Nature editor Henry Gee goes all anti-science

UPDATE 2: In a comment below, reader Piotr Gąsiorowski calls attention to a column that Gee wrote in Nature in 2006, “Delusions of faith as a science,” which is a severe attack on Dawkins’s The God Delusion.  Gee’s piece includes these statements:

Yes, the scientific process is not a parade of absolutes. Science is relative. Faith, however, is absolute.

. . .I am one of those people for whom Dawkins would no doubt reserve his most trenchant criticism. Dawkins thinks that science itself provides sufficient awe and wonder to replace an instinct for the supernatural. I don’t. Religion, for all its ills and inequities, is one of the few things that makes us human: I am with the scientists of an earlier age, who found that their motivation in advancing the cause of knowledge was to magnify the name of the Creator.

For me, Dawkins’ single good point — the only one in 374 pages of secular sermonizing — is that the creation of the Creator is itself inexplicable. As a person of faith, I feel myself sufficiently humble to accept this, and just leave it at that. Science is meant to be humbler still, to bend its findings with the evidence.

I think this gives us some insight into Gee’s views.
________________

UPDATE 1: On Twitter, Steve Pinker noted something I missed: Gee doesn’t appear to understand the meaning of p values when applied to scientific results. (Alternatively, he may just not be explaining himself well.) This is what Gee said:

If this all sounds rather rarefied, consider science at its most practical. As discussed in Dr McLain’s article and the comments subjacent, scientific experiments don’t end with a holy grail so much as an estimate of probability. For example, one might be able to accord a value to one’s conclusion not of “yes” or “no” but “P<0.05″, which means that the result has a less than one in 20 chance of being a fluke. That doesn’t mean it’s “right”.

As Steve notes in the series of tw**ts below, a p value (say, < 0.05) doesn’t say anything about the chance of your alternative hypothesis being right, but the chance that you would obtain your Nature-publishable result even if your other (“null”) hypothesis were right. The “probability” is not, as Gee implies, the probability that you’re right, but the probability that you look right even when you’re not:

Picture 1______________

Henry Gee is a powerful man in science: he’s an editor of Nature.  And that means that every young or ambitious scientist is afraid of him, for Gee is one of those people who decides whether your paper gets published in one of the world’s two most influential scientific journals—something that can make or break the career of a researcher.

But I’m at the tail end of my career, and while I might not have criticized Gee’s ideas when I was younger (I was a bit cowardly!), I have nothing to fear from doing so now.  Let me first add, before I take apart his claims, that Gee appears to be a cat-lover, so there’s at least one good point on his scorecard.

That, however, is more than offset by his piece at the latest “Occam’s Corner” section of the Guardian, “Science, the religion that must not be questioned.”  Actually, I’m quite surprised at Gee’s long-ish essay, because it’s bascially anti-science—and by that I don’t mean that it’s an attack on scientism. Rather, it’s an attack on science itself and the people who practice it.  Nevertheless, Gee makes many of the points that accommodationists and religious people make against science. Finally, he levels the ultimate insult at science, comparing it to a religion in its authoritative priesthood of researchers who, claims Gee, can’t brook criticism. It is absolutely unbelievable that an editor of a major scientific journal can say things like this.

J’accuse Dr. Gee of the following claims (his words are indented and in regular Roman type):

Science has been wrong and can’t much be trusted.

As my learned colleague Dr Sylvia McLain, who is both a scientist and a person of the opposite sex, explained here just the other day, this is business as usual. All scientific results are in their nature provisional – they can be nothing else. Someone will come along, either the next day or the next decade, with further refinements, new methods, more nuanced ways of looking at old problems, and, quelle surprise, find that conclusions based on earlier results were simplistic, rough-hewn – even wrong.

The problem is that we (not the royal we, but the great unwashed lay public who won’t know the difference between an eppendorf tube and an entrenching tool) are told, very often, and by people who ought to know better, that science is a one-way street of ever-advancing progress, a zero-sum game in which facts are accumulated and ignorance dispelled. In reality, the more we discover, the more we realise we don’t know. Science is not so much about knowledge as doubt. Never in the field of human inquiry have so many known so little about so much.

Part of Gee’s confusion in the piece is that he’s not quite sure who is misleading the public: is it the scientists or the journalists? (He ultimately blames both.) And there are two problems with this accusation.

First, Gee is simply wrong that scientists (and many journalists) try to hide the provisional nature of scientific truth.  Crikey, I can’t think of the number of times I’ve heard popular scientists emphasize the fact that science does sometimes go wrong, and that it’s based on doubt and repeated testing and criticism by others. Those who have written honestly about science in this way include almost all the great popularizers of our era: Dawkins, Gould, Sagan, Feynman, and so on. I remember, for example, Sagan writing that, unlike religious believers, scientists always have a voice whispering in their ear: “Remember, you might be wrong.” And of course Feynman’s explications of the provisional nature of science are famous. Here are two:

“The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty damn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.”

and

“I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and in many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”

Second,  Gee’s saying “the more we discover, the more we realize we don’t know” is a kind of deepity. Yes, further knowledge raises yet more questions that we hadn’t realized, but that doesn’t mean that some questions don’t get answered. A water molecule has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The earth is about 4.6 billion years old.  Our closest living relative is the chimpanzee. The continents move, traveling on plates.

Yes, science is about doubt and knowledge, and some of that knowledge, while not true in the philosophically absolute sense, is true in the only sense that matters: you’d bet all your fortune on its being right.  I’d give up my fortune (small as it is) right now if some scientist proved that earth was 10,000 years old. In fact, I’d bet a thousand dollars against ten dollars on this issue.  If you listen to Gee, you get the idea that our knowledge of the cosmos hasn’t advanced at all.

Science can only reach probabilistic conclusions, and it’s all based on statistics.

If this all sounds rather rarefied, consider science at its most practical. As discussed in Dr McLain’s article and the comments subjacent, scientific experiments don’t end with a holy grail so much as an estimate of probability. For example, one might be able to accord a value to one’s conclusion not of “yes” or “no” but “P<0.05″, which means that the result has a less than one in 20 chance of being a fluke. That doesn’t mean it’s “right”.

One thing that never gets emphasised enough in science, or in schools, or anywhere else, is that no matter how fancy-schmancy your statistical technique, the output is always a probability level (a P-value), the “significance” of which is left for you to judge – based on nothing more concrete or substantive than a feeling, based on the imponderables of personal or shared experience. Statistics, and therefore science, can only advise on probability – they cannot determine The Truth. And Truth, with a capital T, is forever just beyond one’s grasp.

Perhaps Gee has gotten jaded scrutinizing the p values in Nature manuscripts, but not all science is based on probability values, and even when it is, those values are often much less than 0.05 (physics, for example, uses much smaller values—0.00001, I think, when it tried to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson.  And scientific results are often based on far more than statistics.  There’s not a single p value in On the Origin of Species.  Nor was there any in Watson and Crick’s double-helix model of DNA, or in the determination of the structure of benzene.

Yes, all science is provisional, and it is logically possible (though I’d bet my fortune against it) that the propositions above could be wrong.  But to imply—to Guardian readers!—that science could be fallacious because mere probabilities are involved does a disservice to public understanding of our field.  Yes, ABSOLUTE truth is beyond our grasp (or anyone else’s), but really, wouldn’t Doctor Gee bet his house on the fact that life evolved rather than was created a few thousand years ago?  It’s time that we stop saying that science can’t find real truth without drawing the distinction between philosophically absolute truth and what I (a nod to Anthony Grayling) call practical absolute truth: the kind of scientific truth that is so unlikely to be wrong that we’d bet our lives and savings on it.

Science has betrayed the public faith by giving us bad stuff like pollution and atomic bombs.

I think it [the public demand for real truth in science, as opposed to other areas] goes back to the mid-20th century, especially just after the second world war, when scientists – they were called “boffins” – gave us such miracles as radar, penicillin and plastics; jet propulsion, teflon, mass vaccination and transistors; the structure of DNA, lava lamps and the eye-level grill. They cracked the Enigma, and the atom. They were the original rocket scientists, people vouchsafed proverbially inaccessible knowledge. They were wizards, men like gods, who either had more than the regular human complement of leetle grey cells, or access to occult arcana denied to ordinary mortals. They were priests in vestments of white coats, tortoiseshell specs and pocket protectors. We didn’t criticise them. We didn’t engage with them – we bowed down before them.

How our faith was betrayed! (This is the great unwashed “we” again.) It wasn’t long before we realised that science gave us pollution, radiation, agent orange and birth defects. And when we looked closely, “we” (oh, I give up) found that the scientists were not dispensing truths, but – gasp – arguing among themselves about the most fundamental aspects of science. They weren’t priests after all, but frauds, fleecing us at some horrifically expensive bunco booth, while all the time covering up the fact that they couldn’t even agree among themselves about the science they were peddling us like so much snake oil. And if they couldn’t agree among themselves, why should good honest folks like you and me give them any credence?

If this was April 1, I’d suspect Gee was making a Poisson d’Avril joke here.  The accusation that scientists weren’t dispensing truth with inventions like penicillin and vaccination is just dumb. And as for the other stuff, well, yes, scientists didn’t realize the implication of stuff like thalidomide. But in many cases such malfeasance rested not on science itself, but the misuse of technology for profit or other nonscientific considerations.  Let me ask you: would you rather not have had any science since the mid 20th century, given that some research had bad side effects?

I didn’t think so.  And really, you can blame all the bad things that come out of science on the scientific process itself? Is pollution really the fault of science, or of overpopulation and capitalism? Some of the bad effects of science rest not on scientific ignorance but on sheer human mendacity—a kind of mendacity that, like that of Josef Mengele, will pervert science for its own misguided ends.

As for Gee’s conclusion that science has fleeced the public at a bunco booth, and covered up our disagreements, that’s just wrong.  Science’s disagreements are always public, as they should be Did we hide the argument about the philosophical meaning of quantum mechanics? Or about whether the continents actually moved? Or whether evolution had operated? Or whether neutrinos could move faster than light? How can the editor of a science journal even say stuff like this?

The dishonesty of scientists has promoted the rise of pseudoscience.

I kid you not: Gee really says this:

And if [scientists] couldn’t agree among themselves, why should good honest folks like you and me give them any credence?

Witness the rise of creationists, alien-abductees and homeopaths; the anti-vaxers and the climate-change deniers; those convinced that Aids was a colonial plot, and those who would never be convinced that living under power lines didn’t necessarily give you cancer; ill-informed crystal-gazers of every stripe, who, while at the same time as denouncing science as fraudulent, tried to ape it with scientific-sounding charlatanry of their own.

If the once-inaccessible scientists had been defrocked, why couldn’t just anyone borrow their robes? Announce that camel turds are the latest miracle super-food; put on a white coat and mumble impressive nonsense about zero-point energy, omega fatty acids and the mystery third strand of DNA; and you’re in business, ready to exploit fool after fool at a bunco booth of your own making.

And all this because scientists weren’t honest enough, or quick enough, to say that science wasn’t about Truth, handed down on tablets of stone from above, and even then, only to the elect; but Doubt, which anyone (even girls) could grasp, provided they had a modicum of wit and concentration. It wasn’t about discoveries written in imperishable crystal, but about argument, debate, trial, and – very often – error.

Unbelievable! Really? Scientific disagreement gave rise to creationism and homeopathy and antivaxers and the whole pseudoscientific enterprise?  Does Gee know that creationism was around long before Darwin, and is still with us? How on earth did it come as a reaction to 20th-century disagreements about evolution?  Does Gee know about all the research on why seemingly sane people believe bad and crazy things?  Did religion—the ultimate form of woo—arise because of scientific disagreements?

No, these things come from human gullibility, credulousness, and wish-thinking, not from scientific dishonesty.  Scientists are far more honest about their work than are homeopaths, creationists, anti-vaxers and the like, and to lay the blame for pseudoscience on the arrogance of and disagreement among scientists, and on our supposed inability to admit that we don’t find “Truth,” is sheer lunacy.

Scientists and science journalists don’t express the nature of science, for they squelch dissent.

TV programmes on science pursue a line that’s often cringe-makingly reverential. Switch on any episode of Horizon, and the mood lighting, doom-laden music and Shakespearean voiceover convince you that you are entering the Houses of the Holy – somewhere where debate and dissent are not so much not permitted as inconceivable. If there are dissenting views, they aren’t voiced by an interviewer, but by other scientists, and “we” (the great unwashed) can only sit back and watch uncomprehending as if the contenders are gods throwing thunderbolts at one another. If the presenters are scientists themselves, or have some scientific knowledge, be they Bill Oddie or David Attenborough, their discourse is one of monologue rather than argument, received wisdom rather than doubt.

I believe there might have been a time when science journalists would engage with scientists, picking holes in their ideas directly, as if throwing traders out of the temple. I yearn for scientific versions of political journalists of the calibre of Jeremy Paxman, James Naughtie or John Humphreys who could take on scientists on their own terms, rather than letting them drop their pearls of wisdom and wander off unchallenged. For that kind of journalism, TV is more or less a desert, though the blogosphere is better. There are more hopeful signs on radio, with the likes of my former Nature colleague Adam Rutherford, who gave Andrew Wakefield – you know, the MMR-and-autism guy – a thorough working over on the Home Service a while back. But, you might argue, Wakefield is too easy a target. And yet, as science journalists such as Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre have discovered, even those apparently easy targets whose scientific credentials are challenged resort very easily to legislation in the way that politicians never would.

There’s a bit of truth here, as lazy science journalists sometimes don’t do their homework and check “exciting” new results with other scientists.  But other scientists are more than willing to critique their colleagues, for that’s what the game is about.

And the notion that scientists who present t.v. or radio shows cover up our ignorance doesn’t resonate with me. Yes, t.v. shows are often designed to show people what we know rather than what we don’t know, but I don’t sense some big conspiracy there to cover up dissent. Indeed, just look at my book, in which I deliberately tried to highlight our areas of ignorance.  Gee should also realize that what excites people in popular media are the real advances, not the unknowns. Still, those unknowns are widely available in any popular book by scientists. Read Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, Richard Dawkins, or Carl Sagan to see how dogmatic scientists really are. Their books are full of “we don’t know this.” Any book on string theory or modern physics is riven with doubts (try The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin, for example).

Science is not only like religion, it is a religion.

Finally, Gee levels the ultimate gratuitous insult at science: he says that, in its dogmatism and refusal to accept criticism, science is like religion. And if you attack the received wisdom in science, you’re doing something analogous to blasphemy. The last paragraph boggles the mind:

And yet, as science journalists such as Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre have discovered, even those apparently easy targets whose scientific credentials are challenged resort very easily to legislation in the way that politicians never would.

Why is this? The answer, I think, is that those who are scientists, or who pretend to be scientists, cling to the mantle of a kind of religious authority. And as anyone who has tried to comment on religion has discovered, there is no such thing as criticism. There is only blasphemy.

This is pure nonsense.  Show me a scientist who clings to the mantle of a religion-like authority, who makes pronouncements about what is true without trying to test them, and I’ll show you a bad scientist, one doomed to being discredited.  The whole enterprise of science, as Gee should know very well, is based on argument and doubt and on scientists trying to show each other to be wrong. “No such thing as criticism”? How can an editor say this—an editor whose job is precisely to solicit such criticism from other scientists? How is it possible for someone with a deep acquaintance of science to claim that scientific criticism is stifled or punished in the same way as is religious blasphemy? The whole point of Nature is to encourage that kind of criticism, for that’s the way that the journal, or any journal, adjudicates the truth of scientific claims.

After rereading Gee’s piece, I had a moment’s fear that it was some kind of Sokal-style hoax: an attack on scientism à la Pinker.  But I’m sure it’s not. I don’t know where this kind of misguided analysis comes from, but deeply misguided it is.

And it makes me fear for Nature, for how can a powerful figure at that journal turn out such stuff? I find it doubly distressing because it is Gee is paid to ensure that science is not treated as a kind of religion, and I’m sure he has no lack of critics and reviewers ready to tear apart the papers submitted to him.

His rant is a complete mystery to me.

165 Comments

  1. Stephen Barnard
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    How did this guy get to be the editor of Nature, and why is he keeping his job?

  2. eric
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    It wasn’t long before we realised that science gave us pollution, radiation, agent orange and birth defects.

    No, no, yes, and no.
    Oxygen is a pollutant of the original anaerobic life forms that inhabited this planet. They overpolluted so much, in fact, that they almost killed themselves off with all the wastes they put into their atmosphere. Criters polluting the air to the point of making one’s environment practically unliveable has a 3 billion year history.

    Radiation and birth defects don’t need to be explained (I hope).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      When I discovered the GOE example, it was an immediate hit with me. It swings the perspective around.

      I’m reminded of the people that laments that food contains chemicals. Well, duh, even if the point is somewhat fast and loose in Swedish usage.

  3. Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Critical Thinking – A World View.

  4. Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    … that science is a one-way street of ever-advancing progress, a zero-sum game in which facts are accumulated …

    He doesn’t know what a “zero-sum game” is, since it is the opposite of a one-way, accumulation game.

    And anyhow, science can indeed be pretty close to a one-way ratchet towards truth *and* still always be provisional (in the sense that the next notch will be even closer to the truth).

    Let’s remember that people still use Newton’s laws of motion and gravity for nearly all purposes (with only a few purposes needing next-notch relativity).

    Are there any cases of science going badly backwards (getting further from reality) to any significant degree over any significant length of time?

    • RFW
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      To attempt an answer to the (rhetorical?) question in your last sentence:

      There are certainly some examples of “science” going off the rails. Lysenkoism, for example, which succeeded (thanks to Stalin’s backing) in setting back Russian biology by decades. “W-rays” [I think that's what they were called] discovered in France, apparently emitted by a steel machinist’s file, disproved by R. W. Woods palming the file while the investigators continued to see their “rays”. Phlogiston theory as an explanation for fire. (It had a long life and a short, sweet death after Lavoisier and others demonstrated that the wastes of a fire, including gases, weigh more than the fuel it burned.

      But notice that not one of these is really an example of what you asked after. There may not be any. More common are examples of short-lived dead ends, and periods when science in some respect or other entered a period of stasis. But going backwards significantly for a significant time? I can’t think of one example.

      • Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        Maybe cosmology counts. Western science started with a creation model, then science replaced it with an eternal universe, and then science returned to a universe with an actual beginning.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          As I understand it, the Big Bang is seen these days not as the beginning of everything, but as a local phase change in a (probably eternal) inflationary multiverse.

          But I don’t think this vacillation counts as negative progress. Each successive cosmological model is still an instance of Coel’s ratchet, providing better answers than its predecessor.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

            Very apt.

        • Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

          Your suggestion is interesting, but the original idea would have been the instantaneous creation (by God) of a static universe (for example Newton believed in a static universe).

          This assumption of a static universe then prevailed until Hubble and Lemaitre, after which the mainstream went to an expanding universe (with a few holdouts such as Hoyle).

          Thus I’m not sure the initial belief in a creation amounted to anything, since it wasn’t something that could be observed and it didn’t predict an expanding universe or any observable phenomenon.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

            Nitpick: Hoyle didn’t reject the evidence for an expanding universe; he rejected the idea that expansion implied a beginning. His steady-state model was one of eternal expansion, with new matter appearing spontaneously in the gaps to maintain a constant density.

        • Posted September 20, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

          Of course the current cosmology is far more sophisticated and detailed than ancient cosmology and Newton’s. But I still claim this counts as a reverse, from a universe with a beginning, to a universe without a beginning, then back to a universe with a beginning. Greg, if the now-current interpretation of the Big Bang is a “local phase change in a (probably eternal) inflationary universe”, then we have a double-reverse, and there can be no question that at least the most recent three of these four cosmologies made definite scientific predictions.

          Maybe you meant an “exact” reverse, a complete reversion to a previously-rejected theory with no major changes to that theory. Maybe Darwinian evolution by natural selection is an example of this, because before Fisher showed the compatibility (and indeed the excellent fit) of NS and Mendelian genetics, there was a brief period (right after the discovery of Mendel’s work) in which many scientists (I don’t know if it was a majority) rejected the efficacy of NS. Fisher’s work caused a quick acceptance of most of Darwin’s ideas about the efficacy of NS (though now with pop genetics backing it up, and rejecting some of Darwin’s speculative proposals about mechanisms of inheritance).

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted September 21, 2013 at 5:55 am | Permalink

            This is confusing.

            First because we have a history of cosmology which I dare say few are cognizant of in detail.

            Second because we are describing consensus, which conflicts with theories and predictions.

            E.g. there have never been a firm prediction of a beginning, since the theories that makes such predictions aren’t complete. (No quantum gravity.) Consensus remains, as I understand it reading between the lines of conference blogging, that this happens. Likely because it would resolve more problems (be more tightly constrained) than the alternative.

            Inflation is also incomplete. We can predict that it may be eternal too. Say, stuck with quantum fluctuations making inflationary regimes faster than they phase transition to big bang universes. But it won’t be a firm prediction, because there are alternate pathways.

            I’m fairly certain that the state of the art here has been “I don’t know”. Which is an acceptable state for facts.

            To call that vacillation seems wrong.

            And seeing how cosmologies has improved predictivity, now going into the past before the original big bang prediction of “and then there were (standard) particles and a well defined temperature” with a preceding inflation era, it isn’t “going badly backwards” either.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted September 21, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

              Rather, quantum fluctuations are _maintaining_ already inflating regimes. (Duh!)

      • eric
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        Your second example: were you thinking of Blondlot’s N-rays? I don’t recall him being a machinist, but the ‘disproof’ did include a U.S. scientist removing the (alumnium?) prism from the machine, and Blondlot continuing to see them.

        • RFW
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

          You have the facts nailed down better than I did, but the American was definitely R. W. Wood (not Woods as I wrote before).

          The vacuum UV spectrograph I used in graduate school had a grating ruled by R. W. Wood, by the way.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted September 20, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

            R.W. Wood rules!

      • Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        It wasn’t a rhetorical question, I’m interested in whether there are any examples of science going backwards.

        Lysenkoism doesn’t really count, since it was imposed by politicians not scientists, and was localised to that political regime.

        N-rays don’t count either, since they were never widely accepted. The interesting question is whether there are any examples of a widespread scientific mainstream going backwards for a significant length of time?

        • Latverian Diplomat
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          I think you’re verging on no True Scotsman territory here, as in, if it was a step backwards, it wasn’t really science. (e.g., somebody faked or ignored important data, pressure was applied to silence critics, ideological concerns trumped evidence, etc.)

          It’s probably more common and useful to think about the times science was stuck in a dead end and resisted change. For example, the resistance to plate tectonics, or the importance of hand washing in medicine, or clinging to the ether.

          I find a lot of Kuhn problematic, but his discussion of these moments is his best contribution. When a new idea has less or no more evidence in its favor, but a few, usually younger, people see its potential and begin work on strengthening it until it becomes the new, accepted model.

          Unlike some interpretations of Kuhn, I see this as still a progressive model, as opposed to just a change in fashion, with improvement of validity. I think my interpretation is what Kuhn intended, but he hedged on far too much IMHO.

          • Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

            I don’t think it’s “no true Scotsman” to ask about whether mainstream accepted science has ever gone backwards. The N-rays episode lasted only ~ 2 years and large numbers failed to replicate the N rays and were skeptical from the start.

            Lysenkoism was never accepted in the West and was a product of Stalin shooting all the Darwinians and promoting all the Lysenkoists.

            I’m not suggesting that science is perfect, but asking whether there are exceptions to the one-way-ratchet idea is worthwhile.

            Statis, and (e.g.) tardiness in accepting continental drift doesn’t refute this, since it wasn’t a step backwards, just that the next steps forward were delayed longer than they could have been.

            • Posted September 20, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

              The Semmelweis reflex is a good example of going backwards (mentioned above without the name).

            • Latverian Diplomat
              Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

              I simply meant that whenever someone claims a case where they think science “legitimately” went backward, someone else can argue, well that’s not real science because x. It’s likely to bear not much real fruit, just get into a lot of argument about what is really science and what isn’t.

              Stasis is a real issue that is historically documented and much discussed.

              Another, perhaps more pressing concern is the lack of publication of negative results (the file drawer effect) and the lack of replication studies (because they are not deemed valuable for publication or tenure).

          • Diane G.
            Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

            + 1

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        I’d like to offer a bit of sympathy to the early chemists who developed the phlogiston hypothesis. This one gets trotted out a lot as an example of how silly scientists can be, perhaps because the word sounds so silly to modern ears. Please remember that at that point in history most people still accepted the Aristotelian concept of only four elements (Earth, Air, Water, and Fire). Also, very few chemical diagnostic tests had been developed at that point. So a jar full of air and a jar full of carbon dioxide seem pretty much interchangeable, especially if your collection apparatus leaks a bit and lets some air into your CO2.
        I think phlogiston was actually a quite reasonable step in mankind’s development of the science of Chemistry.

        • RFW
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps the most important fallout from phlogiston theory is that it led to chemists learning to weigh things.

        • Latverian Diplomat
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

          Two more disproven theories that take a beating in textbooks for no good reason:

          The aether theory (light was known to be a wave, and every known wave required a medium, so there must be some medium to transmit light from the sun to earth).

          The plum pudding model. In classical physics, the electrons in the atom couldn’t be moving, or they would radiate energy, so there had to be a static configuration holding them in place that was electro-statically stable.

      • Posted January 23, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        N-rays, I believe, for the town of Nancy, in France.

        However, I’m spouting from memory and could well be wrong about some or all of it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      Good catch!

      But, nitpicking, a zero sum game is not the opposite of “accumulation games”. I hear a bank can be handled as a player in a zero-sum game.

      Also, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to use newtonian gravity. But rocket scientists are mostly satisfied with using newtonian gravity. ;-)

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        Banking is not zero sum. Efficient allocation of capital is positive sum game in a growing economy.

        Part of the problem with our current banking system is that bankers invest far too much in zero sum investments like derivatives instead of the hard work of identifying worthwhile candidates for loans and mortgages.

        They do this because derivatives have a high upside potential and can be very profitable. They also have a very high downside potential (you can lose a ton of money) but bankers have only rarely faced real consequences when these bets go bad, usually their friends in government arrange to let them off the hook at taxpayer expense.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 21, 2013 at 4:43 am | Permalink

          [My web-connection is crap - I wanted to post this yesterday. Don't know if I can respond to this thread efficiently.]

          Well, I was addressing game theory, since Coel was. And ny claim was that game theory doesn’t handle games with “accumulating” of bank players much different from games witthout:

          “In 1944 John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern proved that any zero-sum game involving n players is in fact a generalized form of a zero-sum game for two players, and that any non–zero-sum game for n players can be reduced to a zero-sum game for n + 1 players; the (n + 1) player representing the global profit or loss.[4]”

          [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-sum_game ; my bold.]

          The (accumulating profit) bank would be the “the (n + 1) player representing the global profit or loss”.

          I’m sorry if I was unclear. I’m also relying on von Neumann’s expertise (no game theorist) – he was an awesome mathematician.

          • Latverian Diplomat
            Posted September 23, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

            Thanks, that’s a neat mathematical technique that I wasn’t aware of.

            But just because a positive sum game can be mapped to zero sum game with an additional player (which no doubt is helpful in the game theoretic analysis) it’s still an important distinction in practice.

            There are zero sum investments like futures or derivatives where wins and losses balance out. Usually they exist legitimately for insurance or risk pooling. (Many investors will trade a lower potential return for protection against an extreme loss). Banking, the business identifying and managing productive loans is not in this category. The distinction has important potential regulatory implications which are all too often ignored or misunderstood. So, your comment pushed my buttons a little.

    • Posted September 20, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      My own field, HIV epidemiology, provides (what is to me) a clear example of the mainstream gone haywire in its insistence that most HIV transmission in the world is “heterosexually-driven”, whatever that means. Nature, along with its review process and its members-only (modelers-only) mentality has contributed to this perception, which has resulted in a tragic loss of focus. This lie has been perpetuated for more than a quarter century now, by scientists basing what they think they know on crap evidence, doing a poor job of reviewing the literature, and marginalizing and stifling dissent. Going into detail here would be too much of an off-topic digression, but this is a good starting point (most of the refs from #90 to the end of the list — the synopses tell the story. You can e-mail me for more sordid detail, if you are interested. Stephen Muth

    • Posted September 23, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      There are cases of where one has partial overlap: theories of optics at one point were like that. (I forget details: any historians of physics around?)

      I.e., one has a theory which explains A,B and another that explains B,C. So ideally we’d have another which does A,B,C but none is available as yet.

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted September 23, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        Keith you are perhaps thinking of one of these two stages in the development of optics:

        Newton’s corpuscle theory of light vs. Huygen’s wave theory. Both could explain reflection and refraction. To explain light from the sun, the wave theory had to posit a medium (aether) for the waves to travel in, whereas particles can fly through a vacuum just fine. Wave theory had a better explanation for color (frequency, in analogy to pitch for sound) whereas the corpuscle theory had to posit an almost infinite variety of corpuscles of each different color.

        In the 19th century, the demonstration of diffraction and interference with light provided a big boost for the wave theory, but there was no luck detecting the aether. In the early 20th the photoelectric effect could best be explained (by Einstein) as light travelling in discrete packets of energy (photons) like a particle.

        Finally quantum mechanics and in particular QED worked it out and explained all optical phenomena with wave/particle duality.

  5. Alexandra M
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I think Gee must be tied up in a cellar somewhere!

  6. kevinj
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    what is that final bit on about?
    Singh and Goldacre were gone after by the pseudoscientists. So nowt to do with the majority of scientists, unless you accept his previous argument about science being to blame for their existence.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      Exactly. In addition to confusing “legislation” with “litigation”, he also seems to be suggesting that the behavior of con-men and quacks should be taken as typical of legitimate scientists. Which is just nuts.

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        Ah, thanks, I couldn’t figure out what he meant by “legislation.”

  7. Alex Shuffell
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    I would expect something like this by someone like Dinesh D’Souza who has already made many of these points before, but rather less neatly.
    I’m really confused as to why or how something like this could be written from someone like Gee.

    I looked at his other work for The Guardian and found this – http://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2012/aug/31/truth-religion-science-fiction – One quote:
    “”Truth” is a concept that is best left to theologians and philosophers. Science, on the other hand, is better characterised not as a religion, but as a rational process, in which the goal is not the attainment of truth, but the quantification of doubt.”

    It is almost the opposite of what he said now. Sure people can change their opinions and ideas, but not this drastically without reason. I recommend reading this linked article, it made me feel better.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      Alzheimer’s setting in perhaps?

      • RFW
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        Or simple hardening of the arteries depriving his brain of the oxygen it needs to function correctly?

      • Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

        Hey, people, let’s not engage in these invidious medical speculations. Just judge the article for what it is.

        • RFW
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

          JAC, I don’t think there’s anything invidious about speculating on why someone in such a responsible position as editor of Nature can start making himself look silly. I’ve known people who ended up both with Alzheimer’s and with “vascular dementia” and in both, the onset can be slow and insidious, leading to distressing declines in intellectual function before anyone realizes what’s wrong.

    • exploderator
      Posted September 23, 2013 at 12:43 am | Permalink

      “”Truth” is a concept that is best left to theologians…”

      That about explains it. His brain was scrambled by religion, and not even his deep involvement with science has been able to undo the damage.

  8. jdhuey
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    “The aim of science is not to open the door to everlasting truth, but to set a limit on everlasting error.” -Berthold Brecht.

    • David Marjanović
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      You’d expect his name to be Berthold. But – for, presumably, some reason – it’s Bertolt.

  9. Julian
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    What he’s saying doesn’t sound too radical to me. It dates back at least to Kuhn, and maybe also Feyerabend. Their thoughts are, in my opinion, useful for maintaining a degree of humility about scientific results and the nature of truth. Something we need in these days of “I Fucking Love Science”.

    • eric
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Yes, science is so much more prideful than theology. [/snark]

      Can you give me an example of how greater scientific humility might positively benefit society?

      What does changing every “science says x” sentence into “science says x, tentatively and subject to revision should new evidence arise” get us, except greater waste of ink, paper, and electricity?

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        We could use some additional humility wrt to technology (that’s the source of his complaints about radiation, pollution, etc.) come from.

        But confusing science with technology seems to be a problem in Gee’s remarks as well.

        In fact, it was science that helped identify and demonstrate pollution etc.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

          He seems to be utterly incapable of distinguishing between science and technology. ” gave us such miracles as radar, penicillin and plastics; jet propulsion, teflon, mass vaccination and transistors; the structure of DNA, lava lamps and the eye-level grill. They cracked the Enigma, and the atom.”

          What a mish-mash of categories. Cracking the Enigma codes was mathematics and some nifty technology, I doubt any of it was what you’d call ‘science’ in the sense of investigating the natural world; whereas cracking the atom was of course fundamental scientific research. Similarly DNA and the eye-level grill.

          But then the whole article reads like raving idiocy to me, of the sort one might have found (albeit with longer words) in ‘Social Text’ or some such neo-Luddite publication.

          • Mach
            Posted September 21, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

            Does the phenomenon have to be of the natural world for application of the scientific method?

            Frequency analysis in cryptanalysis seems pretty scientific to me. In that time, they would find some letter distribution in the text, and test hypotheses about how it was encoded by seeing if the text is comprehensible upon undoing the hypothesized encryption.

            There is a larger mathematical role here than in most sciences, sure, but you can’t really deductively figure out what the encryption is, so some mixture of statistical and, I suggest, scientific reasoning.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted September 21, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

              Agreed one can find traces of the scientific method in almost any endeavour (probably including bicycle racing and basket-weaving), but I would not immediately class what they did at Bletchley Park as primarily ‘science’. I note also the fundamental difference of meaning between ‘cracking’ the atom and ‘cracking’ the Enigma cipher.

              Since the intended tone was ironic (not apparent at the time) the mish-mash of categories becomes more understandable.

            • Latverian Diplomat
              Posted September 24, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

              Algorithms that use a trial and error approach to search for a solution (or a good approximation to a solution) is a subject that can be considered mathematics. Much of the more mathematical areas of computer science is concerns with these sorts of algorithms.

              The original measurements of statistical frequency of letters is a measurement problem. Making accurate measurements is an area of overlap for science, mathematics, and applied fields. For example, the Buffon needle experiment is a way to statistically measure the value of pi.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Define “paradigm” testably.

      Or lay off Kuhn as actually describing science.

  10. ladyatheist
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    As a person of the opposite sex, I am heartened to find that anything I say has additional gravitas just because my sex is “opposite.” This is in contrast to my thumbs, which are merely opposable and can only say [spacebar]

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      Yes, being “the other” is mysterious and therefore anything “the other” says or does oought to be revered.

      • Paul S
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        Can’t speak for everyone, but that is definitely the case in our family.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Teehee!
      I was also a little perplexed by that line. I was almost waiting for the disclaimer about having binders full of women.

      • Marlene Zuk
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I wondered why that was in there as well. A few years ago there was a kerfuffle about a truly dreadful and sexist science fiction story in the “Futures” section of Nature, and Gee was the editor of that. He made some odd comments then, so I wonder if this is related?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

        I thought he had some reason for mentioning her sex but then that reason never materialized; it was like being lost in some sort of subordinate clause.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Not surprised to see how much this jumped out at all of us women. Wonder how many men noticed?

      As Ms. used to say–click!

      • ladyatheist
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        +1

      • JBlilie
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        It really jumped out to me. My reaction: WTF? Who cares what her sex is?

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

          For me it was the first in a long list of WTF moments.

        • Paul S
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

          Ditto

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

        “Not surprised to see how much this jumped out at all of us women. Wonder how many men noticed?”

        I think you’re referring to the mention of Dr McLain being a woman? I missed that, but I did notice later on: “but Doubt, which anyone (even girls) could grasp, provided they had a modicum of wit and concentration.” Whereas men, of course, can all grasp it instantly, whatever It is.

        Anyway, I though it very broadminded and magnanimous of him, that he did girls the courtesy of permitting them to grasp whatever-it-was. Of course he might have been being ironical, but if so it kinda gets lost in the tangled syntax.

        • Diane G.
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

          Well, some girls, anyway. Those “with a modicum…” etc.

          You got it; man is the norm, woman the other.

      • Posted September 20, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

        Count me as a male noticer.

        • Diane G.
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

          That doesn’t surprise me, mb. :)

          (And apologies, guys, for my being so sweeping…)

          • cromercrox
            Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

            I was being ironic. Ever heard of that? Seems not.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted September 21, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

              If you were, you were either badly edited or you did it badly.

            • Diane G.
              Posted September 21, 2013 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

              How does this fit any definition of irony?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 21, 2013 at 4:55 am | Permalink

        Well, I don’t read Ms.

        I usually notice such signs of misogyny. But I was rushed when I had to read and respond this time around. I probably forgot it promptly because of there being So Much Fail Of Gee.

        [My web-connection is crap - I wanted to respond to this yesterday.]

        • Diane G.
          Posted September 21, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

          Indeed, I’ve (most gratefully) noticed you speaking out against misogyny here before.

          (I haven’t read Ms. in decades…)

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    This sentence: Never in the field of human inquiry have so many known so little about so much. is more than a deepity, it’s sophistry and hyperbole (I suspect a lot of people knew a lot less about a lot more during anytime in history – Dark Ages, Greek Bronze Age, Palaeolithic, you name it!) and honestly, so what? Isn’t finding knew things we don’t know (finding the unknown knowns) progress and interesting?

    The bit about statistics puzzles me – is it scare tactics? Is it the old canard that we just can’t trust stats? Even if a lot of science was based on P values, so what? Nothing in life is certain – it’s all P values; we just don’t bother to calculate them for everything we do.

    Science giving us bad stuff is just ludicrous. It’s tantamount to saying we shouldn’t drive cars because there are accidents or never use knives because they can cut you. People decide what to do with the tools they have.

    The pseudo science part is very odd. Pseudo science exists because charlatans realize science works attempt to align their quackery with science to give it credence. It isn’t because science tricked us into thinking it had absolute truth.

    Finally – what is a Shakespearean voiceover?

    • gluonspring
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      It’s an odd piece, because on the one hand he utters this “all is unknown” kind of bunk, but on the other hand he seems to be taking news media to task for not sifting the gold from the dross. So, apparently, he seems to think there is gold to be sifted. I wonder if that wasn’t the original point of the piece, that in the perception of the public science went from know-everything gods to know-nothing partisans because science was treated like a priesthood handing down revelations and if that is your expectation then you are bound to be disappointed?

      Whatever his intent, I think he is going to regret the actual piece he’s written here.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      “Nothing in life is certain – it’s all P values; we just don’t bother to calculate them for everything we do.”

      I think what it can be reduced down to is that some people just do not want to, can’t, accept reality. And I don’t think it is simply that a lot of people just don’t understand what science is or what its use has revealed about reality. After all Gee here surely has a pretty good understanding of science and its fruits. Maybe there is just something about the implications of science and its findings that he really doesn’t like.

    • Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Shakespearean voiceover?

      Anything narrated by Patrick Stewart or Kenneth Brannagh or maybe Derek Jacobi??

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        Or Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones…

        • Posted September 21, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          Totally the wrong accent for Shakespeare, sorry.
          But suitably portentous.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      “Never in the field of human inquiry have so many known so little about so much”

      Perhaps not a sophistry but a confession

      • Posted September 20, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        I would say that never have so many people known that there is so much about which they know very little.

        But also, never have so many people known with certainty that so much of what others know only provisionally to be true is absolutely false.

        /@

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 20, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

          Try to fit those on a bumper sticker! ;)

          • Posted September 20, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

            ⚫ The more questions we answer, the more questions we have to answer.

            (The Lernean Hydra of scientific inquiry!)

            ⚫ Religion is certainly wrong; science is probably right.

            (Not quite there…)

            /@

            • Harbo
              Posted September 20, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

              Science asymptotes truth?

              • Sergio Graziosi
                Posted September 21, 2013 at 3:19 am | Permalink

                +1

              • Mark Joseph
                Posted September 22, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

                Verbing weirds language!

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Well said.

  12. Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Is it just me, or is Gee’s prose obnoxiously cloying and overwritten?

    • gluonspring
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      No. It’s not just you. It’s so overwritten, with all the stuff about the different kinds of “we”, that I find it vaguely possible that he was actually trying to make a different point than the anti-science point that seems to leap out of the piece. It seems possible that he is merely trying, in a too clever way, to say that the media, by reporting all science as received wisdom from the gods, has set everyone up for disappointment and disillusionment, or something to that effect.

  13. Owlglass
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    It appears to be Gee has a misguided idea about responsibility upon which his views rest. He seems to think that for believing in aliens visiting earth in flying saucers, someone had to come up with flying vehicles, extra-terrestrial life forms, advanced technology and so forth in the first place – and who could that be? The scientists! Detractors might add that otherwise, we would be still stuck with angels, the other light from above abducting people. And weren’t it scientists, who discovered the quantum world and who currently try to find out about consciousness, not souls, and thereby enabled the career of Deepak Chopra? Blame the scientists!

    Such silliness is only enhanced by the other eccentric view, he seems to have about discovery. Imagine you were placed into a dungeon cell, and you only knew this room and that there was a corridor outside the door. One day, you somehow get out. Then you see the corridor, and that has seven other doors and a stair to the next floor. Are there similar cells behind the other doors? You don’t know. Are they other corridors? The important question: do you know more, or do you know less? It seems to be trivial to me that in order to quantify knowledge, one had to first know about the unknown items, which is, after all – seemingly paradoxical – some sort of knowledge. Ignorance, however, is unquantified and appears as “one” in our minds. The darkness is just “one thing”, until we know a little more about it, and unknown objects appear that can be studied.

    Finally, knowledge is power. Another trivial idea. It allows us to stay alive longer and live more comfortable lives, but we can also destroy the planet or each other more effectively. I think it was already known when someone jotted down the myth of Prometheus.

    • gluonspring
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      +1

      Well said.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      +2’d.

  14. cslamo
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    If this guy is being honest, he should reject every single manuscript submitted to his journal from now on.

  15. Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Henry Gee is a “person of faith”. He confessed this several years ago in the pages of Nature in a critique of Richard Dawkins’ “Unweaving the Rainbow”. He wrote a lot of silliness in this critique. This Guardian piece is no Sokal type hoax. It’s the real Gee.

    • Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Yep. Absolutely.

      Religion, for all its ills and inequities, is one of the few things that makes us human: I am with the scientists of an earlier age, who found that their motivation in advancing the cause of knowledge was to magnify the name of the Creator.

      http://www.nature.com/news/2006/061023/full/news061023-11.html

      • Sergio Graziosi
        Posted September 21, 2013 at 3:42 am | Permalink

        Ha! Bang on the nail, this is the key to understand where the nonsense actually comes from (I see that Gerry updated the post just to acknowledge this).
        To be a scientist and religious at the same time one needs to learn to obfuscate his/her own thoughts, the deeper the obfuscation is hidden, the better one can feel about his/her philosophical outlook.
        I was utterly unable to understand what Gee’s intended take home message was, and decided that he probably wasn’t too sure as well. Now I know why.
        It is shameful that Nature employs an editor that is so utterly unable to express himself in a linear and unambiguous manner. Shameful, I say.

        On the other hand, Gerry just outdid himself: clear and straight to the point as always, while resisting the temptation of cutting corners:
        “Yes, science is about doubt and knowledge, and some of that knowledge, while not true in the philosophically absolute sense, is true in the only sense that matters: you’d bet all your fortune on its being right.”
        Yes! A 1000 times yes. By making this clear, and by using it as the foundation to expose the muddiness of Gee’s position, you have just made your argument watertight.

    • Posted September 21, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Yes; I looked for a ‘Jews behaving badly’ tag.

  16. Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Un. Be. Lievable. I cannot understand how a Nature editor could have such a narrow view about his own profession. He writes regular articles in The Guardian. I see in August 2012 that he brought up some similar points, but now he is really getting something off his chest.
    This could open up a bigger problem. Scientists who submit papers to Nature that rely on statistical probabilities can now worry about whether their editor is biased against them.

  17. Kevin
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Gee’s article is baffling. Maybe Gee’s impression is partially informed by his editing mostly life science articles? I can assure you he did not read my last submission to NPG.

    He really should read up on some applied physics or scientific instrumentation or medical diagnostics. This work is dry, to the point and pragmatic. In most areas of science people ultimately make things that work better, even if only incrementally and in some cases, they get money for their inventions. This is not religion. This is real stuff. I understand many of his points, and I see a great deal of science that is really lacking insight, but that does not imply the attitudes of scientists are zealous or akin to religious authority.

  18. JBlilie
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    “radar, penicillin and plastics; jet propulsion, teflon, mass vaccination and transistors; the structure of DNA, lava lamps and the eye-level grill”

    Yes, science, broadly construed (engineers act under scientific principles.)

    Teflon is a plastic Dr. Gee.

    Lava lamps?: Product designers
    Eye-level grill?: Same thing

  19. Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Gee’s words are a mystery to me as well, until I realized his imaginary god had become uneasy with the growing evidence of evolution and things scientific. Gee had to place himself on the “right side” the issue as ordered by his imaginary voice. Standing with god is more comforting than standing with scientists who can’t claim absolute truth. Emotion wins an inconsequential skirmish again over science.

  20. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Witness the rise of creationists, alien-abductees and homeopaths…

    Oh for crying out loud… an editor of Nature wrote that? And precisely which scientific journal published a paper supporting “water memory” in 1988? Gee joined Nature in 1987, perhaps he witnessed that episode first hand.

  21. Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Henry Gee’s piece is quite intriguing, and quite welcome! Intriguing, because it is written in the language of a non-scientist who is reaching to understand something beyond his comprehension, like a well-intentioned astrologer, or a researcher in the Social Sciences who has assumed that his/her barmy researches into human behaviour, are actually science! And welcome, because, if that’s the best (worst) he has, then there is nothing new in it, and it lacks real bite.
    After seven youthful years in a chemistry lab doing scores of experiments daily, I came to trust science. It worked every time – for years. I had the usual raging fires in a beaker, and glass-flying explosions, but they all had a common explanation, – my mistakes, – at their source. But I never had anomalies. And I am an arch skeptic, and would have seized upon any anomalies.
    And so to the question, “Why do it??” It does seem a departure for H Gee, but curiously I have seen ‘science-denial’ before. In California, in the sixties. It was the hippies. And it was the marijuana, or, occasionally, the cheap wine. But mostly it was the marijuana. It has the ability to scramble the youthful brain, and to stop it developing past childhood. One by one my hippie friends fell to speculating that there is no knowledge, and that everything is subjective. And it led to the belief that all ‘knowledge’ is equivalent, and that any wacky idea was equal in nature to science, and that the San Francisco phonebook was as good as any poem or novel, and that a mimed clown-Hamlet was just as true and my production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which I directed. We were all experts now! And I learned that, every expert on UFOs in the world were in total agreement upon the existence of flying saucers.
    Human beings, as I often state, use all their intellectual effort most of the time, in constructing ‘solution-beliefs’ that satisfy the need to know without much introspection. Only a few do science. The rest contribute to traditional ‘solution-ideologies’. If Henry Gee’s views are an accurate reflection of his understanding, then I think that he should be thinking of retirement. It’s not that we don’t like criticism; it’s that we don’t like hippie foolishness.

    • Posted September 20, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Causation? So which came first, the scrambled brain that eschews “knowledge” or the marijuana use?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 21, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Not that I object to the rest.

      But proposing retirement is ageism. That is twice as bad as misogyny by the numbers, everyone grows old. But competence is not entirely fated by age. (Advanced age, possibly.)

      I like the find that Gee is affected by religiousness more.

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 21, 2013 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

        + 1

        For calling out ageism. It gets old. ( ;) )

        • Filippo
          Posted September 22, 2013 at 12:39 am | Permalink

          I have found the following to be a quite effective response to any “youngster” (so far they have been male children/adolescents only) attempting to get in a dig at me on account of my “older age”:

          “I am grateful to have so far made it to my current age in reasonably good health. Surely, you yourself hope to similarly make it to at least my age, do you not? NOT EVERYONE DOES.”

  22. JBlilie
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    This guy is religious and he’s PISSED that his metaphysics aren’t receiving their due RESPECT!

    His article is well larded with religious allusions, which are code-words to the religious reader.

    • JBlilie
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      A sampling:

      “the “significance” of which is left for you to judge – based on nothing more concrete or substantive than a feeling, based on the imponderables of personal or shared experience”

      “scientific experiments don’t end with a holy grail”

      “gave us such miracles”

      “They were wizards, men like gods, who either had more than the regular human complement of leetle grey cells, or access to occult arcana denied to ordinary mortals. They were priests in vestments of white coats, … we bowed down before them”

      “How our faith was betrayed!”

      “science wasn’t about Truth, handed down on tablets of stone from above, and even then, only to the elect”

      ‘’ If the once-inaccessible scientists had been defrocked’
      “the contenders are gods throwing thunderbolts at one another”

      “their discourse is one of monologue rather than argument, received wisdom rather than doubt”

      “science journalists would engage with scientists, picking holes in their ideas directly, as if throwing traders out of the temple”

      “scientists, or who pretend to be scientists, cling to the mantle of a kind of religious authority”

      “There is only blasphemy”

  23. crf
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Better title:

    Gee’s wizz on nature

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      FTW.

      :D

  24. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Found this in the comments on the Nature site:
    bivypag:

    …even those apparently easy targets whose scientific credentials are challenged resort very easily to legislation in the way that politicians never would.

    Litigation is probably the word you were looking for.

    —–
    What a poorly written piece by Gee in every respect.

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    The theory that Gee is brain rotted by religion seems promising.

    It’s time that we stop saying that science can’t find real truth without drawing the distinction between philosophically absolute truth and what I (a nod to Anthony Grayling) call practical absolute truth: the kind of scientific truth that is so unlikely to be wrong that we’d bet our lives and savings on it.

    Yes!

    [And I find it humorous that philosophy, the relativistic area per excellence, wishes for "absolute truth".]

    That is why Gee is wrong on “based on nothing more concrete or substantive than a feeling, based on the imponderables of personal or shared experience.” There are area dependent standards on uncertainty in many or most cases.

    Call it quantifiable quality standards, if you like.

    It is Gee that is throwing up his hands, because he hasn’t done his due diligence. Or he is, as has been hinted, too jaded or too religious – he may not care for practical absolute truth in this matter.

    And really, you can blame all the bad things that come out of science on the scientific process itself? Is pollution really the fault of science, or of overpopulation and capitalism?

    Capitalism is merely the most effective way to arrange markets, which in turn is merely the most effective way to distribute resources. As democracy, it is the least worst alternative in practice.

    We can blame technology too, whether pre-science or post-science. When climate scientists tried to assess early continental vegetation to get a baseline, I hear the result returned was that forests covered all continents (about 8000 years ago). Early agricultural et cetera practices removed them.

    But today’s rice farmers use ~ 1/10th of the resources of early farmers. (If that produces more or less AGW per food portion is however not assessed, AFAIK.)

    • Notagod
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      Capitalism is merely the most effective way to arrange markets, which in turn is merely the most effective way to distribute resources. As democracy, it is the least worst alternative in practice.

      I guess that would depend on what the goal is. Capitalism has proven to be excessively wasteful and creates an artificial and undeserved, powerful platform on which the extremely wealthy can stand. Due in part to the creation of business megaliths that are too big to fail. Capitalism is also far less concerned with quality and social responsibility than it is with manufacturing wealth.

      Capitalism seems to me to be a very poor way to distribute resources or arrange markets. There certainly are worst ways but we absolutely need to find a better way. Thus, I disagree with your characterization of capitalism as “the most effective way”.

      • Posted September 21, 2013 at 3:36 am | Permalink

        capitalism as “the most effective way”

        read an article recently, canna remember where, where US poultry will be shipped to China for processing and returned for sale

        not efficient at all, yet somehow still profitable

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 21, 2013 at 5:17 am | Permalink

          Claim in need of reference.

          [AFAIK shipping like that is often most resource efficient. Often because ships and containers use much less fuel than local transport with cars and racks.]

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 21, 2013 at 5:29 am | Permalink

        Claims in need of reference.

        [FWIW, I go by statistics. AFAIK democracy, free market capitalism, and social medicine is the three factors that Rosling has identified as what has driven today's dominance of healthy nations.

        E.g. closing the earlier bimodal distribution between "developing" and "developed" nations into one, and a tightening, peak of BNP/person in the last 60 years; diminishing the tail of poor people; driven up health & length of life and down number of children/person. It's in his many TED talks, as well as the ref's to the statistics.

        I think an alternative has to prove a) that it works and b) that it works better. Even a) seems to be lacking, the historical alternatives have been abandoned.]

    • Filippo
      Posted September 21, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Provisionally granting that capitalism is the best at what it does, there is more to life than capitalism, though one wouldn’t know it from the behavior of not a few capitalists.

      In the last couple of years I heard a “senior fellow” of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) – I can cite his name if you wish – hold forth on U.S. National Public Radio to the effect that corporations had no ethical duty to concern themselves with (helping solve) the country’s (U.S.’s) “problems”(some of which I submit are caused by corporations). I am at least skeptical about, if not hostile toward, anyone who views flesh-and-blood human beings strictly and solely as human “resources” and human “capital.”

      I reasonably assume that the CEI and its ilk hold that capitalism/free enterprise are one of those things that make Amuricuh “exceptional” and therefore worthy of flesh-and-blood human beings entering the military and going in harm’s way to be killed or maimed for life, so as to “preserve, protect, and defend” the financial interests of corporations and well-heeled capitalists.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 21, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

        I seem to recall that ‘absentee landlords’ (who lived remote from the social consequences of their decisions) came in for a lot of flak in past centuries. In many ways corporations are the ultimate in absentee landlords. It’s when you get blinkered executives with an obsession with balance sheets who argue that there is a *duty* to shareholders not to allow anything to detract from maximum profitability, that the corporation becomes malignant.

  26. colnago80
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps Gee has gotten jaded scrutinizing the p values in Nature manuscripts, but not all science is based on probability values, and even when it is, those values are often much less than 0.05 (physics, for example, uses much smaller values—0.00001, I think, when it tried to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson.

    The standard in physics is 5 standard deviations (it was 3 when I was a graduate student). Off hand, I don’t know how that translates into a probability value.

    • Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      5-σ corresponds to a p-value of about 0.00000028, or 1/3,600,000

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      It’s complicated.

      Particle physics today use 5 sigma for observations because they have to account for the “look elsewhere” effect. Meaning that if you are looking for a detector peak with unknown particle mass you are in effect data fishing. (Compare with medicine looking for effective compounds.) It is easier to finds _something_ when you look at many places, even a random accumulation of noise.

      But the baseline with known mass is still 3 sigma. Meaning it is a test of a theory (of a particle with such a mass).

      I would say 3 sigma is still a theory test. While 5 sigma is the quality limit for new (non-theory) observations in generic physics.

      AFAIK astronomy in particular by some official descriptions bump that up to 7-9 sigma, likely because they have so much to look at and their initial methods are messy (imprecise).

  27. Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I thought perhaps the rant had something to do with senility, but — hey! — that bloke is two years my junior! Is it a case of power corrupting the mind?

  28. jh
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    With friends like Gee who needs enemies. Why not make William Lane Craig editor of Nature. What’s the difference?

  29. Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Argumentum ad perfectum. Golly Gee, nothing new here.

    • Derek
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

      Rewritten slightly, but agreed with completely:

      “Argumentum ad perfectum, Golly Gee, nothing here.”

    • Filippo
      Posted September 21, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      When in the U.S. Navy, I once heard of a Lieutenant J.G. (“junior grade”) J.G. Gee.

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Any book on string theory or modern physics is riven with doubts (try The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin, for example).

    I don’t know if mentioning Smolin here is a good idea. He is a self-professed string critic, the main thrust of that as I hear it. But moreover he is fringe.

    But let us start with the book reviews:

    “The book generated much controversy and debate about the merits of string theory, and was criticised by some prominent physicists including string theorists Joseph Polchinski,[3] Luboš Motl,[4] and Sean Carroll.[7]

    Polchinski’s review states, “In the end, these [Smolin and others'] books fail to capture much of the spirit and logic of string theory.”

    Motl’s review goes on to say “the concentration of irrational statements and anti-scientific sentiments has exceeded my expectations,” …

    Sean Carroll’s review expressed frustration because in his opinion, “The Trouble with Physics is really two books, with intertwined but ultimately independent arguments.”” [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trouble_with_Physics ]

    Now, FWIW, meet Luboš Motl, loose cannon (more than l’enfant terrible I think), former string physicist and current conservative climate science denialist:

    ” It was during his years at Harvard that Motl started his blog, “Luboš Motl’s Reference Frame”. In 2007, he left Harvard and returned to the Czech Republic. Since then, Motl has not published on string theory.

    While in Harvard, he worked on the pp-wave limit of AdS/CFT correspondence, twistor theory and its application to gauge theory with supersymmetry, black hole thermodynamics and the conjectured relevance of quasinormal modes for loop quantum gravity, deconstruction, and other topics. He translated The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene to Czech, and together with Miloš Zahradník, he co-authored a Czech textbook on linear algebra (We Grow Linear Algebra). He also authored L’équation Bogdanov, a book published in France discussing the scientific ideas and controversy of the Bogdanov brothers.” [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lubo%C5%A1_Motl ]

    Motl has published on string theory together with Susskind, the father of modern string theory.

    This is what a loose cannon string physicist has to say on a fringe string critic (in an admittedly self serving explanation piece):

    “Sometime around 2006 when hardcore crackpots such as Lee Smolin and Peter Woit “charmed” the media with their uninterrupted stream of shameful and hostile lies, I decided that the balance had been almost irreversibly destroyed in favor of the bad apples.

    At that time, I was scared to see that the only place in which most of the top physicists had the courage to even mention the basic fact that Lee Smolin is a crackpot was a closed room somewhere at the KITP in Santa Barbara. Journalist George Johnson was stunned because it was the first time when he learned that Lee Smolin was a crank at all; this elementary fact had to be classified.

    The likes of Smolin have literally hijacked the environment of science journalism and the part of public and the scientific public that is getting information from it. It was a highly unhealthy development.” [ http://motls.blogspot.se/2012/12/sciam-firewalls-and-deterioration-of.html?m=1 ]

    FWIW, Motl also says this on Sean Carroll:

    “Comments by folks like Sean Carroll that these authors may afford to write rubbish because they have tenure has nothing to do with the actual reality. These is completely false and sort of disrespectful.

    These folks have way too much to lose – their top status in theoretical physics, acquired by having written systematically valid and important contributions to physics. Carroll has never cared about the validity or quality of his papers and claims which is why he’s respected as a physicist by the know-nothing popular bullshitters only but Maldacena (in particular) is a genuine scientist, the ultimate cautious researcher who is, despite these tough constraints, still able to ignite revolutions at some points and it’s no coincidence that he was among the inaugural recipients of the $3 million Milner Prize.” [ http://motls.blogspot.se/2013/06/maldacena-susskind-any-entanglement-is.html?m=1 ]

    [Which is inconsistent. When Motl criticizes the anthropic principle in the former piece he forgets that Arkani-Hamed, an anthropic proponent if the web documented 2013 LHC workshop was anything to go by, was the first recipient of the Milner Prize.]

    It would be interesting to be privy to “a closed room somewhere at the KITP in Santa Barbara.”

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      “the main thrust of that as I hear it” – the main thrust of that book as I hear it.

  31. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    If he’s simply attacking the community of scientists without attacking science, his rant becomes a bit more coherent, though still not particularly valid.

    The Wikipedia article about him says he has published science-fiction, is an avid Tolkienist (which often entails outrage at the ill-effects of the Industrial Revolution- pollution, etc.) and an amateur rock musician. He sounds interesting, but his passion is misplaced.

    The best thing that emerges from the Wikipedia piece is that he protested when quotes from him were taken out of context by the Discovery Institute in an attack on evolution. He shared this with the National Center for Science Education in a piece that is no longer online.

    • Posted September 20, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      The best thing that emerges from the Wikipedia piece is that he protested when quotes from him were taken out of context by the Discovery Institute in an attack on evolution.

      I have the uneasy feeling that he’s soon going to be quoted a lot again by the DI folk.

  32. Posted September 20, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Great critique. Gee’s piece is so bad as to not be worth bothering about, except that it is associated with a newspaper that has a badge of ‘quality’. I wasn’t aware of his religious pretensions, but that explains a lot of the piece, including the sexism (I guess in his mind god is male).
    Difficult to see how he can be a serious science editor and be religious – does he avoid all biology, geology and physics papers?
    One might be charitable and consider that his perception of personal power, based on the false premise of impact factor, coupled to religion may have simply resulted in him writing down an extremely poor first draft and arrogantly sending it in.
    Uncharitably, perhaps he and NPG are beginning to feel the heat of the evidence piling up that they and similar journals are the problem in science, including increasing rates of fraud, going for ‘splash’ rather than science. Some nice slides here on that subject

    http://www.slideshare.net/brembs/the-pernicious-habit

  33. Posted September 20, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    And all this because scientists weren’t honest enough, or quick enough, to say that science wasn’t about Truth, handed down on tablets of stone from above…

    Hah! If pretending at absolute truth were likely to turn people *away* from an endeavor, then there wouldn’t be any religious people!

    Our closest living relative is the chimpanzee.
    This is a tangent, but chimps and bonobos tied for closest relative? Why do I keep reading conflicting things on this?

  34. First Approximation
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    No surprise. Gee can be quite irrational on the subject of science and religion. Five years ago at Pharyngula he made this prediction:

    I predict that in five or ten years time, thanks to Dawkins and others, then scientists who profess any kind of religious belief will find it hard to get tenure, and then jobs, and then papers published, and finally their employers, responding to pressure, will be forced to fire them or retire them early. It will start with the Jews, of course, because these things usually do, as they have done many times in the past.

    Does anyone think that resembles the world we live in now?

    He also made this wild accusation out of nowhere:

    But of course, some of you probably think I am an untermensch, as did the people who killed my grandparents and my two aunts — one a toddler, I have recently discovered, the other a babe in arms, and then recycled them as soap and lampshades, and presumably deserving of no better fate.

  35. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Wow – this fellow is an editor of Nature? One criticism of scientists these days is that they have gotten far too enamored of “high-impact” journals and h-indices (which, all too often, are hype indices). One can find (at least a little bit) wrong papers all the time, but spectaularly wrong papers appear in Science and Nature – accompanied, of course, by outstanding papers. Henry Gee provides some clue as to why it is that I see papers in my field that are either trivial or wrong in Science or Nature that never would have survived the referees at the Journal of the American Chemical Society or Inorganic Chemistry.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 20, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

      He missed his vocation, he should be editing Social Text

  36. Posted September 20, 2013 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    I find it a bit strange that a “Senior Editor” at Nature seems not to be a practicing scientist but a professional editor who seems to have left scientific research ago. In all the fields I interact with (mathematics/theoretical physics and computer science), it would be unthinkable for a prestigious technical journal to have editors — with the power to accept or reject manuscripts — who are not active researchers, and I suspect this is also the case in other scientific fields. How then do “generalist” journals like Science and Nature manage to get away this? (Perhaps this is at the heart of why prof Coyne used to refer to them as “magazines” in the past.)

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      I was just thinking this myself (social scientist– our managing editors are also top researchers). And he’s calling a real scientist at a top university “inconsequential.” The irony!

      Also funny here that he comments below using the handle that he edited his own Wikipedia page with. You’d think he’d be worried that his bubble filled with nothing but hot air would pop. But so far he’s been able to get away with all of this, so maybe he truly has no reason to fear.

  37. Derek
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    My favorite comment on the original article:

    “Hey editors, a troll seems to have hacked your servers and posted an entire article of gibberish.”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 21, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Indeed, that’s a good one! I sometimes envy the wit of commenters!

  38. Derek
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    And my second favorite:

    “The problem is science is the religion in an era where dogma is no longer socially acceptable.

    And I say that is a shame. The greatest religion of all time is like a lion with no claws. All bark and no bite. Too polite. A joke. A shadow of a ghost of it’s true authoritarian potential.

    How can religion exist without enforcement? Well it can’t – so please stop the comparisons? Science is forever doomed to cult status.”

    And I say “Long live the cult of science!”

  39. gluonspring
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Wait, is this the Henry Gee who has a new book out about human evolution, “The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution” (http://goo.gl/fwV8R3)?

    The blurb makes it sound like the book is intent on debunking human exceptionalism, that humans are the pinnacle of evolution or are somehow the necessary outcome of the evolutionary process (a la The Great Chain of Being), rather than just a particular string of possibly happenstance changes that weren’t leading anywhere in particular. This doesn’t sound like the kind of thing a theist would write since, perforce, theists tend to want to emphasize our specialness.

    His much earlier book “In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life” (http://goo.gl/KeFVi1) has a title that could be the work of woo, but from the reviews it seems it’s not. It is about cladistics, and a reasonable desire to move away from just-so stories that historically often populated paleontology and towards testable hypothesis about species relationships (good luck with that, since the data is so sparse, but it’s a reasonable goal).

    All this makes me the more curious what kind of religious views he has since, just going on reviews of his books, he seems to be embracing a pretty deity-free version of reality.

  40. cromercrox
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    My ‘rant’ is ‘complete mystery’ to you because you don’t understand it. You have no subtlety, no sense of irony and a complete lack of any shred of humor.

    Your much longer rant however simply proves my point – there are scientists, and you seem to be one of this sort, who set themselves up as priests, and regard any criticism of science not as constructive but as blasphemy, deserving of fatwas, ex communications and burnings-at-the-stake. This makes you no different from creationists in my view.

    Update: your correspondent should get his facts right, and you should check them out rather than believe them without question, creationist-style. I am an atheist. I was finally convinced by John Barrow’s book ‘Impossibility’. ‘The God Delusion’ remains in my view a childish and ridiculous book.

    • Posted September 21, 2013 at 3:28 am | Permalink

      If you are indeed the eponymous author, you might want to post here under your own name than a risible pseudonym.*

      Considering the lack of wit — maybe about 50% — you displayed in your essay, this rather seems to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. If you were trying to strike an ironic or otherwise humorous tone, you crashed and burned.

      If your essay had actually criticised science rather than a straw man, your criticism of Jerry’s response might have rather more credibility.

      /@

      * To forestall a likely response, Ant Allan is my real name.

    • Franks
      Posted September 21, 2013 at 3:43 am | Permalink

      “I am an atheist.”

      Haha, that’s absolutely wonderful.

      • gbjames
        Posted September 21, 2013 at 7:14 am | Permalink

        +1

    • Posted September 21, 2013 at 4:06 am | Permalink

      Ah, a bit of the British sense of humor then?! Upon re-reading the Guardian diatribe I do sense some irony, but alas, as a yankee I cannot comprehend the constructive criticism.

      Oh well, I’m off to googling some Monty Python skits on youtube.

      Tootles.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 21, 2013 at 6:03 am | Permalink

      If you were aiming for irony, you unfortunately missed. In order for irony to be effective, it has to be apparent to the audience that that’s what it is, and not just an over-the-top attack by someone who’s apparently lost his marbles.

      It is, of course, entirely possible that everyone on this notablog is so completely humourless that they took your subtle witticisms seriously; in which case the rest of the world will be laughing at us. But I think it more likely the rest of the (scientific) world will take offense just as we here did, while the anti-science factions will happily take your rant as a serious attack; in which case the fault (and the misjudgement) is yours.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 21, 2013 at 6:16 am | Permalink

        ‘.. as a serious attack on science’ is what I meant to say, of course.

        And by the way, your characterisation of Jerry is ludicrously wrong (fatwas yadda yadda). In fact Jerry actively discourages that sort of thing, to the point where I was (earlier in this thread) going to use the words ‘raving idiot’ but I censored them because I knew Jerry wouldn’t stand for it… I will say that your ignorance is showing.

    • gbjames
      Posted September 21, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      I’d suggest staying away from standup comedy. It apparently isn’t your strong suit.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 21, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      When one is accused of making a strawman it isn’t a useful response to simply claim that critics are misguided in their criticism.

      And here specifically, what kind of strawman is it? Humor or critic?

      Moreover it isn’t useful to level yet another strawman. You call TGD “childish” which secular people mostly find it is not but going to the facts.

      This is a M.O. that you share with religious people, whether you are factually an atheist or not.

      I am an atheist. I was finally convinced by John Barrow’s book ‘Impossibility’.

      Convinced of what?

      I wouldn’t read Barrow’s book as he is a sect member and Templeton prize winner. [Wikipedia] His analysis of science and its “limits” will be clouded and colored by his religious wish for such limits.

      As examples, not having read his book:

      – “Applying this to problems in cosmology, Barrow states: “A universe simple enough to be understood is too simple to produce a mind capable of understanding it.”[3]” [ From a typical book of his; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_D._Barrow ]

      That is a deepity disguised as something claimed to be informative. It is akin to the religious claim that minds can’t evolve because they need to ‘informed’ by fiat.

      – A reviewer of ‘Impossibility’ says:

      “Barrow is far more interested in the limitations inherent in modern scientific theories, such as the impossibility of knowing what happens outside the edge of the visible universe.” [ http://simonsbookblog.blogspot.se/2000/04/john-d-barrow-impossibility-limits-of.html ]

      If this is a fact, it means Barrow is failing in his own area of expertise due to his religion.

      We know from cosmic variance that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic in a volume of radius ~ 5 times the observable universe or a volume of ~ 200 times the observable universe. But now we also know from inflation that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic in a volume of radius at least twice that, or a volume ~ 1000 times the observable universe.

      We also know how much uncertainty is involved. Since there are no alternative theories, this means we know the likelihood that random effects would efface our quality asserted knowledge. (Incidentally here, see Pinker’s comments above!)

      [And I suspect that since we only know how Friedmann universes can be made to work, our knowledge on homogeneity and isotropy specifically may be far wider than that.)

      This has entered the course material. (Cf Susskind’s youtube cosmology lectures.)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 21, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        Maybe I should add, since religious makes a phony distinction between observational hypothesis test constraints and theoretical hypothesis test constraints, that cosmic variance is purely observational on the fields that we observe and their behavior that we observe today. While inflation is observed through a fossil “relict” (the CMB).

      • Franks
        Posted September 21, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

        >I wouldn’t read Barrow’s book as he is a sect member and Templeton prize winner.

        Good, we wouldn’t want you to be tainted by such heretics.

  41. Posted September 20, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Fil’s.

  42. Posted September 21, 2013 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    cromercrox is indeed the eponymous author. See http://occamstypewriter.org/cromercrox/about/

  43. Posted September 21, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    I will offer simple and questionable thesis. The distortions served up by Mr. Gee seem to arise from thinking in black and white and he sets up a polarity with science and religion.

    When he says “Faith, however, is absolute…” he thinks that any opposition to this must also be absolute because that is what it competes with. The problem here is treating an IDEA of absolute as a fact.

    Gee has committed the naturalistic fallacy. He has taken an un reducible universal object of thought; the concept of “absolute” and treated it as an object of perception. All his reasoning rests on this mistake.

    You never eat the idea of banana, but still a banana is an object of perception. There is nothing in existence that we can point to in order to define “absolute.” This should be enough to indicate he is wandering in the relm of his own concepts.

    He conceives of faith and of science and throws them both on opposite sides of an imagined scale. Then he conceives the scale tips in favor of faith and then argues accordingly.

  44. AnonymousCoward
    Posted September 22, 2013 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    I can defend the piece as making the following two points:

    1) Non-peer reviewed articles are often full of elementary errors (the author clearly does not know what either “p-value” or “zero sum” means, reviewers should have caught this).

    2) Do not trust a piece just because it is written by someone in a position of authority (say, editor of Nature).

    It makes these two points wonderfully.

    *

    On a more serious note: This is what happens to someone who spends years insulated from honest criticism as 99% of the people he meets are sucking up to him (“yes, that’s an excellent point! Have you thought about submitting an piece to Guardian on this? I’m sure others would love to read it. And do get back to me on my manuscript when you have a chance, will you?”).

  45. Gary
    Posted September 23, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Utter nonsense. In the very same year that physicists announced to the world that they’d found a result that might’ve disproved the revered Albert Einstein, how can anyone seriously get behind these allegations.

  46. concerned paleo
    Posted September 24, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    You might be interested to see an earlier example of the same theme.

    In a 2000 Palaeontological Association newsletter, Prof. Paul Pearson reviews Gee’s book “Deep Time”, and states: “I believe that Gee fundamentally misunderstands the nature of science”:

    Available free here (p.36):
    http://newsletter.palass-pubs.org/pdf/News44.pdf

    This then led to an enlightening debate (2001) between Pearson and Gee as to the nature of paleobiological research, and scientific knowledge in general:

    Free here (p. 33)
    http://newsletter.palass-pubs.org/pdf/News47.pdf

  47. Ziggi
    Posted September 24, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    Ziggi from Polish Rationalists speaking…

    Indeed, Gee’s article is depressing. It only shows the fundamental problem of dissolution of scientific point of view in the abyssal irrationality of what I call a “false depth”.

    For whatever reason many people, especially elderly ones, feel compulsive need of preaching. Seldom they say anything wise, more often they say completely pointless opinions but from time to time they manage to say something devastating. This is Gee’s case.

    His profoundly stupid text is harmful. With his easy writing he nearly directly supported those who work for regress of the public acceptance of scientific attitude towards acquiring of knowledge. He is a big spoiler who simply vandalized work of thousands involved in promotion of science. In my humble opinion, he should be kicked off Nature magazine staff immediately. His Guardian article is just scandalous!

  48. BW
    Posted September 24, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Why he (Henry Gee) wrote it?
    There might be an easy answer:
    Templeton Prize

  49. Posted July 1, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Oh, so religion is one of the “few things that makes us human”? I’m not religious. Am I less human than you?

    Hey, guess what else makes us human? Our vast and keen intellect and ability to reason. I guess that makes you less human than me if you’re a man of “faith”.
    Faith is absolute, sure enough: Absolute nonsense! It LITERALLY fills all the criteria to qualify a person as delusional.

    Thank GOD that science and reason is becoming more and more popular, and the silly primal instincts to worship stuff we can’t understand are slowly becoming more and more obsolete.


7 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] For a proper rebuttal of Gee’s piece, I refer you to Jerry Coyne, who takes it apart in a most satisfying manner. […]

  2. […] Last week a piece appeared on the Grauniad website by Henry Gee who is a Senior Editor at the magazine Nature.  I was prepared to get a bit snarky about the article when I saw the title, as it reminded me of an old  rant about science being just a kind of religion by Simon Jenkins that got me quite annoyed a few years ago. Henry Gee’s article, however, is actually rather more coherent than that and  not really deserving of some of the invective being flung at it. […]

  3. […] comments section, however.  There’s the critical blog post by Jerry Coyne, titled, “Nature editor Henry Gee goes all anti-science” and follow up to that, “Henry Gee replies.” Steven Pinker also took Gee to task […]

  4. […] Guardian–must be used to at least some criticism. (In fact, some of those columns have definitely been criticized.) Regardless of intent, though, it doesn’t make Nature look good to be doxxing people with […]

  5. […] Guardian–must be used to at least some criticism. (In fact, some of those columns have definitely been criticized.) Regardless of intent, though, it doesn’t make Nature look good to be doxxing people with […]

  6. […] Guardian–must be used to at least some criticism. (In fact, some of those columns have definitely been criticized.) Regardless of intent, though, it doesn’t make Nature look good to be doxxing people with […]

  7. […] Gee whiz. An editor at Nature goes right off the rails. […]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27,161 other followers

%d bloggers like this: