‘Skeptics’ Guide to the Future’ is a grounded look ahead

‘Skeptics’ Guide to the Future’ is a grounded look ahead

As a longtime listener and Patreon supporter of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast team, I was happy to see them expand their media empire into books. Many people grow up with insufficient education in critical thinking or an understanding of the processes we call “science” and find themselves drifting between families of conspiracy theorists or those whose understanding of reality is otherwise disjointed for various philosophical reasons.

The SGU’s first book, published in 2018, was timely. Even if you are on board with the general concepts, it was still great to have a single volume that you could give to people looking for access tools to sharpen their critical thinking skills.

Are we getting a Star Trek future, or are we getting Black Mirror? Maybe it’s from both.

In their second book, the trio of brothers Steven, Jay and Bob Novella offer The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future: What Yesterday’s Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow. It’s easy to get bogged down as we ponder the future with constant bad news, trying to determine what’s legitimate and what’s not. One way to deal with this is to spend time thinking about some of the better possible paths, and understanding what is based in reality and what is pure science fiction, to spend time thinking about what is to come. Are we getting a Star Trek future, or are we getting Black Mirror? Maybe it’s from both.

Divided into five parts, with each chapter covering a specific topic, you don’t have to read Skeptics’ Guide to the Future in one go. The chapters are self-contained, so you can pick them up and dive into a topic whenever you have a chance. The failures of future futurists are explored to provide humility about the difficulty of the predictions. Somewhat more speculative technology and its possible barriers are discussed. Surrounding the book are space travel and many concepts from science fiction. Which sci-fi devices are most likely? Energy shields? Invisibility Cloaks? Phasers? Lightsabers? Tricorders? Time traveling TARDIS? No spoilers here.

Skeptics’ Guide to the Future also explores the technology of our past and present—from biology to engineering, transportation to materials science, AI and quantum computing, and more—with the critical thinking skills honed by the SGU team on their weekly podcast. The authors have created a text that is part James Burke’s Connections, part where-we-stand-today, and part sci-fi fandom, extrapolating in a science-based way to consider the future of technology while also being chilling. Fusion throws ideas that will always defy the “tricky laws of physics”. Although I admit to enjoying the vision of a GMO cat with wings.

As a biologist, some of the technology, such as genetic engineering, is deeply familiar to me, but even I was surprised by the possibility of sweet-smelling shots. Still, when I came to unfamiliar concepts like the space elevator, I was confident that the authors’ understanding of the issues would bring me up to speed on the basics, and reasonably assess the likelihood of the technology coming into use. Peppered with short fictional stories about future humans interacting with future technology, overall the book provided some good mental exercises that bridge the gap between now and then.

We should all share the SGU team’s enthusiasm for the future and the desire for realism on the roads there.

However, one itch I still wanted to see was the social and cultural barriers to adoption of many of the technologies. In the section on stem cells, for example, it is noted that some sociocultural setbacks have affected progress. Other than that, culture war issues are essentially ignored. The fact that almost all topics have both a “utopian” and a “dystopian” way forward is mostly shrugged off, and the awareness that technological “booby traps” are possible. But Skeptics’ Guide to the Future at least provides our foundation for grappling with these ideas from a platform of solid information.

We should all share the SGU team’s enthusiasm for the future and the desire for realism on the roads there. The future that will roll out before us will test many of these options, so it’s good to have some knowledge of the road signs and pitfalls to watch out for, knowing we’re probably not going to get that flying car.

The best summary of Skeptics’ Guide to the Future may come from p. 316 of the book itself:

There are some ideas worth exploring because they are interesting, not because they are plausible, and such ideas need a great deal of skepticism when trying to imagine future technology.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science Section of AIPT elevates critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism *OF* pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-hosted by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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