Muggle Magic


Disclaimer: I’m not a Harry Potter fan and I have not read any of the books written by J. K. Rolling, but I loved Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fan fiction novel written by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

HarryIf you’ve seen the Harry Potter films and walked away frustrated with any of the various inconsistent, illogical aspects of these stories, then Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is for you.

Without spoiling the story and giving too much away, I will say the storyline for the Methods of Rationality is far more plausible than anything J.K. Rolling ever came up with.

In essence, Harry is a young scientist trying to make sense of a topsy-turvy magical world. Harry struggles with the repugnant possibility of becoming the next Dark Lord and is determined to apply scientific method to the subject of magic in order to make the world a better place.

Remember the scene from the movie where Professor McGonagall turns into a cat and then back into a person? Scientific Harry realizes there are serious problems with this magic trick.

You turned into a cat… You violated the Conservation of Energy! That’s not an arbitrary rule, it’s implied by the form of the quantum Hamiltonian… And cats are COMPLICATED! A human mind can’t just visualize a whole cat’s anatomy, and, and all the cat biochemistry, and what about the neurology? How can you go on thinking using a cat-sized brain?

And as for Qudditch… Well, Harry sums up my thoughts about this absurd fictional sport.

“So let me get this straight… Catching the Snitch is worth one hundred and fifty points? … How many ten point goals does does one side usually score, not counting the Snitch?”

“Um, maybe fifteen or twenty in professional games,” Ron replied.

“…That violates every possible rule of game design… you’re basically saying that catching the Snitch overwhelms almost any ordinary point spread… [it] makes everyone else’s work moot. It’s like someone took a real game and grafted on this pointless extra position so that you could be the Most Important Player without needing to really get involved or learn the rest of the game. Who was the first Seeker, the King’s idiot son?”

But the real beauty of this book is the respect it shows for science.

Professor McGonagall… seemed to have never heard of the scientific method. To her it was just Muggle magic…

And trying lots of different ways to do something isn’t the same as experimenting to figure out the rules. There were plenty of people who’d tried to invent flying machines by trying out lots of things-with-wings, but only the Wright Brothers had built a wind tunnel to measure lift…

And that strikes at the heart of a fundamental fallacy that is common in the media, that science is just trying stuff out. Science, it seems, is Muggle magic to most people.

xkcd - ideas are testedEarlier this evening, I watched a medical doctor on TV talking about how some medicines can be applied to different purposes. He said it was “exciting” to “try different medicines with different patients to see what works,” and I cringed at his appalling disregard for the scientific method.

Can you imagine the heartache and misery that would be caused if this was the approach we took to medicine? You might as well try ingredients from a magic potion, like bats wings and newt tails. At least with them you’d cause less damage.

Emerging medicines go through years of peer-reviewed study before they get to double-blind efficacy trials and a new medicine becomes available, anything less would be grossly irresponsible. And although this is a slow and arduous approach, it’s a lot better for you than buying snake oil from some zealot on a street corner.

I don’t think this doctor intended his comment to come out quite the way it did, and most people would have missed the implication, that science is just poking around in the dark with a stick, but this kind of misrepresentation is damaging. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality goes a long way toward correcting this cultural imbalance.

How about this for thought provoking?

…the most fundamental question of rationality: Why do you believe what you believe?

And as for science, our wonderful Muggle magic…

What you understand, you can command, and this is power enough to walk upon the moon…

If you’re looking for some light, entertaining reading over the holidays, grab yourself a copy of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality as a free eBook.

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16 thoughts on “Muggle Magic

    • I’m not big on fan fiction either, but this was a nice twist on the concept… there was one unsavoury point I didn’t like, but overall it’s a thought-provoking read and it’s nice to see some common sense applied in magical Britain for once. By the way, the book isn’t actually finished. It’s one of these perpetual work-in-progress things. I’m about half way through the latest version.

  1. I’m all for reading fanfic, as I edit it on a regular basis, so I’ll read it. I’m also a big fan of reading the books AND watching the movies based on the books, so that’s an added incentive for me! Thanks, Peter, for the great article 🙂

    • If you’ve read any of the original books, I suspect you’ll get a real kick out of how this mixes things up. Where possible, I too enjoy reading the book before seeing the movie and am currently reading through the Life of Pi

  2. I’ve read the Harry Potter books and really enjoyed Rowling’s storytelling (though I’m not a die-hard fan). The books were captivating and fun, and the worldbuilding was very well done. It’s important not to forget that it’s fantasy for kids. I’m not surprised there’s no scientific plausibility in the worldbuilding, since it’s not important for such stories to be plausible, the only thing they must accomplish is to be fun and showcase some values (such as courage, friendship, doing the right thing, etc) that kids can assimilate. And Rowling did an awesome job with Harry Potter in that respect.

    The fan fic “Methods of Rationality” sounds very interesting though. But I believe it’s not targeted at the same audience, but at adults who aren’t fond of fantasy. I suppose it does a great job at satisfying that need. 🙂

    • Oh, yeah, I don’t mean to get down on J.K. Rowling… she struck a chord that resonated with an entire generation, and that’s quite an accomplishment. Applying a scientific mind to the concept, though, is a lot of fun and very entertaining. Funny thing is, the first few chapters are tongue-in-cheek and full of jabs but then the Methods of Rationality settles down and becomes a serious theoretical investigation of this fictional world and how it could (in principle) exist side-by-side with the real world. To Rowling’s credit, she’s allowed fan fiction works like this to exist on the one proviso that they’re not money spinners. Good on her. It’s a nice legacy for the series.

  3. I agree with Veronica Sicoe. Applying rationality to a kids’ fantasy book just takes away the “magic.”
    Otherwise, I’m sure that “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” would be a good read.

    I also share your concerns about the medical TV doctor TV talking about how “exciting” it was to “try different medicines with different patients to see what work.” You stated that you “cringed at his appalling disregard for the scientific method.” I’m not interested in being a human test tube, so that would be bother me as well.

    • Yeah… I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way, but it came out all wrong.

      I really like the XKCD cartoon in this post, as science isn’t difficult, it’s simply testing ideas with experiments. Now, there’s a lot of work that goes into ensuring those experiments don’t have any hidden biases, but in a nutshell this is all science is, holding ideas up to scrutiny. If someone says moth wings cure warts, lets find out, in a measured, controlled, safe manner before we start crushing up moths. But on TV it’s all about hype and zeal over confirming whether something is true or not.

  4. Huumm that cartoon in the end, I guess it was supposed to have HYPOTHESIS instead of THEORY. Please, check that out, since it is a really common (and serious) mess.

    I really liked hpmor too. Read it multiple times this year 😉

    • Very good point. There are religious groups that love any pretext to jump all over scientific concepts being “just a theory,” and that’s not honest. I got this cartoon from elsewhere on the internet, but have happily updated it with hypothesis.

  5. I waited until I’d finished reading it until I commented. And I have to say, it’s the funniest thing I have read in a long time. I spent 5 days doing nothing but reading, but hey, I got a lot of interesting thoughts out of it. I was wondering, though, if it were a book, how big would it be? I make it around 2000 pages, which seems a little excessive. Thanks for spreading the word anyway, I enjoyed the story muchly.

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