I have two items on contemporary science and as neither is extremely long I thought I would put them together.
Scientism Against Science – A Christian asserted to Paul “Pharyngula” Myers over Twitter that a God has to exist because something cannot arise from nothing. “Tell that to Lawrence Krauss and other physicists,” Myers thunders. “They all argue that god is an unnecessary hypothesis.” Krauss and his comrades argue that particles may have arisen from the laws of quantum mechanics, which is fine except that the laws of quantum mechanics are not “nothing”. They are answering a different question. This has not occurred to Myers, who goes on say that he “could have reduced [his post] to a simple accusation of “bullshit!””. Yes, he could, but then he would have not have given such compelling evidence of the tendency of some atheists to bask in undeserved assurance regarding the worthlessness of their opponents’ beliefs, and of some scientists to bask in undeserved assurance regarding the monopoly they think their fields hold over truth claims.
I have written before on the phenomenon of scientism, with reference to Lawrence Krauss’ disdainful attitude towards philosophy. It is not merely harmful in that it marginalises other forms of inquiry, though: it also harms science. The manner in which scientists like Myers and Richard Dawkins – who said that what Darwin was to biology Krauss is to cosmology – obscures the relevance of the findings they discuss. The origin of particles is a fascinating question in itself but it is liable to be overlooked if it used as a stick to beat religion with.
Chewing the Fat – Gary Taubes is a popular science writer who is known for heterodox opinions regarding nutrition. He has, for example, pinned the rise of obesity on dietary carbohydrates and claimed that saturated fat is not linked to heart disease. It is very true that the quality of carbohydrates has been problematic, and for all I know it may be true that genetic and metabolic abnormalities are intolerant to carbs in general, but the idea that they are especially fattening for all or most of us seems weird. Numerous studies have associated diets rich in whole grains, legumes and fruits with healthy weight maintenance and, indeed, weight loss. Besides, I do not often hear of the obesity crises in Japan and China.
It is the writings of Taubes on fat and cholesterol that a vegan critic has dissected over an epic four and half hours of YouTube critiques. I have neither the time nor the expertise to vouch for his overall rigour – and, indeed, think I have noted the odd dubious point – but he notes important omissions, misrepresentations and acts of blatant propagandising. (Taubes claims that vegan and vegetarian parents “doom their kids to a life of obesity and diabetes” when the lentil-munchers tend to be slimmer with better insulin sensitivity.) Self-styled diet heretics would do well to give them a listen and evaluate the condition of their theories. It should be disturbing, especially to those of us with an interest in alternative ideas, how writers can inspire uncritical esteem if they snub the establishment.
The pop. nutrition commentariat is, perhaps, the best example of the dangers of forming opinions according to one’s ego and taste rather than objective judgement. The “paleo” dieters include a lot of people who are not acquainted with nutrition research but like to feel iconoclastic and macho in their meat consumption. Fruitarians are often ignorant of basic facts but love the notion of being at one with the world. The risks they can impose on their bodies are evidence of the dangers of biases and the need for means of systematic analyses to deal with their undue influence. It ain’t sexy but it’s science.