Simplicity, complexity, and chaos

I just watched a BBC documentary about Chaos Theory presented by Jim Al-Khalili, and it was superb. Beautifully shot, thought-provoking, informative, and with a brilliant soundtrack, it’s not one to be missed. I had to wait a while for it to make it onto YouTube but it went up last week on the AtheistPlanetBlog channel, which has a lot of other very interesting videos, not necessarily anything to do with atheism. Anyway here’s the first part:

There are 6 parts (just shy of an hour long altogether), and it moves from Turing, through to Belousov, Lorenze, and Mandelbrot, among many others. I really do recommend it.

When I was watching this, I came to a very suddent realisation that this documentary, and other programmes like it, are the reason we need the BBC. Can you see ITV or another major commercial channel funding a programme like that? The primary goal of such companies is to make money through ratings, not to make great programming. The majority of the British TV audience wouldn’t give that programme a second look, they’d hear the word ‘theory’ and turn it off as boring scienceystuff. Even look at the niche science channels, a lot of it is dry and stuffy, and another lot of it is just about blowing things up, or they’re just glorified freak shows. The well thought-out programmes don’t get the exposure they should. This is something of a change of heart for me. Not really seeing the point in preserving something just for the sake of preserving it, in the past I’ve said that if the fine arts can’t support themselves, then they should be allowed to die. Obviously I wouldn’t take such a position when talking about something as important as science, that if it doesn’t make money it shouldn’t happen, and this documentary’s given me the opportunity to reconsider my position on other things as well. We need this kind of thing to inspire the next generation of scientists and artists.

A related point is that it demonstrates a fallacy often committed by creationists trying to discredit the theory of evolution. They’ll say that it led to eugenics, and ultimately to ethnic cleansing. This is incorrect on two points. Firstly, eugenics is based on a misunderstanding of the theory of evolution by natural selection, which clearly demonstrates that in the case of a natural disaster or something similar, one of the best ways to ensure the survival of the species is to maintain genetic diversity in the species, that way the species is more adaptable to new environments. Secondly, even if that were true, it is fallacious to disbelieve a scientific theory because you don’t like its consequences. But the more general point, related to the BBC, is that just because we know that natural selection happens in nature and has led to the point we’re at now, that does not mean we must accept it as an ideology. We don’t have to see it as a good way to organise a society. We can protect things that otherwise would not survive in the free market economy.

So yes, watch the documentary.


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