scientific theory, long discredited, may in fact explain the way that planets are arranged around stars. 

It is intricate and fanciful—and quite possibly bonkers. 

The original 18th century theory, called Titius-Bode, argues that if you take a doubling series of numbers (1,2,4,8 etc) and multiply each of the numbers by three, add four, and finally divide by 10, you arrive at a series of numbers that maps out the distances between planets. The theory got a big boost when Uranus was discovered and it was remarkably close to where the Titius-Bode sequence predicted a planet would be.

The theory was soon discredited, but Murch, with a couple centuries distance, found insight in Titius-Bode. 

"What we are seeing is a doubling series of waves, a series of swells and troughs," Murch said, so that orbiting objects tend to "fall in the troughs between the peaks of the waves."

And, being a sound designer, Murch realized that the"“ratio between the distances of the Bodean orbits...turns out to be exactly the same ratio between the musical notes." This means that in some ways Murch's goal was not just to rehabilitate Titius-Bode, but also Pythagoras, who conceived a music of the spheres.

As Murch develops and refines his theory as a Powerpoint lecture, Weschler not only describes his attempts, but serves as a catalyst, sending the theory to a number of different scientists, most of whom blow him off. Or blow Murch and Titius-Bode off. 

"Unless Murch could speak to astrophysicists in their own language, by way of their own channels and methodologies, his ideas would almost by definition be suspect and carry no standing," Weschler wrote, summarizing the assessment of the scientific community. 

Both Weschler and Murch maintain a healthy skepticism toward their own ideas, both men recognizing a propensity to apophenia, the tendency to see patterns where there are none. 

The book begins with a sketch of these ideas but quickly detours into a fascinating profile of Murch himself before returning to his planetary obsession and various reactions, elicited by Weschler, from the scientific community. It is a hybrid that embodies the kind of long-term intellectual discussion that can come to define a friendship over the course of years. 

I first heard of Murch when I was writing about Weschler a few years ago. He called Murch "the smartest man in America."

But if I hadn't heard of Murch, I had heard him for much of my life. If you can think of the sound of storm troopers marching in "Star Wars"—that's Murch with a basketball. And the "Flight of the Valkyries" sequence in "Apocalypse Now," with its intricate interplay between helicopter, dialogue, music, and machine guns—that was an illustration of what may be Murch's greatest discovery: the law of two and a half. 

Editing film, Murch discovered that the brain can follow two and a half stories or sets of audio input, before it all becomes an indistinguishable commotion (if two storm troopers are walking, you have to track their steps exactly—but when it's a bunch of them, a bunch of haphazard steps is all you need).

Murch's discoveries go beyond the audio. In his book "The Blink of an Eye" he describes a technique of editing film that uses blinks as cuts—and is useful for any kind of editing. 

He also took a fancy to the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte and began translating his novels—into verse using line breaks like cuts in film. 

So, back in 2012, when I was writing about Weschler, I met Murch one afternoon in a meeting room on the top floor of a midtown Manhattan hotel where he was staying for a Weschler-curated event on Andrei Tarkovsky's film "Stalker."

Weschler, a long-time writer for the New Yorker and the author of numerous books on politics and art—"Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders," "Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing You See," and the particularly relevant "Calamities of Exile"—was acting at the time as what Murch described admiringly as an "impresario of certain arcane intellectual pursuits." 

"One of my other obsessions is planetary spacings," Murch told me "He's given me the opportunity to talk about that with a fairly large group." 

I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but I knew that Murch was a perfect Weschler character, the kind of man who can say "One of my other obsessions is planetary spacings." He is a paradigm-shaking polymath like artist David Hockney and neurologist Oliver Sacks—both longtime friends and subjects of Weschler. 

"He's a friend," Murch said recalling when Weschler first came to watch him work in the editing room. "The interview was hanging out together. The experience of doing."

In the same way Weschler naturally becomes friends with his subjects, when I wrote about him, we too became friends. But it's appropriate because "Waves Passing in the Night" is a book about both friendship and professional bonds. In fact, it would make a hell of a buddy movie, Murch and Weschler quixotically roaming around the cosmos—"Sideways" with astrophysics. 

There aren't enough books or films that examine the kinds of friendship built upon shared intellectual interests and mutual obsessions, and the interplay between Weschler and Murch on the one hand, and Weschler and the mainstream astrophysicists (MSA) on the other outlines the stark contrast between impassioned amateurs and professional communities. 

But Weschler doesn't demonize the scientific community for their failure to pay attention to Murch—instead he plays Murch off of the astrophysicists almost harmonically. There are a lot of good reasons for ignoring people not trained in your field. Surely, Murch would not respond if I wrote to him demonstrating some new law of sound design that would revolutionize the field and make his work irrelevant. Mainly because 99.9 percent of the time, I would simply be wrong. And he's got work to do. But there are cases, such as that of Alfred Wegener, the amateur geologist who, though at first ridiculed, changed the field forever with his theory of continental drift. 

Of course, every crackpot thinks he is Wegener. And though Murch is brilliant in several fields, that doesn't mean he is right in this one. "The main mistake Walter is making is to stay in love with his first idea," Lee Smolin, who criticized the professional enclosure of the scientific community in "Trouble with Physics," tells Weschler. "Only when you have seen your first 20 or 50 ideas die do you begin to appreciate what it means to have a good scientific idea."

This kind of dialogue is precisely what we desperately need more of right now. It offers a model of exploration and skepticism that revels in wonder while steadfastly resisting the kind of cynicism that has led large segments of the population—on the left and the right—to reject climate science, vaccines, and the fact that we ever landed on the moon. 

"Waves Passing in the Night" offers an antidote to the false dichotomy of either rejecting scientific explanation altogether or accepting as articles of faith the pronouncements of the highly specialized priest-caste of scientists.

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