Steven Novella is cohost of the popular podcast The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe along with his brothers Jay and Bob. As kids growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the brothers were obsessed with science fiction and futurism.
“Our younger selves had certainly envisioned that now it would be like” 2001: A space odyssey”, says Novella in episode 526 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcasting. “There will be permanent space stations in space, there will be an infrastructure between here and the moon, a lunar base. All those things, we took it for granted.”
The following decades showed that futurism is more difficult than it seems. Technological changes may seem inevitable, but often it comes down to one person making a random choice. if Henry Ford had decided to build electric cars instead of gas, it would have changed the course of our entire civilization. “It certainly could have turned out very differently,” Novella says. “If a man in Pennsylvania didn’t discover crude oil for the next twenty years, how different would our world be? There is nothing inevitable about our present, and therefore there is nothing inevitable about the future.”
In their new book The skeptical guide to the future, the brothers try to improve upon the futurism of yesteryear by identifying 10 “futuristic fallacies” that have deceived previous predictions. One of the biggest fallacies is to imagine that the future society will be just like today’s society, only with more gadgets. “You can’t just project a technology forward, you have to think about it in the context of all the other technologies that are developing over the same period,” Novella says. “So we will not travel in space in 500 years, our genetically modified cyborg descendants will travel in space in 500 years. And you have to include that in your calculation.”
Despite the eventful history of futurism, Novella considers it an important pursuit that deserves more attention. “If you live your life in this short space of time, without any idea where you are in history, you could lose sight of what’s important, you could lose the ability to quickly adapt to changes in technology, to changes in culture, to make decisions about the future,” he says. “So I think futurism as an academic discipline has a lot of advantages. We just have to be realistic about it.”
Listen to the full interview with Steven Novella on Episode 526 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Steven Novella on The skeptical guide to the future:
We’ve been researching this book all our lives. We’re not starting from scratch, which is part of the reason it was fun and easy to write from that point of view. We know things like: superconductors at room temperature. We didn’t have to do any research to know it had to be a chapter in the book, what its potential is. But we did have to update ourselves and do a much deeper dive. We’ve been doing a podcast for 18 years, so we had a huge background of science news items and interviews with people on these topics, but still, if you sit down and go, “Okay, I need a definitive chapter on reaction rockets, and what role they play. playing in the future”, you still discover surprising things.
Steven Novella on space travel:
If you have a space infrastructure where you routinely travel to different destinations in space, you are in an optimal craft for each stage of your journey. You’re going to put something into low Earth orbit, go to a space station, and from there you’ll take your cislunar shuttle to the moon, or you’ll get a shuttle that will rendezvous with a deep space shuttle going to Mars. And then you step on a lander optimized for Mars or optimized for the Moon, or whatever your destination is. Because those are very different things, and making one ship that can do it all just isn’t pragmatic, and the waste will be huge. And so I think we’re going to have multiple legs to get somewhere, which you don’t really see in a lot of science fiction.
Steven Novella on Futurism:
If you look at futurists of the past, the big mistakes they make don’t predict the game-changers. Anyone can predict incremental progress, but the things that really terrify futurists is when they think something is going to be a breakthrough and it isn’t, or they just completely miss the real breakthroughs. The big one is the transition from analog to digital. Nobody picked that up. Asimov totally missed it. No one saw how digital technology would change our society and our world. Now, once it is, it seems obvious. But that was a game-changer that no one saw coming. So now we’re trying to predict, “What will the future game-changers be?”
Steven Novella on science fiction:
Science fiction is just one grand thought experiment. It’s actually a thousand thought experiments, but collectively it’s this meta-thought experiment about: “What will the future look like? What will technology look like? What will people be like in the future?” That’s part of my fascination with it, is just imagining something completely different, and seeing things in different ways, changing variables that you didn’t know were variables — you didn’t even know that was something that could be different. We’re all a little parochial in our view of life and the universe, and science fiction forces you to lift your head and take a step back. It forces you to have a bigger picture, to look at civilization and humanity and huge arcs of time, and things that are just way beyond the experience of our everyday life.