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.

(see http://seds.lpl.arizona.edu/billa/tnp/hypo.html#nemesis)

- Joe

-------- 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

Link: http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=03/12/01/1918208
Posted by: timothy, on 2003-12-01 19:20:00
Topic: science, 124 comments

   [1]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 ([2]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
   pages     244
   publisher Princeton University Press
   rating    Great idea, very good execution
   reviewer  doom
   ISBN      0691070016
   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 [3]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: [4]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
   2 myself.

   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
   syndrome "HIV"?

   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
   full 4).

   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
   tardy-centrism" T-shirt).

   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 [5]Nine Crazy Ideas in Science: A Few Might Even Be
   True from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see
   your own review here, read the [6]book review guidelines, then visit
   the [7]submission page.


   1. http://www.grin.net/~mirthless
   2. http://mason.gmu.edu/~rehrlich/
   3. http://pup.princeton.edu/chapters/i7022.html
   4. http://pup.princeton.edu/titles/7588.html
   6. http://slashdot.org/book.review.guidelines.shtml
   7. http://slashdot.org/submit.pl

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