Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"The Book that Saves the World": When is a book legitimate science?

Yesterday in the mail, I received a copy of a book called Is It To Be: Terminal Alienation or Transformation for the Human  Race, written by one Jeremy Griffith, described in the book as an Australian biologist of unspecified (if any) professional affiliation.  This book arrived at my office address without my having ordered it (or paid for it), and the material included an advertising poster for the book and a long letter to me (clearly addressed from some mailing list because it went to the wrong department).  The letter was from the Preface author, one Harry Prosen, MD.  It seemed on the face of it to be tailored to me since it mentioned me and my wife and co-blogger and co-author Anne (mis-spelled), with some quotes of ours embedded in the 3-page letter.  Apparently Griffith has established what he calls the World Transformation Movement to help fill what he asserts is an urgent need.

This book is quite long at 639 jam-packed pages.  Its pages are littered with breathless font changes--lots of italics, bold-face, and underlines.  It purports to argue that we have (that is, the author has) finally understood the human condition based on biology rather than religion, and further, we finally know what is needed to rescue our species before it is too late.  The countless quotes are from dare I say reputable scientists, as well as popular culture.  Except for the personalized nature of the tome, it seems to want to give the appearance that it is a work of science, based on research.  On this basis, the author proffers a Transformed Lifeforce Way of Living that the Movement advocates.  But what this actually is is buried so thickly in word salad as to be inscrutable to me (if you doubt this, the book is available online and there are easily found web pages). 

Someone apparently funded this book's printing and mass mailing, of which I am sure I am but one of countless unsuspecting recipients.  While sent to scientists and purporting to be based on science, it's easy to see this as fitting a pattern--the breathless font-changing style, the miscellany of quotes and source, the claim that the author has found the answer and so on, but written as if it is the author's deep resulting insight that is transformative.  But a tipoff to the kind of book this is, is that there is no index and it was published by his Movement.

It sounds wacky and is totally nonconforming in its treatment of science (or even philosophy).  Its rambling message is largely impenetrable, and easy to dismiss as a reflex....indeed, it fits into a category.  

Over the years, I've received many such unsolicited books.  They have included the hugely massive and beautiful Atlas of Creation, by the Turkish author Harun Yahya, two pro-eugenics books including one on Jewish inherent superiority by John Glad (Jewish Eugenics; Future Human Evolution: Eugenics in the Twenty-First Century), and Philippe Rushton's classically racist tracts (Race: Evolution and Behavior).  But not all of these kinds of books are distributed freely.  There's Michael Behe who hasn’t sent out freebies to my knowledge, but is well-known for his views on the non-evolution of biological complexity.  And there are many of the standard Christian Creationist or Fundamentalist books in the mix.

These authors usually have no, or no relevant, academic appointment, but there are exceptions (e.g., Rushton, Behe).  Their funding if any may be unclear, but some are funded by the religion-based Templeton Foundation.  Others set up their own ‘institutes’ of which they are the only employee.  Their formats and styles make them sound like cranks, and I have never considered any of these books to be serious treatments of their subject. 

Revelation or revulsion: how can we tell?

But how can we tell?
Still, should having an academic appointment lend credence to these kinds of books?  We all would agree, I think, that being in academia is far from a guarantee that someone knows the truth as it is best known in his/her time.  Should having a religious agenda be disqualifying?  Only to those who deny religion,  presumably, and likewise being funded by a religious organization doesn’t automatically vitiate the work itself.

And what about the books that are widely read, reviewed, and cited in the public as well as academic world, but that are written by journalists?  Some of them are in any sense of the word ‘tracts’.  And journalists often get things wrong or culpably distort their importance, yet their stories appear in the leading media.  The books are reviewed, often by actual scientists, as if the authors were themselves qualified scientists.  Some clearly seem (to me) to be credible books, but how do we tell? And what about articles written for major magazines or journals by program officers in funding agencies, or editors of major journals?  Oddly enough, they always tell a glowing tale about what they are funding!

And what about popular science books written by academics?  These have long been looked on with some disdain by other academics.  Indeed, writing a popular book is generally not a way to advance an academic career, though a few have done so and a number of others have made considerable income that way.  Some have even kept their academic reputation (even if what they've written is far afield of what they actually control).  And Edison and Galen and Boyle were showmen in the media of their times, as one might say was the style then.

So, how and why do we judge these books, and collectively reject the subset like the one I just received?  I have wondered whether it is because we don’t like their point of view because it challenges our own, or because they’re not playing by the usual institutional rules like peer review, or because of their styles.  Or is it just that we feel threatened and so we ostracize them?

Darwin and many others in his era wrote books for sale through the public and commercial presses.  That was normal, and there were very controversial books circulating at the time.  They didn’t just flood everyone with freebies so far as I am aware, but I don’t happen to know enough of the history of science publication to know how things should be considered.

Galileo, for example, wrote in Italian (not Latin) and supposedly did so in order to be read and understood by the general public, doing an end run around the constricting Church-controlled media of his time.  Einstein published in legitimate journals, but couldn’t get an academic job and worked instead for the Swiss patent office in his famous 1905-6 flurry of brilliance.

These and many other authors were one-man institutes--funding their own work, doing it in their basement.  They did not work in big institutions.  

So when a book like Is It To Be crosses the threshold, should it go straight into the circular file or not?  How do we tell?  Sometimes even just the tone of its prefatory material alone is enough.  

Should we toss a book that includes the following?

"Revealing great, unusual, and remarkable spectacles, opening these to the consideration of every man, and especially of philosophers....." 

The book continues in that vein.  Unfortunately for our willingness to pass easy judgments about quality, this is the preface to Galileo's Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius, 1610), perhaps the single most important book in opening the age of modern science.  That's where Galileo devastated accepted theory by pointing what amounted to a new toy, a telescope, at the moon.  Not surprisingly the book and the author's attitude, rankled the Establishment.

Galileo's self-promotion, 1610

Scientists are a lot better off than, say, people who argue over which religion tells the Real Truth or which is The Best Wine, or debates about 'Art', because in science we at least have various sorts of evidence to collect and means to put a scientific claim to the test.  Of course, we have to agree on the kind of evidence and methods, which criteria history shows can change.  Where does alchemy become chemistry, or phrenology become fMRI? And why, for example, do we believe the latter and not the former?

Indeed, I think in fact that conformity to the club rules of the clubby environment of academe, including degrees, professional jobs and the like are part of the criteria that we use. I think we do it partly in a tribal way, and at least partly by intuition: a book just doesn’t feel right, or comes to conclusions long dismissed as untenable based on current evidence.  Or the author isn't playing by our rules of decorum.  As a collective enterprise, scientists ‘know’ or sense or maybe just informally agree on what is credible—at least what is worth looking at seriously—and what is crackpot.

But it’s a disturbing thing to ponder, because we like to believe that science is at its roots open to any doubts or ideas that may help us to explain nature, and in principle ones from out of the blue may be, just occasionally, among the deepest insights.  We would hate to miss some penetrating insight and then exclaim, as Thomas Huxley did about evolution “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”.  Yet, when the unsolicited book, and strong self-promotional material, from an irregular source, comes into the mailbox it tends to go out the same afternoon in a less savory container.


Ken Weiss said...

Well I guess all human activities have their self-interested aspects. ENCODE is just one of many mega-scale projects that has lots of funding and naturally must generate lots of product and lots of positive assertions of its findings to go along with the results themselves. That's the current way science does business. One can criticize, and we do, but one can't blame people for doing what they must to in their own interests.

Unknown said...

Should I feel jealous for not getting such... interesting? ... books sent to my office?

Unknown said...

Interesting that you should mention both Jeremy Griffith and Harun Yahya at the same time, as I've been reading both them of frequently recently. Perhaps this is a sign from the universe that I should stop reading both of them.

A funny observation: Harun Yahya is purportedly Muslim, but believes in idealism (everything is within consciousness, matter is not real), and seems 'out to get' Darwin, he says that the the verse within the Qur'an: be ye despised, apes and pigs (something like that), is a reference to belief in evolution and how life came from matter (our ancestors being apes).

Jeremy Griffith is a materialist (matter is real), and believes that the way matter organizes itself is in fact 'God itself' (order, which is seen or inferred in matter), and frequently references Darwin in his latest book (2015). Moreover he frequently references the (probably commonly accepted) idea that our ancestors were apes.

Yet both figures are accused of leading cults, and are given virtually no support outside of their own circles, which means they have no influence, because their narrative is only believed inside of themselves, and their only supporters are, yeah.

Meaning that their narrative of how the world works (Griffith: scientists don't want to confront this truth, injustice, no one takes this liberating-concise-awesome-explosive-revelation-truth seriously, etc.), is not actually how the world works, but within their circle.

Anyways, just some ramblings.