Today, I'm beginning an occasional series I've wanted to begin for a while: Hey douchebag! My goal is to confront the problems with Slate magazine's contrarianism. They post any number of ridiculous things in the course of a week, and they need more watchdogs. Among their most telling efforts, see Christopher Hitchens' bizarre attack on Juan Cole. Of course, he chides Cole not for his published writing, but for a comment on a closed discussion board. Or see Jacob Weisberg's god-awful column claiming that Hillary Clinton's iPod demonstrates that she's a calculated politician and that Bush's iPod demonstrates that he's an uncalculating regular guy.
So why "Hey douchebag!" and not, say, "A reasonable dissent from the tone and style of Slate?" Because I'm aping their silly contrarianism, the penchant for startling headlines.
(Note: I regularly visit Slate, and I often enjoy what they produce. This is, in part, an effort to enjoy more of what they produce by curbing the badness in any small way I can.)
For the first installment, let's look at how Slate approaches science: with dilettante Gregg Easterbrook, who has no qualifications to write on science. Yet he tries to tell us that String Theory is junk, based on the fact that he's read one (count 'em, one) book. Now, Easterbrook, summarizing Smolin, might be right about string theory. In fact, other scienticians who've read the book take Smolin's argument seriously. And Smolin is a reputable scientist. (NB: I'm also not a scientician, and I'm happy to let actual scienticians do the research.)
However, let's bear in mind that Slate gives us the review of Smolin's book through the filter of a writer manifestly unqualified to write about science, a writer who clearly has other axes to grind. For example, here's Easterbrook's opening paragraph:
"The leading universities are dominated by hooded monks who speak in impenetrable mumbo-jumbo; insist on the existence of fantastic mystical forces, yet can produce no evidence of these forces; and enforce a rigid guild structure of beliefs in order to maintain their positions and status. The Middle Ages? No, the current situation in university physics departments. I just invented the part about the hoods."
So we know what Easterbrook begins with. All university physicists are trying to protect their narrow, myopic world. (By the way, Easterbrook only recently came around to "believing" in global warming, and he advocates teaching Intelligent Design in public schools. Just fyi.) Easterbrook again:
"If you worry that even in the 21st century, intellectual fads have as much to do with university politics and careerism as with the search for abstract truth, The Trouble With Physics is a book you absolutely must read."
Yes, folks, that's right, let's base our approach to this book on overgeneralized biases about the state of the university. Because nothing helps out "the search for abstract truth" like overgeneralized biases.
"The physics establishment reacted adversely to Smolin's cosmic natural selection because the idea implies direction: Over time, existence progresses toward a condition more to the liking of beings such as us. In recent decades it has become essential at the top of academia to posit utter meaninglessness to all aspects of physics."
I'd like to note that Easterbrook cites absolutely no one who claims that science must look toward meaninglessness. I'm sure he can find plenty of scientists who note the difference between study of the physical world and study of the metaphysical world (i.e. science and religion). However, noting that separation and arguing for meaninglessness are not the same thing. Of course, then we get to Easterbrook's particular axe to grind:
"Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised for incredible sophistication. If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank."
Poor Gregg, unable to tout his religious ideas in a scientific forum. But let me be the first to say: whether or not Easterbrook is a superstitious crank, I don't know. But he's certainly a crank.