Citizen Science Musings: Harry Potter Gets Rational

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By Sheldon Greaves


Before I get into this week's column, first things first. We wish to express our good wishes to all those facing hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. Take care out there; stay dry and stay safe. We await your excellent stories and storm photos when it's all over.

Fan fiction is one of the side-effects of a truly good body of literature. It's been around for a long time. Dedicated science fiction and fantasy readers seem particularly prone to this kind of activity. I first noticed this in the wake of the first Star Wars movie, with a very few spinoffs actually seeing the light of commercial publication.  Since there was no internet, who knows how many stories or even novels were written on electric typewriters only to languish in file folders or modest circulation made possible by photocopiers?

But today, thanks to the internet, fan fiction is a big, big deal. It spans every imaginable sub-genre from satire and parody to stories that pick up a loose thread off the main plot, to significant re-writes.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality falls into this last category. Written by Eliezer Yudkowsky, it is essentially a re-casting of the original Harry Potter novel(s) with a few significant differences in the original story. Instead of being raised by lumpen parents who despised him and forced him to live in a cupboard under the stairs, this Harry Potter's parents are far more caring. His father, instead of selling drill bits, is an Oxford University science professor who has seen to it that Harry was brought up to have a thorough grounding in science, logic, history, rationality, and mathematics (Harry is what you'd call a child prodigy; for instance, he knows calculus, even though he is only eleven).

But now, Harry is thrust into a world where magic actually works--but so does science--and this Harry loves to look at the world from a scientific standpoint. By contrast, the magical community seems very unaware of the scientific achievements of muggles (non-magical types); the news that humans have been to the moon is a profound shock to one of the story's normally more cynical characters. Obviously, it's not an easy transition for Harry, but it makes for some very interesting variations on the original story. The new Harry Potter can be more than a bit pretentious and even pompous, but even after the few chapters I've read, we see Harry growing into a fuller human being.

What also makes this story fun is that is embodies one example after another of using principles of rationality to answer questions and solve problems. Making their appearance are probability, positive bias, lateral thinking, the planning fallacy, the fundamental attribution error, Bayes' Theorem, and much more. It may sound dull, but it's not.  Trust me on this. Particularly after the first few chapters, the quality of writing improves substantially. It can be addictive. you have been warned.

Author Yudkowsky is well-suited to the task of writing this work. He is a contributor to LessWrong, a blog dedicated to the principles of human rationality. If you're interested in just getting the rationality lessons without the Hogwarts coating, you can visit the blog's Wiki here, where you will find them laid out as a series of easy-to-use sequences.

If, like me, you tend to read fiction for ideas rather than for escape, you will love this. If you're a Harry Potter fan you will also find it fun. Literati will also enjoy it; in addition to the humor of the story and the tour of rational methodologies, this novel is quite thought-provoking on a number of levels as good literature should be.

Incidentally, J.K. Rowling who wrote the original Harry Potter series has stated that she is fine with fan fiction so long as no one charges money for it. A classy stance to take; other authors and/or publishers are not nearly so understanding.

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