Finished The Third Culture [7/01/2009]

I had very mixed feelings about this book. The concept of short essays by scientists is great, and I definitely plan to read more of the collections. This one is quite outdated having been written in 1995, as a lot of the issues on the forefront of science have changed significantly since then. It was nevertheless interesting and thought-provoking.

In some cases, I wished there was more meat to the arguments and less pretty floweriness. Not having read their research papers, and with little background especially in the physics sections, I had a lot of difficulty judging what was reasonable and what wasn't. Depending on my mood at the time cynical/argumentative, or relaxed/happy I found myself much more or less receptive to the ideas presented. I often found myself switching between thinking, "He might really be on to something here." and "This is complete and total BS."

This got me thinking about a general but important problem, how are the laypeople supposed to recognize the true masters among the quacks? The language used to describe the theories is often very philosophical and obscure, and it changes dramatically between people. Almost everyone seems to invent their own strange terms. Unfortunately, it seems this makes it easy for charlatans or sub-par theorists to slip into the mix. If we flock around these esteemed professors as if they were preachers, following them based only on what appeals to our personal aesthetic, we are probably missing out on something big. They can't all be right, right?

The conversational tone of the essays made them easy to read. I was quite surprised though, by the amount of emotion and personality that came through. At times, the defensiveness and/or overconfidence was a bit much for me. I am encouraged though to try to branch out and read more popular science books, even if it is frustrating in parts.

Here are the scientists included in this first book:

George C. Williams

Stephen Jay Gould
Richard Dawkins
Brian Goodwin
Steve Jones
Niles Eldredge
Lynn Margulis
Marvin Minsky
Roger Schank
Daniel C Dennett
Nicholas Humphrey
Francisco Varela
Steven Pinker
Roger Penrose
Martin Rees
Alan Guth
Lee Smolin
Paul Davies
Murray Gell-Mann
Stuart Kauffman
Christopher G. Langton
J. Doyne Farmer
W. Daniel Hillis


Oran said...

"This got me thinking about a general but important problem, how are the laypeople supposed to recognize the true masters among the quacks?"

I think the correct answer is to ask yourself "what would Daniel Dennett think?" The only problem then is that Dennett is one of the more difficult people to understand, leading us to what you might call an Incompleteness Theorem of Popular Epistemology.