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Monday, June 21, 2010

Making a Fool of Yourself

There are many ways of making a fool of yourself. I know, because I've successfully attempted every one of them over the past few decades. I've even repeated some of the easier ones. Several Dozens of times.

Michael Shermer reminds us how easy it is by quoting a physicist. [When Scientists Sin: Fraud, deception and lies in research reveal how science is (mostly) self-correcting]
In his 1974 commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology, Nobel laureate physicist Richard P. Feynman articulated the foundation of scientific integrity: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.... After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”
This reminds me of an even earlier quotation from Peter Medawar in 1961. It's from a review of The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
It is a book widely held to be of the utmost profundity and significance; it created something like a sensation upon its publication in France, and some reviewers hearabouts called it the Book of the Year—one, the Book of the Century. Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.
It's much easier to fool yourself these days, in part because Peter Medawar and Richard Feynman aren't around to keep us honest.

That's one of the problems with modern science.

It's worth noting that Medawar was an atheist and he had little use for those who attempt to bolster religious beliefs with scientific arguments. It's also worth noting that forty years after Medawar's review you can still find people defending Teilhard as in Prophets without honour?, an essay published in Nature in 2000.
Teilhard's books were published posthumously: his religious superiors forbade him publishing his views on human evolution in his lifetime. He thus shared with Galileo the distinction, if that is the right word, of having his work suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church. Just because Galileo was right does not, of course, give everyone else whose work is proscribed the stamp of scientific rectitude, but Teilhard was doubly distinguished in his second martyrdom at the hands of scientific orthodoxy. But apart from its religious streak, Teilhard's approach is not so different from that of the modern field of evolutionary psychology, and he anticipated the explosive growth of mass communication. For a book written in the late 1930s, The Phenomenon of Man seems remarkably prescient.

Teilhard is not alone in being tried by the scientific establishment while experiencing popular success. A good deal of hostility has been directed at the concept of the biosphere as an intelligent organism — James Lovelock's Gaia — and at astronomer Fred Hoyle's ideas on the extraterrestrial origin of life. Both met with popular enthusiasm before the scientific establishment would admit that they were candidate hypotheses. The evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith castigated Hoyle recently in this very journal ( Nature 403, 594–595; 2000).

Teilhard's books must have far outsold Medawar's Reith Lectures, and therein lies a dilemma for scientists in their relationship with the public. Should they, like Medawar, stick to the facts, satisfying the dictates of scientific conscience but, with a limited horizon, reaching a limited audience? Or should they throw caution to the winds as Teilhard did, appeal to a large audience, but risk disapprobation by the scientific community? There is a psychological issue, too, which is that the public may have twigged that not only do orthodox scientists restrict their enquiries to the physical world, but also that many of them believe in their hearts that there is nothing beyond it.
Speaking of phenomena, how often do you sees someone's work compared to evolutionary psychology where the comparison is meant to be a compliment?


  1. Does that include making a post that doesn't seem to say anything specific, nor links to something that would provide context?

  2. At least you never studied philosophy, though.

  3. They don't make them like Feynman anymore. :(

  4. Thanks for reminding me Medawar's review. I hope I can use it when (not if, when) Teilhard mangum opus is used as "bridge" between science and religion.