Friday, September 15, 2006

Hey douchebag!

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.


jason said...

i think "hey douchebag" could easily just be its own series of easterbrook reviews. i don't know how you'd get through each one without throwing something at the wall, but the material almost writes itself.

Tukla in Iowa said...

A one-dimensional plane?

Anonymous said...

Hey, if you want to hear some real snarky takedowns of string theory, sit in on an HEP seminar in one of those "insular physics departments".

But we reserve our snarkiest snark for ignorant blowhards like Easterbrook. I've flunked kids out of Phys101 that are smarter than him.

beervolcano said...

Yes, if there's spirit and a sky god in there, of course 1 dimension can be a plane. Duh.

I'd also like to see the mathematically consistent theories detailing this spritual plane. Surely there's a poltergeist parameter in there somewhere.

Blue Gal said...

That's an excellent idea for a series. I love it. It'll keep ya busy on many a slow news night.

Congrats on the C&L link, and yeah, looking forward to the whole series.

Anonymous said...

Your blog has a great title and the Douchebag series is worthy of the Master, The Rude Pundit, at least in terms of the title. As for physics, I had a serious interest in the field 40 years ago but after meeting a few generic physicists and several of the famous, I decided I could never be nerdy or wacked enough to fit in. Maybe there are some "normal" physicists out there somewhere, perhaps in that famous "Parallel Universe", but I never met any and let's face it, beliefs in more dimensions than any one else believes in, naming your pursuit String Theory
{how about Rope-a-Dope Theory?}and essentially expending your entire time upon the Planet Earth having thoughts of far distant worlds and formulating or manipulating extremely arcane concepts is frankly, abnormal. Not criminal, just nerdy as hell.
So what is so odd about the physics cabal buying into String Theory, or in some cases not?
I am personally a huge fan of the Big Bang Theory, although it was only recently explained to me that it had nothing to do with coitus.
As for belief systems, The Bang, much as I love it, is just a Theory, like that String Thing.
I was recently involved in a Home Improvement Project with a physicist. His understanding of the basic laws of physics here on the practical plane of weights and measures, levers, capacity of machines for work, etc. {OK some of that is engineering to be fair} was virtually nil and I only continued my involvement as a consultant on his project for the entertainment value. His practical capabilities were absolutely nil and his theoretical capabilities, while perhaps prodigious {he is a Xerox physicist} were of no help in getting his problems solved. I wonder just how much that trajectory is paralelled in the physics workplace and in physics academia? I bet my example is more than anecdotal.

Anonymous said...

In his anti-environmentalist book "A Moment on the Earth," Gregg Easterbrook advocated that humans should genetically engineer all wild predators into being vegetarians.

You can imagine his stance on global warming. He's a scientist like Doctor Teeth is a scientist.