Freeman Dyson on the rampage

Freeman Dyson muses on outsider science in the NYRB, “Science on the Rampage”:

In my career as a scientist, I twice had the good fortune to be a personal friend of a famous dissident. One dissident, Sir Arthur Eddington, was an insider like Thomson and Tait. The other, Immanuel Velikovsky, was an outsider like Carter. Both of them were tragic figures, intellectually brilliant and morally courageous, with the same fatal flaw as Carter. Both of them were possessed by fantasies that people with ordinary common sense could recognize as nonsense. I made it clear to both that I did not believe their fantasies, but I admired them as human beings and as imaginative artists. I admired them most of all for their stubborn refusal to remain silent. With the whole world against them, they remained true to their beliefs. I could not pretend to agree with them, but I could give them my moral support.

My main problem with Dyson’s view is that it doesn’t take into account those cranks and pseudoscientists who are actually acting in bad faith – peddlers of snake oil, front-men for deep-pocketed business interests threatened by research on tobacco, climate change, etc., and religious fundamentalists who can’t make peace between their faith and thoroughly established science. In fact, it’s likely that there are many, many more dishonest pseudoscientists than the deluded but honest amateurs that Dyson describes, and his knee-jerk sympathy for the scientific outsider makes him a potential sucker. Continue reading “Freeman Dyson on the rampage”

Skeptical Gnosticism

No, you do not pronounce the “g” in gnosticism – mainly because, well try it, you know that can’t be right. Gnosticism is a fancy word for a style of religion – a style with which you might be familiar from The Matrix. In The Matrix, people inhabit a material world created by imperfect and selfish beings that prevents them from living full lives. A few people have discovered the true reality behind “reality”. That knowledge (the gnosis of gnosticism or the red pill of The Matrix) brings great power (e.g., kung fu) and salvation. Continue reading “Skeptical Gnosticism”

Oldie but goodie on junk DNA

Posted last October, Larry Moran on Junk DNA, creationism, and Ryan Gregory’s Onion test is worth a read.

A teaser:

Note that the Onion Test is for people who think they have a functional explanation for the vast amount of putative junk in our genome. What Ryan is suggesting is that such proposals should be able to account for the huge genome of onions as well as the huge genome of humans.

Let me give you some examples. Some people suggest that we need a big genome in order to protect our genes from mutation. If that’s true then why do onions need five times more DNA? Some people suggest that we have big genomes because we’re so complex and we need huge amounts of regulatory sequence. If so, why do onions need more?

Darwin on how to be a scientist

Great prostrate silicified trunks of trees, embedded in a conglomerate, were extraordinarily numerous. I measured one which was fifteen feet in circumference: how surprising it is that every atom of the woody matter in this great cylinder should have been removed and replaced by silex so perfectly that each vessel and pore is preserved! These trees flourished at about the period of our lower chalk; they all belonged to the fir-tribe. It was amusing to hear the inhabitants discussing the nature of the fossil shells which I collected, almost in the same terms as were used a century ago in Europe,–namely, whether or not they had been thus “born by nature.” My geological examination of the country generally created a good deal of surprise amongst the Chilenos: it was long before they could be convinced that I was not hunting for mines. This was sometimes troublesome: I found the most ready way of explaining my employment was to ask them how it was that they themselves were not curious concerning earthquakes and volcanos?–why some springs were hot and others cold?–why there were mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata? These bare questions at once satisfied and silenced the greater number; some, however (like a few in England who are a century behindhand), thought that all such inquiries were useless and impious; and that it was quite sufficient that God had thus made the mountains.

Voyage of The Beagle, Chapter XVI

One of the remarkable features of this book is Darwin’s relentless commitment to a scientific point of view. He asks questions nobody around him thinks to ask, and he is unsatisfied with answers not based in observable evidence and reasoned thought.

Legitimate anxiety

I’m not even going to pretend that you care about my opinion on the Rebecca Watson/Elevator Guy/Stef McGraw debacle. If you feel that Rebecca did not have a right to feel uncomfortable or speak out about it, then you should go read Greg Laden and John Rennie, while I weep for your soul.

I have been particularly troubled by the suggestion that female anxiety over being in an elevator alone with a strange man late at night is of a piece with the anxiety of a white person who finds themselves at an urban bus stop surrounded by black people and then approached by one. The suggestion is that the anxiety felt is the product of negative stereotypes. J. Earl Davis makes some good points in his article on this issue, but this comparison is not one of them. All analogies eventually break down. This one does not even get out of the starting gate. Continue reading “Legitimate anxiety”