Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Why do smart people say such stupid things?

How is it that such seemingly talented folks like Michael Egnor can say such blatantly ignorant and stupid things? For those who haven't been following this, Dr. Egnor is a neurosurgeon at SUNY Stonybrook. He's the chair of the neurosurgery department no less. To reach such a an esteemed position would require that he be talented and hardworking (and at least a little clever). So why is he spouting such absolute nonsense about evolution? It's not that it's just wrongheaded, it contains such obvious glaring errors regarding facts that were worked out over a hundred years ago (one of which I discuss here).

But he's not the first talented guy to fall into this trap. How about Nobel-prize winner Kary Mullis? Here's the guy who invented PCR, a technique that has revolutionized medicine, forensics, molecular biology and every element of biology. Oh, and he says that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. Huh?

And what about Michael Crichton? He's a Harvard-educated medical doctor. Award-winning author and moviemaker. Oh yeah, and he's said some pretty stupid things about global warming. How is it that these very talented, high-achieving folks can say such stupid things about issues that are way out of their field of expertise? I think it's (misplaced) confidence.

This American Life has an episode devoted to just such a thing (it's well worth listening to, skip to Act 3 if you only want to listen to the story I'll be talking about). In A Little Bit of Knowledge, we hear about an electrician who thinks he's disproven Einstein, if he could only tweak the math a bit. He's an intelligent guy who's managed to build his own business. He can take apart anything and put it back together. He's self-taught. In short, he's a success. And very confident in himself. Because of this, he feels he can understand the more difficult parts of Einstein's theories, and that any failure to understand on his part means that Einstein got it wrong. It turns out there's a lot of these type of guys out there, and that they're often e-mailing physics professors to tell them that they've proven Einstein wrong. One physicist even wrote a crackpot index to describe the phenomenon.

So does this describe our dear Michael Egnor? A smart guy, who fails to comprehend the subtleties of evolution, and blames those failings on Darwin rather than on his own education and/or intellect?

Digg!

8 comments:

Mark said...

Hey,
Put an RSS feed on your site. We've got similar goals here, and I'd like to track you.

JavaElemental said...

And what about Michael Crichton? He's a Harvard-educated medical doctor. Award-winning author and moviemaker. Oh yeah, and he's said some pretty stupid things about global warming.

Oh, come on now, be fair. He's said some pretty stupid things about every science he's used in his books. ;)

Anonymous said...

I, for one, am in Crichton's side.

I don't know zilch about climate, but I have been working with computer modeling of complex systems for five years, and there is simply no way anyone can be confident about the results of climate modeling - much less with all the certainty of the scientists who are claiming an apocalypse of global proportions due to global warming.

Anyway, time will tell -- I believe GW will eventually fall alongside Malthus, social darwinism, eugenics, the new ice age etc etc etc.

The Factician said...

"I don't know zilch about climate, but..."

And that's what's the problem. Basically, for you to hold that admittedly uninformed belief, you also have to believe one of the following two things:

1) That thousands of talented scientists working on this problem for more than a decade are deliriously wroong, and somehow you and Michael Crichton arrived at the correct answer in a matter of a few minutes or hours.

or

2) That thousands of talented scientists working on this problem for more than a decade are involved in an elaborate conspiracy to (create a market for carbon credits that they can manipulate/get research funding/ perpetrate a magnificent April Fool's day hoax that will be unveiled on April 1st 2020).

Either of those possibilities seems rather unlikely to me. Which do you prefer?

Anonymous said...

Guilty as charged.

But I never said I arrived at the correct answer... only that I believe GW will eventually go the same way of other 'scares' of the past.

Also, I don't think that thousands of scientists are knowingly part of a conspiracy. I believe what's happening is a massive case of confirmation bias; they don't set out to see wether or not GW is caused by man -- from the start, they're trying to 'prove' man is guilty.

When you work with complex models and you already 'know' from the beginning what you're trying to prove it's VERY easy to overlook minor details that can throw off your results by a very large margin.

Add that to a political process where it is in the best interest of developed countries to keep the developing nations in their current state, and you have the classic recipe for State Sponsored Bad Science.

But I also freely admit, as I said, that I don't know zilch about climate science -- I'm very aware that I could be wrong. I wish man-made GW supporters would do the same.

I'm basing my opinion on my work with computer models and on what I have learned from the past 200 years or so of 'apocalyptic scares' and science manipulation by political bodies.

Whatever side is right, it pays to learn the other's point of view, instead of dismissing it out of hand. I think Crichton has put forward a valid criticism of the environmentalist movement in the speeches in his website (and NOT in "State of Fear" -- that was simply a bad book. It could prove GW is man made and would still be a sh***y book. Badly written, with a bad plot, and ridiculousy black-and-white characters. Ugh.)

The Factician said...

Hmmm... so you don't think that the thousands of scientists who have worked on this problem are stupid, just more susceptible to group-think than you and Michael Crichton (and because you've done a bit of computer-modelling). You'd be right to be skeptical of one person's model, but I think you may have some profound misunderstandings about how science is done.

First off, scientists don't just try to prove their pet ideas right. They try to prove their pet ideas *wrong*. In failing to do so, they strengthen that idea. If thousands of scientists fail to prove it wrong, it gains more currency in the field.

Secondly, the guy (or gal) who can show everyone else that they are wrong is going to be a rockstar in science. (Not the guy who *says* that everyone else is wrong - the guy who *proves* it). Talk is cheap, data is currency.

If you find that a whole field is in consensus about something, it's not because of group-think. Scientist's *love* to be the outsider, to be the guy that thinks that everybody else is an idiot. They come to consensus very slowly. If you find that a whole group of scientists are in consensus about an issue, it's almost always because they're right.

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right that scientists *should* try to prove their pet ideas wrong -- when you develop a complex model you usually try to account for (and present to the readers) all the caveats that *could* throw off your results. I have done quite more than "a bit" of modelling, after all...

But it doesn't seem to me that climate scientists are doing this, or being very cautious, when they present apocalyptic doomsday scenarios.

I believe there are credible dissenters among the climate scientists, and my fear is that the proverbial "guy (or gal) who can show everyone else that they are wrong" could be silenced by the over-politization of the matter.

It surely seems that anyone who doesn't agree with man-made GW (and there are a few respected scientists who don't agree with it -- it's not just me and Michael Crichton :)) is being treated like an heretic.

But, again: I admit I could be wrong -- I'm *really* looking forward to seeing how all this will work out in the next decades.

BTW, I came across your blog through the Skeptic's Circle and it's been a fascinating read. There is a lot we agree on, and I applaud your work in keeping the blog. Keep up the good work!

psikeyhackr said...

How do SMART people not talk about obvious things?

It's 38 years after the moon landing. How do scientists not talk about planned obsolescence of automobiles?

It's SIX YEARS since 9/11. How do engineers not talk about how many tons of steel wer on the impact levels?

psik