Friday, April 17, 2009

Lewis and Me

Still in Miami. I have a review of Lewis Wolpert's new book in the New Statesman in case you're missing me already. I like to think of Lewis, 3500 miles away, exploding with his special combination of glee and exasperation.


  1. Heard him discussing it on STW. He was quite blunt and a bit silly when discussing Islam with a Muslim and he expressed some startling views on abortion - humans aren't humans till birth, I think he said, though I might have misheard.

  2. Nice review. Although it commits the inductive fallacy at the end:

    "If Aristotle was wrong about so much, then it is safe to assume that, 2,500 years from now, it will be apparent that Wolpert was wrong about just as much."

    It doesn't follow that because something was the case in the past, then it will continue to be the case in the future.

  3. It is not a logical necessity that Wolpert will be wrong 2,500 years from now, Gordon, but common sense suggests that it's likely.

    And of course at current rates it will probably only be a few months.

  4. "Being alive and aware is, indeed, a miracle, whatever meaning you attach to that word."Depends which word. Alive, aware, miracle ... they all seem pretty troublesome to me.

    I appreciate Wolpert being blunt about Islam though. That has to be part of the job and is desperately needed at times. The whores are fighting back, those that give life and awareness to us all.

    Miracle? That should perhaps be reserved for the hard cases, like AN Wilson's return from atheism, painfully slow news just spotted beside your piece. As if someone was saying, "Of course there's miracle, every day, from the lowest to the highest, if only you open your eyes."

  5. Inductive fallacy? All i meant was that an alert reader might think so. And, if the future is never like the past, then science is screwed also.

  6. "... it requires humility, not a common virtue among prominent scientists ..."Just got to the end, sorry, got diverted by the surprisingly re-converted.

    Absolutely spot on, Bryan, no inductive fallacy at all, everyone free to make up their own mind. Some may wish to trust that our knowledge at this particular instant will become like a thousand year reich, times two and a half, and even more boring. Others are happier with history than that. And the humility it teaches, well not so much teaches as hammers into our thick heads. Oh sorry. How rude. My thick head I mean. Everyone free to choose, as I said already.

  7. Many caught in the jaws of a logical fallacy attempt to wriggle free, but sadly the jaws just tighten in response. The wise recognise their predicament and cease wriggling.

    What we have here is an almost textbook case of the inductive fallacy: the failure of current science is inferred from the failure of past science. It's got nothing to do with choice, and everything to do with logic.

    Identification of the inductive fallacy also doesn't require one to propose that the future is never like the past. The future often is like the past, but the point of the inductive fallacy is that it isn't always like the past.

    So you've committed another fallacy, Bryan. Like I say, those jaws just tighten...

  8. If our nuts, bolts, washers, low voltage connectors and attendant wiring are more numerous than first thought then is this information of any practical benefit to the man on the Clapham omnibus ?
    Nearly fifty years of reading the outpourings by or about these people from Fred Hoyle to John Gribbin via Murray Gel_Mann has led me to the conclusion that, after the entertainment value is factored out and the accumulated stored knowledge is aired at various dinner parties or pub quiz nights then what ?
    To a man (or woman) they come with baggage, the reason they put t'pen to t'paper is what ?..... you fill in the blank space.
    Many of them (the writers or their subjects) have fucked up heads, poor Oppy f'rinstance, tried to do his mate in with a poisoned apple, knocked up a bomb and then said "oops, sorry lads"
    Old megabonce Albert, one eureka idea, along comes number two, spends the rest of his life chewing his nails over it, the new world students strolling past his window taking the piss, "quantum what ? yeah, right."
    Then there's the sub divisions, blackboard / chalk mob versus the test tube and litmus crew. One lot saying maybe this is, the other oh no it doesn't.

    So forgive me for being cynical, life is short, man born of woman and all that, no more books about what's under the bonnet, more about what we see in the headlights.

  9. how many friends have you got now, and do you still owe them all a tenner? thanks, Mr. A, for pointing out another interesting character. I just watched his ''god delusion'' debate with William Lane Craig on youtube. It was like watching the odd couple. very entertaining.

  10. That, Gordon, is nonsense.

    I can't see at all that Bryan made the argument that past science has been shown to be wrong, therefore current science will necessarily be shown to be wrong.

    He was clearly just criticising the lack of humility, and the impatience about anything outside of a tedious and narrow set of hard rules, which you find in the more obvious Bright scientists. Disappointingly, you lately seem to have become one of them.

  11. Thanks, Brit, lost the will to live myself. Gordon does seem to have lost it.

  12. It's disappointing to see that those preaching humility don't have the simple humility to accept their own errors.

    "Lack of humility" and "impatience about anything outside of a tedious and narrow set of hard rules?" I think it only exists in the minds of those who accuse me of it.

  13. Boys, boys -- can't we discuss *anything* here without you coming to blows? I'm enjoying reading all these opinions and then the sniping begins. Who is the pirate? Who is Capt. Phillips? Should we kill them all and let God sort it out later? J'espere que NON.

  14. The last recalcitrant wrong idea I can think of right off the top of my head is "the ether", but that idea properly belongs to the 19th Century. I'm sure there's one for the 20th as well. Maybe that will turn out to be "irreducible complexity". We had to wait for the 20th C before we could get rid of the ether. It's likely that the 21st will put "irreducible complexity" in the ICU. This is happening on two fronts: One is the understanding of cellular organization that Wolpert is discussing; the other has to do with studies of what goes on with the pudding between the ears. To declare that these problems are insoluble is a bit premature. It's not about what we wish to be so.

  15. A trait I've noticed in Brights, Gordon, is that they can be so in love with an idealised version of the scientific method that they rush to apply their set of logical rules in the defence of actual science, and, as a consequence, often clumsily misapply them. When challenged, their response is usually just to yet again explain what the idealised version of the scientific method method is; or to reiterate their logical rules again, as if the challenger is simply too dumb to understand them (which admittedly is sometimes the case but not, I think, on this blog).

    You've done it here. In your rush to defend the value of current science, you've misapplied an accusation of an inductive fallacy, which you will realise if you reflect on it a bit longer.

    If a man has lost continuously at poker, it is reasonable for his friends to say: "If you carry on at this rate you're likely to lose all your savings."

    But I suppose you'd be running up saying: "Don't listen to them, that's the inductive fallacy! Just because you've lost up to now it doesn't necessarily follow that you'll lose in the future. Your past losses give you no reason to stop gambling!"

    The middle sentence would be a logical truth, yet it's terrible advice. How can this be?

  16. Sadly, Brit, it does remain necessary to repeat oneself on occasion, given the tendency for people not to read what's actually been written.

    The example you raise over the poker player is already addressed by one of the points I made: "the future often is like the past, but the point of the inductive fallacy is that it isn't always like the past."

    One can predict a high probability that a losing poker player will continue to lose, if he continues to play the game as he has in the past. However, if he seeks advice from experts in the game, for example, and changes his strategy, then he might well start winning at the game.

    What Bryan has done, by analogy, is to assume that science is a losing poker player who never changes his strategy, that modern science employs the same techniques as Aristotelian science. To assume that modern science must fail simply because past science failed, is the inductive fallacy.

    Ultimately, I'm afraid, your comments Brit, and Bryan's final comment, reflect more on Bryan and yourself than they do on me. I think you will see this if you pause to reflect a little longer.

  17. Sorry, Gordon, you deserve a bit better than that.

    I'm not sure if there is such a thing as Appleyardism, but if there is, then surely a crucial element of it is scepticism about some the claims of the Dawkins-style scientific-materialist-atheist.

    What's bizarre is that you've been on here donkey's years, but all of a sudden in the last few months you've been heavily laying into Bryan on the basis of precisely those claims - as if they (or Bryan's opposition to them) has only just occured to you. What gives?

  18. I've actually been selectively critical of Bryan almost from the outset, although the criticism was certainly more moderate in the past. There was a point in early 2007, where Bryan claimed that he enjoyed a slight edge to things, that he was even comfortable with an 'entirely abusive relationship'.

    Nevertheless, there's clearly been a tipping point recently, and that came with the misleading articles written on creationism/Darwinism and NDE/quantum theory. At that point I felt that I'd been pulling my punches. I also felt that it would simply be more interesting to openly enunciate my disagreement at length. No journalist will be unaware that conflict makes for good copy.

    Of course, if one disagrees profoundly with someone else, then one can always simply walk away. However, the very first thing I said to Bryan, over 3 years ago now, is that he is the only mainstream journalist who writes critically about science, and that despite my Dawkinite tendencies, I enjoy what he writes.

    In that respect, nothing has changed, and come the weekend, there's still only one individual worth reading in The Sunday Times.

    It's all in the game, yo. It's all in the game.

  19. Thanks for the last bit, Gordon, but you're still confusing reporting of the views of others with any position I'm taking. The NDE piece was perfectly balanced with both sides represented. The Darwin piece was as well but may have been muddled by shortening at the last minute. You're the only complainant I can remember about NDEs though Darwinism attracted the usual wackos. I have no agenda in these matters - and no faith to offer - other than a desire to take seriously the workings and aspirations of the human mind however they may express themselves. In that I am not going to be censored by scientists or anybody else.

  20. The part of the NDE piece I objected to most strongly was the section on quantum theory, which reported some eccentric opinions on the subject without putting those opinions into context. That was misleading for the general reader, who will have no background in the subject.

    If you say that the piece on Darwinism became imbalanced by unfortunate truncation or editing, then I accept that.

  21. Fool that I am for asking and putting to one side the patronising aspect, what is a "general reader" and why incidentally would they have no background knowledge of, aka be in ignorance of, the subject.
    Underestimating the intellect of the masses was I thought the playground of the political classes.

  22. There's nothing patronising in recognising, Malty, that most readers will have no specialist knowledge of quantum theory. If you're writing about quantum theory in a physics or philosophy of physics journal, then you're not writing for the general reader, whereas if you're writing about quantum theory in The Sunday Times, then you are writing for the general reader.

  23. Many caught in the jaws of a logical fallacy attempt to wriggle free, but sadly the jaws just tighten in response.Wonderful symbolism, Gordon. It describes equally those who try to rule us by logic.