Monday, August 19, 2013

Asking experts about nothing

From a negative review of a evolution book:
At no point in the book does Meyer ever actually discuss these issues with Marshall, or Davidson, or any of the scientists working deeply in the field. He simply lifts quotes from their papers as they seem convenient to his point.

This is the most disappointing aspect of Meyer’s book. It’s hard to read a book like Darwin’s Doubt in parallel, for example, with a book like New Yorker writer Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? Holt spent months chasing down and interviewing a wide range of philosophers and scientists — simply to get their answer to the age-old question: Why is there something rather than nothing? It’s a delightful, thought-provoking read for all the reasons that Meyer’s is not. Holt lets none of his subjects off the hook — politely, but persistently, questioning their opinions and assertions.
And expert opinion is valuable about a meaningless philosophical issue?

I have criticized Holt and his book here, here, here, and here.

I am all in favor of consulting "scientists working deeply in the field", but there is no deep science about why the world exists. There are just religious and other non-scientific beliefs.
But the notion that scientists are not open to the possibility of agent action in the world is not accurate. In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a graduate student in astrophysics at Cambridge, discovered a radio signal coming from the Crab Nebula. It was a fantastically rapid pulse — too rapid to be natural, it was first believed. That it might be the work of an intelligence was seriously considered — until the lack of variation in the beacon-like pulses, accompanied soon by the discovery of other sources sending similar beams toward earth, persuaded scientists that there was likely a natural explanation. Ultra-dense stars called “pulsars” are now considered the culprits.
Is this a joke? His best example is that some grad student or unnamed colleague in 1967 considered the possibility of extraterrestrial life?

I have not seen Meyer's book, and I have no idea whether it reflects scholarly opinion about the Cambrian explosion. Any extraterrestial hypothesis would seem far-fetched to me, but maybe not any more far-fetched that what we commonly hear from physicists and what is in Holt's book.

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