The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Knowing & Not Knowing

April 14, 2009

The willing suspension of disbelief takes over Shermer’s brain

I confess — when it comes to writing a film review I’m not much of a skeptic. I wrote my first review about the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still for Scientific American, a film I really enjoyed … until all my science fiction friends and scientist colleagues told me that they thought the filmed sucked! Wow, how did I miss that? The answer: the willing suspension of disbelief.

When it comes to films and television movies, I suspend my skepticism in order to enjoy the experience. When I watch movies with my daughter she’s constantly pointing out scenery inconsistencies, plot anomalies, and the like, and I’m always telling her that I don’t want to know because it takes me out of the scene and plops me back into my living room, which tends to be a far less interesting place than being on the bridge of the Titanic, inside the pod trying to get HAL to open the pod bay doors, or face to face with Gort the robot, trying desperately to remember what it was I am suppose to tell him so that he doesn’t zap me with his lazar helmet. For the record, it’s “Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikto,” which I translated as “Gort, Klaatu says don’t destroy Earth just yet … and come get me and bring me back to life, because these idiot humans shot me again.”

My cycling buddy Steve, who writes film reviews for a living (half the people on our Tuesday/Thursday morning training ride work in the entertainment industry or are self-employed — how else to explain why we are all out playing on a weekday morning?!), tells me that I should leave film reviewing to the professionals (the same thing my magician and comedian friends tell me when I feebly attempt magic or comedy) and instead just focus on the ideas.

Okay, I will. Last week I saw the new Nicolas Cage film Knowing, an apocalyptic end-of-the-world Sci-Fi thriller during which I alternated between willingly suspending my skepticism and getting goose bumps when the spooky aliens showed up at the bedroom window of Cage’s on-screen kid, and thinking how I would review the film, which without the willing suspension of disbelief leads me to conclude what most other reviewers thought about it, which is to say “DVD rental at best” (i.e., don’t waste your bail out money on it in a theater).

The plot in a nutshell: Aliens foresee that in half a century’s time Earth’s inhabitants are going to be fried by a massive solar flare, so to warn and save us, instead of landing a spaceship in the heart of Washington D.C. with a giant robot standing guard and a representative calling for a meeting at the United Nations and telling us point-blank that if we don’t do something soon we’re doomed, these aliens decide to be far more subtle. They channel their message through a grammar-school age kid by “whispering” to her a series of numbers without any apparent meaning, which she pencils onto a piece of paper that then gets put into a time-capsule to be opened 50 years hence at the William Dawes Elementary School in Lexington, MA. Wow, what could go wrong? We’re sure to get that warning, right? Cage, fresh off his conspiratorial good will hunting in the National Treasure films (the less said the better, even by my uncritical standards), spends most of the film decoding what the numbers mean—every major disaster throughout the half century, including dates, numbers killed, and Latitude/Longitude coordinates. Except the last two numbers — 33 — are actually backwards: EE, which stands for Everyone Else. As in, Everyone Else is going to die on Earth. Right. Can’t miss that doomsday warning!

In the end the aliens arrive in the nick of time to rapture the children in their spaceships and whisk them away to a new planet, apparently sans adults (Cage is left waving farewell to his kidlet just before he’s turned into carbon cinder), where the human species can start anew. Presumably, with children only on the new planet, it will not dissolve into a Lord of the Flies scenario — perhaps this would make a fine sequel.

Okay, the filmed sucked. But what about the ideas in it? They also sucked. What extra-terrestrial intelligence worth it’s weight in cerebral tissue is going to telegraph its warning through a child’s elementary school time-capsule project, and then just hope that it happens to get opened by the kid of an MIT astrophysicist who happens to be good with numbers, and that this guy — a skeptic to start — suspends his own skepticism in time to decipher the code and save the species? Ridiculous squared.

But the biggest idea problem I have with the concept is that this presumes that the universe is fully determined in a predictable way. It isn’t. Chaos and complexity scientists have discovered that even though the universe is governed by deterministic laws, the systems within it are so complex that they are unpredictable. It is simply not possible — no matter how big and powerful your computer is — to know the position and location of every single particle in the universe and then run a time series forward, say 50 years, and predict that at this exact spot (and not some other spot) a plane will crash and kill this many people (no more no less). So even the fundamental premise of Knowing is false. The film should be retitled Unknowing. Unknowing is the ultimate state of the universe in terms of precise predictability.

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