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.
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.
Earlier 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.