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In Defense of Uncommon Sense
August 28, 2005 9:59 AM   Subscribe

In Defense of Uncommon Sense. The Edge Reality Club responds to an op-ed by John Horgan (previously discussed here.) (Via)
posted by homunculus (19 comments total)

 
Wow! Another english major talks about science.
posted by c13 at 10:39 AM on August 28, 2005


John Horgan's piece was terrible. I'm glad he got routed in the responses. There was never any contest.
posted by painquale at 12:09 PM on August 28, 2005


Yeah, it's the responses that made this worthwhile. Horgan is good at provoking responses, sometimes from scientists, and sometimes from Buddhists.
posted by homunculus at 12:38 PM on August 28, 2005


Excellent rebuttal by Susskind. Thanks for the post!
posted by joe lisboa at 4:05 PM on August 28, 2005


The basic problem is, common sense is frequently wrong. For example, even basic probability that your odds of winning the lotery don't significantly improve by playing every week is a concept that most people don't get.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:05 PM on August 28, 2005


'Common sense' needs to be defined first.
posted by Gyan at 7:31 PM on August 28, 2005


It may be a bit harsh, but I think that essentially he's celebrating ignorance. It's not like the same visceral rejection of relativity and quantum theory weren't leveled against them at the time. The fact that M-theory is completely nebulous and a formidable challenge to experimentally demonstrate does make it an easy target. But his undercuts himself with his own argument.

The standard model is the most successful theory we've ever had--and common sense is an impediment to understanding it. And the popularity of M-theory is not an abandonment of the scientific method, but a testament to M-theory's remarkable recent advances and success. It's not the first time that experiment has lagged behind theory. It's not a cause for alarm.

But most people don't have the luxury of (or devotion to) the years of study that it takes to appreciate the strength of the evidence for the standard model, or how compelling string theory really is. Perhaps one day math will have advanced enough that we can teach them in high school, but until then, why should the lay person take believe the fabulous tales of the ungodly scientists?
posted by cytherea at 8:03 PM on August 28, 2005


The basic problem is, common sense is frequently wrong. For example, even basic probability that your odds of winning the lotery don't significantly improve by playing every week is a concept that most people don't get.

Don't they improve just less than 52-fold over the course of a year? In a 6/55 lottery that's (duh) more than an order of magnitude. I realize that's the difference between "really, really, really, really, really small" and "really, really, really, really small" but that's a "significant improvement", in my book.

Or is my common sense wrong?
posted by Kwantsar at 8:06 PM on August 28, 2005


Also, KirkJobSluder, I'm a bit confused. If you never play the lottery, you have no chance of winning it. If you play it twice, you have double the chance of playing it once. I would still call that significant, even if the odds are so great that playing several, every day, still means that it's extremely unlikely that you'll ever win in your lifetime. (I know, I'm nitpicking.)
posted by cytherea at 8:11 PM on August 28, 2005


Snap?
posted by cytherea at 8:12 PM on August 28, 2005


I stopped reading the rebuttle after he misspelled "grok". Now I wonder, "Was that sensible?"
posted by pointilist at 10:46 PM on August 28, 2005


Horgan's article (and especially his response) is full of dishonesties and rhetorical tactics. Speaking of Darwinism: Huxley routed bishop Wilberforce for just such a crime: filling a scientific debate with rhetoric.

What's the difference between ignorance and stupidity? Stupid acts involve willful ignorance; of selecting the data to support one viewpoint while ignoring data which does not. From my past reading of Horgan's work, I know that he isn't just missing some facts, instead he's wilfully ignorant, he's not in search of truth.

Here's a more detailed version of Horgan's type of mental failure:

The Fallacy of One-Sidedness


The Clinical Attitude Towards Arguments


Also, EDGE had responses in 1997 to Horgan's book THE END OF SCIENCE, see:

The End of Horgan
posted by billb at 1:46 AM on August 29, 2005


Admittedly, Horgan's piece was terrible; possibly a result of having written it as an op-ed piece, and not as a full paper. However, I didn't find the various responses to it particularly useful either. Horgan does raise at least one interesting problem: when a scientific theory can't be backed up by empirical results AND stands in the face of common sense, what are we to believe?

I am hesitant to accept that we should just believe the scientists because they are experts. I'm willing to accept that in cases where some empirical evidence backs a theory up, but Horgan is specifically discussing the cases where no evidence can be obtained. So, how should we respond to things like String Theory?

(And aside: I was speaking with a physics grad student a while back, and asked him basically the same question Horgan brings up--What empirical reasons are there to believe in String Theory? Will it ever be a testable hypothesis? He frowned and said, in response to my first question, that there were really only a few people in the world capable of understanding it fully and he was not one of them. In response to the second question, he said that the last paper on the topic that he read had come up with a possible experiment. The problem? It was estimated that the experiment would take more energy than was left in the universe.)

Before setting Horgan aside so quickly, be sure to read his follow-up to the scientist's responses at the bottom of the first link. He makes his point more succinctly there.
posted by voltairemodern at 6:43 AM on August 29, 2005


cytheria: Also, KirkJobSluder, I'm a bit confused. If you never play the lottery, you have no chance of winning it. If you play it twice, you have double the chance of playing it once. I would still call that significant, even if the odds are so great that playing several, every day, still means that it's extremely unlikely that you'll ever win in your lifetime. (I know, I'm nitpicking.)

Yeah I bungled that. The fallacy is that persistance pays off. That is, your odds of winning on the 52nd ticket after 51 losses are higher than your odds of winning on the first ticket. "Just one more for the road," keeps gambling in business.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:50 AM on August 29, 2005


I stopped reading the rebuttle after he misspelled "grok". Now I wonder, "Was that sensible?"
posted by pointilist at 1:46 AM EST


Find the misspelled word in the above quote. :-)
posted by nofundy at 7:00 AM on August 29, 2005


"when a scientific theory can't be backed up by empirical results AND stands in the face of common sense, what are we to believe?"
We are to believe that it is a theory that is currently untestable. Many of the great innovations in science come not from inventing a new theory, but from finally figuring out a way to test an existing one.
Until there is a way to test it, it's a theory that exists in abstract mathematics and should be taught as something requiring more investigation.
I mean, that's just common sense.
posted by klangklangston at 7:07 AM on August 29, 2005


Common sense informs us that nuclear weapons clearly are impossible :

No sane person could possibly believe that such little bombs could make such big booms. The whole affair is a hoax, and probably is associated with the Trilateral Commission.

Also, the lunar landing was filmed in Arizona and common sense tells us that "space" , "gravity", and so on are insane delusions of pointy-headed scientists who couldn't change a car tire or gut a freshly bagged deer if their lives depended on it.

Pretty soon, medical researchers will be telling us that sickness is caused by infinitesimally small bugs - so tiny as to be invisible - that invade our bodies and not from the obvious causes we all know to be true like imbalances between the Four Humors.

It's nuts.

_____


Heh heh. Actually, I think Horgan is practicing a classic strategy of provoking controversy to keep his name in the media. Horgan is actually a seasoned science writer - and I think he's found a nice tactic for career promotion. If he's proven wrong I imagine he'll just shrug and go off to muckrack in some other area.
posted by troutfishing at 11:38 AM on August 29, 2005


The whole piece is interesting. First, you hear a guy explain what is probably a common sentiment about science. Then you hear a lot of interesting counterarguments. I hope he keeps writing such things.
posted by pracowity at 11:54 AM on August 29, 2005


Wow...I read this thread, then I read the piece, and I had one of those experiences I sometimes get when I read reviews of movies after i see them: Y'all mostly don't seem to be talking about the same piece that I read.

For example, the piece that I read had this bit in it: "All these theories are preposterous, but that's not my problem with them. My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge."

That's really another way of saying that the unification theories under critique arent' really scientific, because there's no way to [in]validate them. While I don't really think that's "common sense" in a common-sensical sense, it is clearly something that we teach as a cornerstone of "Scientific Method."

Is it a bad piece? In one sense, I'd say "no", in that it seems to me to call out some real problems in the way that science works within the scientific culture, right now (and probably always, but that's another matter). In another sense I'd say that it is -- not because of its actual content, but rather because of how it will be read by the majority of laymen. They'll read it as a condemnation of science, rather than as an attempt to call attention to a lack of scientific methodology in theory-formation and promotion.

I will say that the piece does suffer from one glaring problem: It's not actually about "common sense" at all. He is playing a bit too fast and loose with the term. But when you figure out what he's really referring to, it's not really a very controversial position.
posted by lodurr at 7:46 AM on August 30, 2005


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