Daily Archives: 05/01/2012

If Newton was “wasting” his time, the rest of us who have television sets and Grand Theft Auto are doomed…

I am a regular reader of blogs, obviously, and recently, this takedown of Mario Beauregard by PZ Myers, writer of Pharyngula. Mario Beauregard starts us off with this selection in Salon, about “proof” of afterlife from near-death experiences. On critiquing this sort of thing, I’m with Myers pretty much the entire way: anecdotes about near-death experience do not really help us with the science of what goes on. Myers might be helped out by labeling one of his objections:

If I am an ideologue, it’s only in that I demand that if you call something science, it bear some resemblance in method and approach to science, not mysticism. Beauregard insists on trying to endorse the babbling piffle above as science by reciting the number of publications he has made, and how much grant money he’s got, when I’m looking for verifiable, reproducible, measurable evidence.

Oh, I do love me a squabble. This objection, for you students of argumentation, confronts an argument from authority. You can argue from authority (though it’s usually a weak argument and should be heavily caveated as such), but if you are going to go the argument-from-authority route, you’d better make sure your argument pertains to the area of authority you actually have. So I’m not sure what field “afterlife studies” belongs to, but it’s safe to say that Beauregard’s publishing and grant record do not attest to his authority in whatever field that would be.

But Myers goes off the rails at the end:

I would also remind him that Isaac Newton, who was probably an even greater scientist than the inestimable Beauregard, wasted much of his later years on mysticism, too: from alchemy and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, to arcane Biblical hermeneutics, extracting prophecies of the end of the world from numerological analyses of Revelation. While his mechanics and optics have stood the test of time, that nonsense has not. That his mathematics and physics are useful and powerful does not imply that he was correct in his calculation that the world will end before 2060 AD; similarly, Beauregard’s success in publishing in psychiatry journals does not imply that his unsupportable fantasies of minds flitting about unfettered by brains is reasonable.ˆ

Oho, Beauregard, let me set you straight the way I would have set Newton straight had I been there to drive from his back seat.

Unfortunately, even without Dr. Myers to supervise him, Newton could pretty much kick all of our asses, even somebody as renowned as an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, no matter how much time Newton spent skylarking about alchemy, and no matter how silly he looks in that powdered wig he’s got on in all his portraits. His contributions to mathematics alone leave most scholars throughout history in the dust.

So Newton “wasted” his later years? For reals? He should have done what with his last years, exactly? Newtonian physics (without which there is no modern physics) and helping invent calculus aren’t enough? Geez, tough crowd.

What if he had taken up golf or stamp collecting or politics, instead of studying mysticism? Would those have been less of a “waste”?

One reason we KNOW alchemy isn’t really worth spending time on is that people…smart people like Newton…spent time on researching it.

Negative results are still results, people.

As catastrophic as global warming is likely to be, there’s a part of me that rather enjoys watching scientists wiggle in outrage as people treat them and their claims to knowledge like so much noise–the way many, many scientists treat everybody who is Not Scientist–instead of the constant deference to them and their topics that many of them believe they are owed.

There are plenty of humble, wonderful scientists out there who deeply respect the arts and humanities and the human endeavor more generally. My own university president, an electrical engineer by training, is fanatical about the arts and humanities–one of the (multiple) reasons I respect him a great deal.

But for every one of those scientists, I swear there is a Mike Brotherton*/Dr. Sheldon Cooper who acts like any study of “not-science” is, simply, a waste of everybody’s time–and then wonders, after acting like kings astride the earth and showing no interest in listening to anybody Not Science, why for people no listen to them no more?

Welcome to the fuzzy wuzzy world of human society, boys, where all of us actually live. Your playground got a lot less fun when, after you excluded and ignored people for years, the excluded suddenly stopped caring about what you think and built a playground/status hierarchy of their own where Experts in Science simply do not matter all that much.

The rest of us would like to live a world where we can pursue many approaches to understanding and interpreting the world, and where we could work together to face potential problems like climate change, but that doesn’t seem likely any time soon.

*BTW, I am a big fan of Mike Brotherton’s books and his blog, but if there is a way he can build in snark about humanities, he does. It’s tiring, and he’s also wrong.

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