Crash Into Me Dept.

One book that I wish could be updated for the present day is Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies: In The Name of Science. It was originally published in 1952 with some updates in 1957, and while it's remained in print it hasn't been given a formal new edition since — even if the vast majority of the kookery and crankery talked about within hasn't changed one whit. That puts it in fine company with Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, another book which remains more or less as-is since its original publication decades ago but only because some things never change.

Part of the reason I'd love to see Fads updated is because of this sentence in the foreword: "Today, science reporting in the American press is freer of humbug and misinformation than ever before in history." That may have been true in 1952. Today, it is most definitely not true. Science reporting has to fight damned hard against humbug and misinformation, simply because it's that much easier to be flooded by it.

Case in point: a piece in today's Science Times that gives entirely too much space to a very, very silly theory about why the Large Hadron Collider will not detect the Higgs Boson. It involves time travel and the grandfather paradox. I Am Not Making This Up. (© Dave Barry)

As per Carl Sagan: They laughed at Copernicus; they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. The wackiness of a theory has zero correlation with its potential correctness. And this isn't even Harry Potter physics; this is Cloudy With A Chance Of Meat Balls.

Other physicists who have chimed in are all pretty much holding their nose at how wretched the theory in question is; many are frankly embarrassed that it wasn't intended as parody (or at the very least indistinguishable from same). Something that the Times piece does not mention is how arXiv is often littered with rubbish like this, that it may well be to scientific papers what is to good writing, and that you need a good deal of patience and often a stiff drink or three to separate the signal from the noise.

Part of why I'm annoyed as I am with the Times article is because it plays a game I see in entirely too much science journalism. Crazy Thing X seems crazy, but only because all the Great Discoveries of the past also looked crazy! This ignores the fact that most real scientific work isn't of the eureka! variety; it's actually quite boring from the outside. It's the slow accumulation of observation and insight based on the work done by previous scientists. Breakthroughs, when they do happen, are treated with immense skepticism and have to be reproduced by other people to be credible.

What I resented most was the tone of the Times piece, the disingenuous "I dunno, I'm just sayin'" attitude. It smacks of the same anti-intellectual weaseling that characterized Charles Fort's books, which were amusing as fantasy but worthless as any kind of critique of scientific discipline. Martin Gardner wept.

Tags: dharma links science

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Uncategorized / General, published on October 13, 2009 10:33 AM.

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