Fwd: Nine Crazy Ideas in Science
Joseph S. Barrera III
joe at barrera.org
Mon Dec 1 13:12:02 PST 2003
We were just talking about radiation hormesis,
and I think JA Rogers discussed abiogenic origins
of oil. I had never even heard of the two-sun (Nemesis)
theory -- bizarre.
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Nine Crazy Ideas in Science
Date: 1 Dec 2003 20:26:02 -0000
From: brian-slashdotnews at hyperreal.org
To: slashdotnews at hyperreal.org
Posted by: timothy, on 2003-12-01 19:20:00
Topic: science, 124 comments
doom writes "The general concept of Robert Ehrlich's book is
absolutely superb: Nine Crazy Ideas in Science: A Few Might Even Be
True. Here, someone with a technical background (Ehrlich is a
physics prof at George Mason) and an open mind investigates in
detail a number of 'crazy' ideas, to see if there's anything to them.
The execution of the idea is not quite as superb, but Robert Ehrlich
has done better at this difficult job than anyone else I know of.
This book is highly recommend as a good review of the evidence on
some scientific controversies." Read on for doom's review, in which
he goes through Erlich's nine-part list, but mind the spoilers.
Nine Crazy Ideas in Science: A Few Might Even Be True
author Robert Ehrlich
publisher Princeton University Press
rating Great idea, very good execution
summary A scientist evaluates some "crazy ideas"
Here's the deck of nine ideas under consideration:
* More Guns Mean Less Crime
* AIDS is Not Caused by HIV
* Sun Exposure is Beneficial
* Low Doses of Nuclear Radiation Are Beneficial
* The Solar System Has Two Suns
* Oil, Coal, and Gas Have Abiogenic Origins
* Time Travel is Possible
* Faster-than-Light Particles Exist
* There Was No Big Bang
The game here is that Ehrlich is not telling you in advance what his
conclusions were. He says he's tried to keep an open mind, and claims
that during his investigations he actually changed his mind about some
things (though he never says about what exactly).
So in this review I'm going to give you generalities first, and bury
"the butler did it" type information after a SPOILER warning.
One of the problems with the execution of this work is that you can
pretty often tell when Ehrlich is enthusiastic about an idea just from
his general tone as he writes about it... and conversely, in
retrospect I think I should've been able to spot when he disagreed
with, because the writing in those chapters was a little confusing.
Part of his schtick is that at the end of each chapter he rates the
idea on a scale of 0 to 4 "cuckoos". Oddly enough I often find that I
strongly disagree with his cuckoo ratings even just based on the
evidence that he presents. But the absolute magnitude of my
disagreements are typically no more than a single "cuckoo".
I was worried about some of his evaluation criteria (see the
introduction available on-line as a sample chapter), because he
includes several points that strike me as fairly dicey: "Who proposed
the idea?"; "How attached is the proposer to the idea?" and "Does the
proposer have an agenda?" These all relate to judging the person
rather than the idea itself. (Consider that "consider the source" and
"ad hominem argument" are pretty much the same as far as logic goes.)
But he does clearly understand that these are just rules of thumb, and
I note with some amusement that he doesn't resort to these particular
rules anywhere in the later chapters. He's more interested in the
logic of the arguments, which is as it should be.
I could bring up lots of quibbles (and I probably will after the
spoiler warning), but overall I found this to be a great breezy read.
I learned quite a bit from it. While nothing here made me do a
reversal of my beliefs, I was often surprised that the evidence for
something was stronger or weaker than I'd supposed.
Here we have an educated, astute, person doing a relatively
independent review of some controversial, interesting technical
subjects. Why aren't there more books like this?
Ah, but at least there's one more! I see that a sequel has just come
out: Eight Preposterous Propositions: From the Genetics of
Homosexuality to the Benefits of Global Warming . I bet I'll be
submitting a review on that one shortly ...
Anyway, now into the nitty gritty. Here's your SPOILER WARNING. Skip
the following if you want to play the "guess where he's going" game
with this book. Let's take it chapter by chapter:
More Guns Mean Less Crime
I'm a "right to bear arms" kind of guy myself, and I was surprised
that the data doesn't seem to support private ownership of guns as a
crime deterrent. Ehrlich argues persuasively that the statistical
evidence for this is very weak. I appreciate the fact that Ehrlich
concludes that both the pro and anti gun sides are nuts: he rates them
3 and 2 "cuckoos" respectively, where a 3 is "almost certainly not
true" and 2 is "very likely not true."
But here, we come to my first strong disagreement with him. If the
effects aren't strong enough to measure, why the asymmetry in the
"cuckoo" rating for the pro and anti side? I might rate them both at a
AIDS is Not Caused by HIV
I've had the impression that the the Duesberg hypothesis was pretty
screwy, but I was willing to tentatively consider it might have
something of value. For example, what about the possibility that
multiple diseases are now being diagnosed incorrectly as one single
But Ehrlich's analysis satisfies me that there's not much of
scientific value in Duesberg's ideas at all. I don't argue with his 3
cuckoo rating (but I wouldn't blame you if you thought it deserved the
Sun Exposure is Beneficial
Ehrlich concludes that this looks fairly plausible, and gives it a 0
cuckoo rating, pretty much as I would have expected. Many people might
find this surprising though, certainly the popular impression these
days seems to be that sunlight is deadly.
Low Doses of Nuclear Radiation Are Beneficial
Here, Ehrlich lays out the case for "radiation hormesis", and I really
don't think this is that fantastic a notion (the difference between a
poison and a medicine is often a matter of dosage, why wouldn't this
be true of radiation?). But radiation is so demonized in the popular
imagination that "radiation is good for you" comes off an insane joke.
Ehrlich takes it seriously, and essentially concludes that while there
are reasons for suspecting that this effect exists, it hasn't been
entirely established. And here we have one of my quibbles: he awards
it 1 cuckoo, which translates to "probably not true, but who knows".
But there is no reason for saying it's probably not true. If something
is not crazy, just not established, I would be inclined to award it "0
cuckoos," aka "Why not?"
The Solar System Has Two Suns
This is the "Nemesis" hypothesis, which it will probably come as no
surprise is rated at 2 cuckoos. The short version of the story:
originally they looked at part of the extinction record, and it looked
like there was a definite cycle. But if you look at the whole record
it doesn't seem to be there.
Oil, Coal, and Gas Have Abiogenic Origins
This is subject that's been of some interest to me, ever since I heard
Thomas Gold give a talk on this idea about a decade ago. It turns out
that this is now looking much less like "an intriguing possibility"
and much more like a truth awaiting a few funerals before it will be
declared established. The odds are good that "fossil fuels" don't
actually come from fossils, rather they're from hydrocarbons that
pre-existed the formation of the earth, which means we're probably not
going to run out of them. (So that means we can ignore those
environmental wackos, right? Nope: imagine what happens to the
atmosphere if we keep ramping up the rate at which we burn this
Ehrlich rates this at 0 cuckoos, but maybe he should have invented a
"-1 cuckoo" for this one.
Time Travel is Possible
2 cuckoos: no surprises.
Faster-than-Light Particles Exist
Ehrlich mentions in his introduction in the interests of "full
disclosure" that he's actually strongly attached to one of the ideas
discussed here (the existence of tachyons), but by the time I'd gotten
to that chapter I'd entirely forgotten about this, and I was
disappointed to realize that he was being an advocate, not an
independent reviewer (it includes a picture of him wearing a "no
Ehrlich rates this at 0 cuckoos, but come on. Even just based on the
write-up he presents, it's a clear 1 cuckoo.
There Was No Big Bang
Clocks in at 3 cuckoos, as you might expect.
You can purchase Nine Crazy Ideas in Science: A Few Might Even Be
True from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see
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