March 06, 2014

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This year is the centenary of the late great pop mathematician Martin Gardner (1914-2010). A posthumous autobiography (you don’t see that phrase often) appeared last fall.

In 1957, Gardner published a book titled Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, debunking things such as extrasensory perception and Dianetics. I read the book in my teens. It instantly cured me of my infatuation with the then-popular “worlds in collision” theories of Immanuel Velikovsky. I fondly think that it also left me with a proper balance of respect for, on the one hand, scientific orthodoxy, and on the other, rebels against that orthodoxy.

As Gardner points out in his first chapter, the rebels are sometimes right. For example, science long pooh-poohed the idea that rocks could fall from the sky:

Even the great French Académie des Sciences ridiculed this folk belief….Not until April 26, 1803, when several thousand small meteors fell on the town of L’Aigle, France, did the astronomers decide to take falling rocks seriously.

“€œTrust science, but don”€™t necessarily trust scientists.”€

That proper balance of respect is essential for anyone who wants to say intelligent things about science. Without it you get sucked into one of two lethal whirlpools, their names dogmatism and relativism. As the quip goes: Keep your mind open, but not so open that everything falls out.

For a layperson, the point of balance is damnably hard to find. Try hanging out with working scientists and listening to them talk. You realize that while they may, like the French academicians, ultimately prove to be wrong, you will never know as much about their specialty as they do, so you are much more likely to be wrong.

To make matters even worse, the rebels are often as well-credentialed as the orthodox. Gardner gives examples:

Crehore rejects the accepted view that the electrons of an atom…have orbits about the nucleus. He thinks instead that the electrons are part of the nucleus itself….Crehore’s books are universally considered worthless by his colleagues. On the other hand, Crehore was formerly assistant professor of physics at Dartmouth, with…a distinguished record as a teacher and inventor. So, one hesitates to be dogmatic.

What’s a layperson to do? (And even a scientist, please note, is a layperson outside his own specialty. A geologist’s opinions about neuroscience are probably worth a little more than yours or mine, but not by much.)

I offered my own recommendation in a column five years ago. Executive summary: Trust science, but don’t necessarily trust scientists.

All this is on my mind because: (a) a few weeks ago I wrote a piece about the “intelligent design” business; and (b) around the same time I passed what I thought were some bland, diffident remarks about global warming. The emails are still coming.

Creationists are no problem: I just give them a link to the TalkOrigins Archive.

Global-warming skeptics make a better case. Some do, at least. Others just chide me for believing something Al Gore and Barack Obama believe, to which I make the obvious rejoinder: A belief isn’t responsible for the people who hold it. Hitler was a vegetarian, etc.

Some others say I am a contrarian on race and IQ: I’m not. Still others tell me that consensus means nothing in science: That’s nuts.

After a few encounters with the more thoughtful skeptics, a pattern emerges.


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