Why do irrational beliefs mimic science?

Creationism debateI have recently co-published a paper, together with my collaborators Stefaan Blancke and Maarten Boudry, entitled “Why Do Irrational Beliefs Mimic Science? The Cultural Evolution of Pseudoscience,” that I think readers of this blog will find interesting.

In the paper, we develop and extend an epidemiological framework to map the factors that explain the form and the popularity of irrational beliefs in scientific garb. These factors include the exploitation of epistemic vigilance, the misunderstanding of the authority of science, the use of the honorific title of ““science” as an explicit argument for belief, and the phenomenon of epistemic negligence. We conclude by integrating the various factors in an epidemiological framework and thus provide a comprehensive cultural evolutionary account of science mimicry.

Faking and imitating science, exploiting its cultural and epistemic authority, evidently constitutes a profitable strategy. People are somehow duped into believing that pseudoscience constitutes the real thing, or provides a worthy alternative to actual science. But why are people so easily misled?

In previous papers, we have explained the popularity, persistence and typical features of weird beliefs in terms of cognitive and cultural evolutionary processes in which ideas and beliefs adapt to particular susceptibilities of the human mind and to withstand falsification and criticism (see, for instance, here). In the new paper, we investigate why some of these beliefs or belief systems, such as creationism, homeopathy and astrology, assume the cloak of science or pretend to be on equal footing with science.

The first concept we zoom in is that of “epistemic vigilance.” In a landmark paper published in 2010, Sperber and colleagues have explored a human capacity for what they call epistemic vigilance. They argue that such vigilance can be targeted both at the person who is communicating (the source), and the information itself (the content). As to the source, one can rely on two criteria, honesty and competence. The first criterion deals with the intentions of the informant, the second with whether he or she is capable of providing correct information. An informant can be dishonest or incompetent, both, or neither, but only in the last scenario should we trust him. Hence, it is important that we can detect and identify reliable sources, as the opposite of epistemic vigilance is not trust, but blind trust.

If we apply these considerations in the context of expertise, we see that human cognition is clearly equipped with the mechanisms to discriminate, at least in principle, between genuine and false experts. We have the ability to check — within limits — whether an expert is reliable, and whether the information he or she provides is consistent and coherent with our background beliefs.

However, in the case of science and pseudoscience, things tend to be a bit more complicated. Scientific beliefs are often too difficult to comprehend for lay people, which makes content evaluation impossible. This leads people to accept, or reject, scientific concepts mainly on the basis of trust. Now, deferring to experts is not necessarily a bad thing, and indeed, it would be impossible to navigate everyday life without such trust (e.g., think of mundane actions like going to a dentist, or to a car mechanic). Even without the possibility of content evaluation, one can be epistemically vigilant (e.g., checking the credentials of said dentist or car mechanic). One just needs to discriminate between real and false experts, and this latter issue is the target of the next section our paper.

In 2001, Goldman has argued that, even though novices or lay people do not have epistemic access to a particular domain of knowledge, they can rely on five sources of evidence to find out which experts they can trust.

Firstly, one can check the arguments that experts bring to the discussion. Lay people may not be able to grasp the arguments directly, but they can check for what Goldman calls “dialectical superiority.” This does not simply mean that one looks for the best debater — although debating skills can certainly add to the impression that one is an expert — but that one keeps track of the extent to which an alleged expert is capable of debunking or rebutting the opponent’s claims.

Secondly, a novice can check whether and to what extent other experts in that field support a given (alleged) expert’s propositions. It will be more reasonable to follow an expert’s opinion if it is in line with the consensus.

Thirdly, lay people can distinguish between experts on the basis of meta expertise, in the form of credentials such as diplomas and work experience. For example, an expert with a PhD in a relevant field can in general be considered to be more reliable — ceteris paribus — than an amateur.

Fourthly, a novice can check for biases and interests that affect an expert’s judgement. If an expert has a stake in defending a particular position, it will raise the suspicion that he is not interested in providing correct information, which will undermine his credibility. Of course, nobody can be free of biases, which also counts for scientists. Hence the question is not whether there is bias (there always is), but how much, where it comes from, and how one can become aware of and correct it.

Fifthly, a novice can assess an expert’s past track record. The more an expert has been right in the past, the more he has demonstrated that he has indeed access to some expert domain. As such, he will probably be right again in the future.

These five sources of evidence can help novices to tell genuine from false experts, even if they do not understand the substance of the arguments. The problem, of course, is that purveyors of pseudoscience put considerable effort in mimicking each of these tell-tale signs. Take so-called “scientific” creationism, for instance. For decades, creationists of all stripes have been inviting evolutionary biologists to take part in public debates. In the 1930s, creationist Harry Rimmer seized on every occasion to engage scientists in public debates for large crowds and humiliate them. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, young-earth creationist Duane Gish built himself a reputation out of debating evolutionary scientists (including yours truly, five times).

The creationist strategy has clearly paid off. In a debate setting, a creationist with good rhetorical skills can demonstrate his “dialectical superiority” over less prepared scientists (who tend to underestimate their creationist opponents). Creationists also make a habit of pointing out that many scientists support their cause, and they boast their academic titles and credentials, even if these do not apply to the field they pretend to be experts on (as is very frequently the case). Moreover, creationists often publicly accuse evolutionary scientists of having a hidden political agenda, while they present themselves as unbiased seekers of truth (even though, of course, they are anything but). And, finally, creationists boast of having excellent explanations for biological phenomena. In sum, pseudoscientists give novices a hard time in identifying genuine experts.

The central section of our paper attempts to answer in more detail the question of why pseudoscience is still around, despite a number of cognitive mechanisms available to human beings to spot bullshit, so to speak. I will not attempt to summarize it here (feel free to download the full paper, linked above, if you are interested), but will only mention that there we cover the following topics: error-prone mechanisms and heuristics, exploitation of epistemic vigilance, conceiving of science as an argument, the phenomenon of epistemic negligence, and the existence of what we call “stabilizing factors” (such as confirmation bias and anti-expertise attitudes).

Given all the above, why is cultural mimicry of science so successful? Irrational beliefs become more relevant by dressing up as science, in the sense that they are more likely to grab people’s attention, to be remembered and cognitively processed, and to be disseminated. In the paper we identify and discuss several factors that we think affect the relevance of pseudoscience. Here is a summary of the specific contribution of each factor in this process of cultural mimicry, within the larger framework of cultural epidemiology.

The reason why pseudoscience exists is not that people are stupid or ready to believe anything that they are told. In fact, humans have a suite of mental mechanisms that enable them to filter the information that they receive from others. They can assess the quality of the source by checking competence and honesty, and the quality of the content by checking for consistency and coherence. But in the case of science, things become a bit more complicated. Because people tend to be epistemically vigilant, and critical about sources of information, irrational beliefs need to pretend to originate from a source that people tend to deem trustworthy, i.e., science. However, people do not fully understand or appreciate the epistemic authority of science. They either ascribe authority to science on the basis of its effects or simply because of its reputation. The resulting confusion makes it easier for irrational beliefs to mimic science. In sum, the mechanisms of epistemic vigilance, an environment in which science is regarded as an epistemic authority, and a public who lacks an understanding of that authority, together constitute sufficient conditions for pseudoscience to emerge.

This deception, we show in the paper, largely occurs by persuasion. Purveyors of pseudoscience explicitly use scientific publications, language and typical features such as graphs and formulas, to convince people that they are dealing with genuinely scientific and thus reliable information. Reason-based choice explains why people tend to prefer irrational beliefs that mimic science to non-mimicking ones, because the former provides them with at least one additional argument, i.e., an extra reason for belief.

The relevance, and ensuing pervasiveness, of pseudoscientific beliefs, however, is not only a matter of argumentation, but also of motivation. People are not interested in impartial truth, but in finding and supporting beliefs that make intuitive sense. This lack of concern for truth becomes exacerbated by “epistemic negligence”: people do not invest time and energy in understanding and sustaining highly counterintuitive scientific concepts that are practically useless. The resulting shaky notions of scientific concepts come closer to pseudoscience than science, so that any difference between the two starts to blur. Consequently, psychological factors such as confirmation bias and anti-expertise allow pseudoscientific beliefs to stabilize.

To summarize, pseudoscientific concepts are pervasive: (1) because posing as science works as a tool of persuasion, and (2) because people lack the motivation to correct their intuitive beliefs, but instead seek to confirm them and, simultaneously, distrust genuine scientific expertise.

At the level of individual chains of communication, a complex picture emerges. In chains of transmission, each of the factors discussed above can be present to varying degrees. Several factors, or perhaps even all of them, might be involved at the same time. For instance, purveyors of pseudoscience try to persuade their audience by using science as an argument, while members of the audience readily accept pseudoscientific claims because these tend to corroborate their intuitive, pre-scientific beliefs. Zooming out, however, chains of transmission that might differ depending on the factors involved, when instantiated a sufficiently large number of times, will have the effect of making irrational beliefs converge around particular cultural attractors, namely irrational beliefs that mimic science. As such, the various factors that affect the micro-level processes in which pseudoscientific beliefs become relevant, result in a relatively stable cultural evolutionary process through which irrational beliefs turn into pseudoscience.

107 thoughts on “Why do irrational beliefs mimic science?

  1. Robin Herbert

    It’s simply not true that physicists would automatically dismiss an outsider (though they are pretty good at spotting and dismissing nonsense — they get a lot of practice!).

    Within their own field maybe. Outside it, probably no better on average than the rest of us, as I have given examples of before.

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  2. Coel

    Within their own field maybe. Outside it, probably no better on average than the rest of us, as I have given examples of before.

    My comment was indeed intended to be about their own field (but note that your “examples” could just be your opinion, rather than actually the case).

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  3. Robin Herbert

    I like that “examples” in scare quotes.

    No, they are not “examples”, they are actual examples of prominent physicists (as well as some from other fields) getting things completely wrong when they could easily have checked.

    And they are cases where even someone like me, with a fairly minimal knowledge of the subject area, could see that they were dubious even before I checked.

    And I did check.

    Just one example is of Hawking and Mlodinov claiming in “The Grand Design” that Aristotle thought that things became faster because they grew more ‘jubilant’ as they reached their natural home
    .

    “To explain the fact that objects clearly pick up speed as they fall, he [Aristotle] invented a new principle — that bodies proceed more jubilantly, and hence accelrate, when they come closer to their natural place of rest, a principle that today seems a more apt description of certain people than of inanimate objects.”

    Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinov “The Grand Design”

    Now even though this is not the sort of thing that Aristotle says, I cannot actually prove he did not say it and maybe someone can prove me wrong by showing me where he did say it.

    But I also pointed out that B F Skinner made this same claim about Aristotle and quoted what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy said about that:

    Indeed, it is evident that whatever the merits of the most penetrating of such criticisms, much of the contumely directed at Aristotle is stunningly illiterate.[20] To take but one of any number of mind-numbing examples, the famous American psychologist B. F. Skinner reveals that ‘Aristotle argued that a falling body accelerated because it grew more jubilant as it found itself nearer its home’ (1971, 6). To anyone who has actually read Aristotle, it is unsurprising that this ascription comes without an accompanying textual citation. For Aristotle, as Skinner would portray him, rocks are conscious beings having end states which they so delight in procuring that they accelerate themselves in exaltation as they grow ever closer to attaining them.

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/

    Do you really think that this “example” is just my “opinion”?

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  4. brodix

    What if that rock started falling from above the atmosphere, with only a slight gravitational effect.
    Wouldn’t it accelerate?

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  5. Massimo Post author

    Brodix,

    Somehow you always “try” to steer away from your pet theories, and yet somehow keep failing abysmally. Perhaps you should try a little harder?

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  6. Coel

    Robin,
    In the current context I am distinguishing between “nonsense” and “wrong”. The statement “Miami is North of Seattle” is wrong but it not nonsense. Thus you have not given examples relevant to my claim.

    As for whether your example is correct or not, I have no idea, never having read much about ancient Greeks. Intellectual life has made 2000 years of progress since then! But I note how often you trot out that example, however irrelevant to the thread, in an attempt to feel superior.

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  7. brodix

    Massimo,

    I got around to using one of my pet theories as an example to distinguish between the sort of pseudo science you mention, where it is larger social movements competing for authority, versus those of us on the fringes bringing up new ways of looking at things, not defending older ones.
    If you chose to consider the block time aspect of spacetime as beyond debate and it is your forum, I accede.

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  8. danielgfitch

    Massimo – I would love to read the paper, but the dropbox link is a 404. Could you make it available to use non-academia plebes in some fashion? Thank you!

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  9. Massimo Post author

    Daniel,

    Apologies, I had uploaded a new version of the paper (the actual printed one, rather than the pre-print) and forgot to update the link. It is fixed now.

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  10. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    In the current context I am distinguishing between “nonsense” and “wrong”. The statement “Miami is North of Seattle” is wrong but it not nonsense. Thus you have not given examples relevant to my claim.

    The statement “Miami is on the Moon” is nonsense. If I had said that Einstein believed that God made the Moon especially for him, then it would be nonsense rather than just wrong. The Mlodinov/Hawking claim is of that order of nonsense and so it is of course relevant. It is nonsense because it gives people a completely misleading idea of the sort of things Aristotle wrote

    As for whether your example is correct or not, I have no idea, never having read much about ancient Greeks.

    It only takes a little critical thinking.

    Intellectual life has made 2000 years of progress since then!

    You would think so, wouldn’t you? But here we are.

    Also, I am not sure why you are claiming this is irrelevant, you saw fit to put scare quotes around “examples” to imply that they were not really examples. I am entitled to defend myself. And it is absolutely relevant to point out that the tendency to believe things that we want to believe without evidence is present in all of us, including the most expert physicists.

    …in an attempt to feel superior.

    And I notice how often you trot out this insult. Are you trying to discredit me on some grounds other than the evidence? Even if I was saying it to feel superior, it would not make even a whit of difference to the facts of the matter

    But how exactly is the fact that I have very little knowledge in a particular area, but it happens to be more knowledge than certain physicists have in that area, supposed to make me superior? Superior to whom? Does the fact that you know more about a particular thing than someone else make you feel superior to that person? If not, then on what basis do you attribute this to me?

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  11. Robin Herbert

    My own soft spot for believing things because I want to believe them is in politics. I regularly fall for stories like Quayle addressing some astronauts as “my fellow astronauts”, or George W Bush serving up plastic turkey to the troops, or Trump saying that if he ever ran for office he would run as a Republican because Republican voters would believe anything, or Trump having mocked the disabilities of a reporter.

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  12. Coel

    Robin,

    It is nonsense because it gives people a completely misleading idea of the sort of things Aristotle wrote

    As I said, in the comment that I made I was distinguishing between something that is “nonsense” and something that is wrong.

    Oxford English Dictionary: “Nonsense”: “Spoken or written words that have no meaning or make no sense”. Your sentence: “Miami is on the Moon” is not nonsense, it is wrong. “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” is nonsense. Yes I do know that there is a secondary use of “nonsense” for “badly wrong”, but, as I said, that is not the meaning I was using in my comment.

    Thus the examples you gave are irrelevant to anything I said. But feel free to look for a 17th, 18th and 19th opportunity to feel superior by showing of your superior knowledge of what Aristotle said [as I said, I’m staying out of that since I’ve never read Aristotle].

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  13. Robin Herbert

    ….to feel superior …

    I asked you to back up your insult or explain it, not just repeat it.

    I’m staying out of that since I’ve never read Aristotle

    Well you are not staying out of it. You are continuing to insult me over the matter and thus avoiding the substance.

    I am interested in whether the others feel that there is any doubt here that Hawking/Mlodinov’s statement is simply wrong. It does not seem to me that there is any room for doubt.

    And is it really not important that we get the facts of history right, so far as we are able to do this? Is it really OK to rewrite history to suit modern opinions, even if the person is unaware they are doing it?

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  14. marc levesque

    Robin,

    “I am interested in whether the others feel that there is any doubt here that Hawking/Mlodinov’s statement is simply wrong”

    Having zero previous knowledge of this and I feel reasonably sure that the Hawkin/Mlodinov’s statement is simply wrong, and mainly because the Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy mentions that B.F. Skinner said similar things and they find it “stunningly illiterate”.

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  15. brodix

    It’s interesting the second order logic permitted in this discussion, say between the authority of physics, versus the authority of philosophy, but apparently the first order logic of some of the propositions put forth by physics are out of bounds.
    I fully agree with Coel and Massimo that I’m an illiterate nincompoop, but is that argument from authority incontrovertible proof everything I say is wrong? The fact is that various of the points I raise are quite simple, because I am quite simple, so they should be easy to refute, but I only get told they are nonsense. Is it really nonsense to point out that, “tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns,” as evidence of time as effect, rather than fundamental. Is anyone able to deduce some logic in the statement?
    Apparently physicists are wrong to insult philosophy, but the field of physics is otherwise infallible. No wonder they have a superiority complex. It takes more than just ego, one needs subservience from others as well.

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  16. Robin Herbert

    Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

    Oh yes, those unimaginative naive ideas that, even when they remain out of discourse for a period, seem to be almost seething, waiting to jump up and derail discussions. The zombie argument, for example.

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  17. Robin Herbert

    Hi michael

    “Here is a perfect case in point”

    Yes. The DI not only do a superficially pretty good impersonation of science but they somehow manage to imply that mainstream biologists are the ones doing pseudo science.

    The premise is absurd if you say it straight out, that the millions of biologists, intelligent people who spend their lives doing this and have no noticeable motive for anything but getting at the truth and who agree on broad points but disagree on many details, are the pseudo scientists, but this little think tank with a great big motive for coming to a particular conclusion and next to no scientific resources and who all say the same thing are the scientists who see things that the great majority have somehow missed, or ignored.

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  18. Robin Herbert

    In the case of the DI, only the second and fourth of Goldman’s tests are relevant. If two biologists are talking some detail about whether a particular gene is a copying error or whether it has some function, that I could tell who was right or wrong. The DI people seem to be both quick and smooth with counter arguments and so on “dialectical superiority” they would often come out on top. And they all have real qualifications.

    If they were arguing with someone who has an interest in spreading atheism then they might come out equally on the fourth criterion.

    But on the criterion of how many other experts support their position, they are utterly lost.

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  19. Alan White

    Given Aristotle’s reliance on final cause/teleological explanations for vertical motions of the four elements, I can see how someone might extrapolate to explaining accelerations in like terms of “jubilance”. But (and I’m no Aristotle expert, but had classes from Shelly Cohen at Tennessee, who was) I can think of no context where The Philosopher explicitly worried about such things. The relevant texts I’ve seen–some of which I had to translate from Attic for my comps–only concern something like deceleration to account for efficient-cause dilution for horizontal-component motions–an arrow shot or a ball rolled across the earth. There the famous efficient cause “air-push” from abhorring a vacuum is the diminishing efficient cause across time, resulting in description something like deceleration (there is no Aristotelian account I know of about an arrow accelerating from the bow–it appears he thought it left the bow at some speed). But I know of no instance of the use of final causes to ascribe something like acceleration or deceleration to vertical motions, even if some neo-Aristotelian account could do so consistently with the idea of final causes. FWIW.

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  20. ejwinner

    Coel,
    This will be my last reply to you. It may upset Massimo, and he has a right to delete it, but I feel it must be said.

    Your admission that you have not read Aristotle. and that you have no interest in the culture of ancient Greece that produced him, effectively vacates any claim you have to understanding philosophy or Western culture.

    As a Pragmatist with some sympathy for certain of your arguments presented here or at Sci Sal, despite our occasionally tenacious disagreements, I confess a certain sorrow in saying that.

    You have basically demonstrated Robin Herbert’s point. You pretend to expertise in biology, genetics, philosophy, the historical developments of Western culture, that you clearly do not have.

    There are such fields as ”physics’ or ‘biology’ or ‘ethics’ or ‘metaphysics’ because Aristotle wrote texts on those subjects. And because Moslems preserved those texts. And because Aquinas argued for their importance.

    You just don’t get it. We are because history made us. And there is no evidence whatsoever that anything separates us intellectually from the thinkers who came before us beyond our technology and our interpretations of the implications raised by that technology.

    By admitting your unfamiliarity with Greek culture, and the history that developed out of it, you basically place yourself in the same category as Brodix or Philosopher Eric.

    I am sincerely disappointed in this admission of yours. I thought I was debating a fully formed intellect with occasionally apposite views (on such matters as ethics and aesthetics). Now I find someone whose education is simply incomplete.

    Go back to university; we’ll talk then.

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  21. Massimo Post author

    Brodix,

    “I fully agree with Coel and Massimo that I’m an illiterate nincompoop, but is that argument from authority incontrovertible proof everything I say is wrong?”

    No, it just means that it is overwhelmingly likely that what you say (about technical topics in physics) is wrong. And Coel has patiently explained a number of time to you why, exactly, you are wrong.

    Ej,

    I must say that I pretty much concur with your comment. Like you, I admire Coel for the breadth of his commentary and the challenge it poses to my own views, but when he enters a willfully ignorant (in the sense of lack of knowledge) mode that is, indeed, disappointing.

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  22. Coel

    Hi ejwinner,

    Your admission that you have not read Aristotle. and that you have no interest in the culture of ancient Greece that produced him, effectively vacates any claim you have to understanding philosophy or Western culture.

    Seriously, no-one who was not read Aristotle has any claim on understanding Western culture? That would be about 99.9% of people! [And by the way, I didn’t say that I had “no interest” in ancient Greek culture, just that it wasn’t a priority for me, and thus I had read little about it.]

    Your attitude reminds me of traditional English public schools, where an education revolved around “classics” and in particular the translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars into English, and nothing about maths or science or technology or anything far more relevant to the modern world.

    Yes, Western culture came out of Greek and Roman influences and lots of other things, but, no, you don’t have to be an expert in those to understand the West today.

    And I don’t claim to be well read in philosophy. There are lots of areas of philosophy about which I know little. But philosophy is a range of fairly disparate topics. What I do claim to know about is science, and, from that perspective, about the nature of science and thence about the real world. That “nature of science” topic then overlaps substantially with “philosophy of science”.

    And no, I don’t accept that in order to understand the nature of science, arriving at it from a scientific perspective, one needs to be grounded in Aristotle et al. Indeed, I’ll be so bold as to suggest that a thorough grounding in science is rather more useful for that end than a grounding in Aristotle and his fellow Greeks.

    Those coming from a philosophy perspective have a touch of arrogance that their perspective on matters — including an ongoing fascination with the Ancient Greeks — is necessarily the best perspective. Well, no-one has ever demonstrated that it is superior to the scientific perspective.

    So, after that lengthy lead in, I see nothing at all wrong with a straightforward statement that I have not read anything written by Aristotle, and so am staying out of any opinion as to what he said. There are lots of topics where I don’t know enough to have an opinion, and so stay out of them! What is wrong with that?

    To suggest that anyone ignorant of Aristotle’s writings is then disqualified from having any knowledge or opinion about anything else is as silly and arrogant as saying the same about anyone who can’t write down Schrodinger’s equation from memory.

    If I were to opine on Aristotle, having never read him, then I could be rightly faulted for that, but I am quite explicitly not opining on him! My comments about Robin/Aristotle/Mlodinov are purely about the number of times he steers the thread round to another mention of it!

    You pretend to expertise in biology, genetics, philosophy, the historical developments of Western culture, that you clearly do not have.

    OK, so how did you leap from lack of knowing about Aristotle to lack of knowing about biology and genetics?

    There are such fields as ”physics’ or ‘biology’ or ‘ethics’ or ‘metaphysics’ because Aristotle wrote texts on those subjects.

    No, not at all, fields such as “biology” and “physics” exist because they are important aspects of the world! If Aristotle had not written about them then others would have, and we’d likely be in much the same position today.

    It’s not like, say, “Shakespeare studies” where if Shakespeare had never lived then there would be no such field! Are you seriously suggesting that there would be no study of physics or ethics today were it not for Aristotle?

    In essence I guess this is a clash of perspectives, a science-based perspective versus a literature-based perspective. From my perspective what matters is not the specifics of what the Ancient Greeks (or anyone else) wrote, and the study of those particular texts — what matters is the study of the world. In literature, what matters is what Shakespeare or James Joyce wrote; but in science texts are a means to an end, not important in themselves.

    Physicists take the same approach to physics. Few physicists would read Newton today; we’d read much more modern accounts that have built on and gone far beyond Newton. This attitude works! Would you regard me as incompetent to opine on physics owing to never having read Newton?

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  23. davidlduffy

    “grew more jubilant as it found itself nearer its home”: I am guessing this might refer to what is often translated as the “passion” of an object that has been acted upon. “Non-violent” movement of objects towards a final resting place still represents action of an initial motivating force. This has imbued the object with a potential-cum-passion realised when they reach their final destination. I have a certain sympathy with Coel’s viewpoint that it is unnecessary to spend all our mental energy recapitulating all 2.5 millenia of errors eg viz impressa. There are numerous ancient and medieval critics of Aristotle’s physics who are just as useful to read if we wish to find anticipations of our modern understanding, and less cryptic or confused. Or we can read the modern psychological literature on folk physics and physics education where much of this stuff is recapitulated.

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  24. Robin Herbert

    The issue was that two physicist got some history badly wrong because they didn’t bother checking.

    I am not sure what the relevance is that Coel is not particularly interested in the history that they mangled.

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  25. Massimo Post author

    Right, I don’t subscribe to the grand view that one cannot understand science if one doesn’t get Aristotle and the Greeks — though I do subscribe to the more modest idea that one’s culture is deficient if one doesn’t understand Aristotle and the Greeks.

    But Coel, as he often does, steers the discussion toward areas where he can better defend himself, or from which he can make his opponent look foolish, rather than address the actual point under discussion: yet another example of ignorant physicists who nonetheless feel entitled to pontificate just because, you know, they are physicists.

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  26. Coel

    So after my remark:

    “But feel free to look for a 17th, 18th and 19th opportunity to feel superior by showing of your superior knowledge of what Aristotle said [as I said, I’m staying out of that since I’ve never read Aristotle].”

    Robin has found his 17th and 18th opportunities, insisting on what “the issue” is, saying:

    “The issue was that two physicist got some history badly wrong because they didn’t bother checking.”

    … even though no-one else had made that an issue. But no doubt there will be 19th, 20th and 21st opportunities to make that the issue! 🙂

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