Sunday, November 30, 2008


At least somebody else shares the same low view I have of Malcom Gladwell, journalist for The New Yorker who has written the best selling books: >The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outlier. If any situation deserved the analogy "the emperor has no clothes", this would be it. These books sound deep and insightful, but have absolutely no worthwhile content.

These books ride the recent wave of scientific mysticism. On one hand, they tackle their topic with the scientific view that there is a natural explanation for everything, that there is nothing divine or spiritual. On the other hand, the theories and explanations are all made up with the same scientific rigor that astrologists use.

The genre of scientific mysticism isn't completely bogus. Richard Dawkin proposed the idea of a "meme" back in 1976 with his book "The Selfish Gene". What makes Dawkins work different than Gladwell's is that Dawkins is a scientist, and he uses real science to discuss his idea.

How do we recognize phony mysticism? How do we recognize when the emperor has no clothes? How do we get to the naked truth of things? Well, it's actually a straight forward application of the scientific method. Unfortunately, while students are taught to believe blindly in science (like evolution), they are never taught what the scientific method actually is. I suppose someone could write a book called "Naked" that would teach science, but it wouldn't sell well. People buy these books because they want to believe in mysticism, so they aren't going to buy anything that debunks it.


Luke Rodgers said...

Interestingly, as documented by philosophers and anthropologists of science, there is little to no agreement among scientists as to what exactly "the scientific method" is; nor, for that matter, is there even much agreement on what constitutes a "theory".

Ken Buchanan said...

"Unfortunately, while students are taught to believe blindly in science (like evolution)..."

Even though it is math rather than strictly science, Calculus is a better example. I was in the second year of my math degree before I understood why derivation works the way it does -- finally getting past "You don't need to know why, but you just move the exponent over here, multiply, subtract one, etc".

By contrast, a lot of high schools do teach the evidence behind the theory of evolution, at which point it is no longer blind acceptance on the part of the student. In fact, going way back, I can't think of many science topics in which we didn't on some level either study reasoning behind it, or do classroom experimentation to demonstrate it. Even atomic theory had famous historical experiments.