Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dark Day

It looks like I’m not the only one at the Speculation game. The British Broadcasting Corporation, my favourite source of science, sporting and general news, is at it as well, encouraging speculation by its readers.

This article describes one of these bizarre events that cannot be explained, like hoof marks trailed across snowy Devon, or the abandoned Mary Celeste, and asks their readers to speculate on what happened.

To say these incidents can’t be explained is perhaps misleading, there is no shortage of explanations. When I was in primary (elementary) school, my class was once set the task of writing a story to explain the disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste, so it is a safe bet that there were several explanations right there. Mine was that the crew were abducted by a passing slave ship that disappeared below the horizon just as the Mary Celeste came into view from the Dei Gratia. But there is no way to select the correct explanation.

The problem with these events is their uniqueness. If they happened once a month, we could test our explanations against the facts and quickly reach a conclusion. But these events happen once, ever. And they typically happened some time ago, so whatever evidence there was, is now lost. So, unless they do repeat, we are without any verifiable explanation. Your explanation is as good as mine

But back to Dark Day. The BBC, having solicited explanations, published the best of them . Interesting, but mundane.

These explanations are what we would have expected, an assorted mixture of aliens, weather, and large objects hurtling through space and only just missing causing another mass extinction on Earth. These explanations are dull because they refer to standard mechanisms known from fiction, science or history. Each sounds like the plot of a novel we read just last year. What would be more interesting and, given the rarity of these events, quite likely, would be an explanation in terms of a mechanism completely unknown to us, a mechanism as rare as the outcome that was recorded. What is referred to in planning as ‘the unknown unknowns’. We can’t describe them because they’re unknown.

What would be more interesting than the explanations would be the events and lives that were changed by Dark Day. Perhaps a murder committed in the dark of day, or a murder avoided, an assignation missed, a child lost, a cow rescued, a lion escaped from a zoo, a sighting of Sasquatch, superstitions driving people to do things they would not have done on any other day. Did someone think it was the end of the world, did someone wake and think he had slept through the day, did someone meet an alien and think it was the devil?

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