Friday, September 14, 2007

reactions to Zach Shatz's "intuitive science"

A reader writes in regarding the interview I had done with Zach Shatz last week:

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for posting that interview, and in particular, thanks for your spirited opposition.

I agree that there are insightful generalizations to be made from QM - specifically, I think that the imposition of categories on the external world by minds can be fruitfully compared to our making a choice of what sort of analysis to perform on a particle's eigenfunction, which is what determines the attribute that one is measuring (I think this is the sort of thing Hilary Putnam is getting at in his notion of the "conceptual relativity of truth"). But my initial impression of this fellow Shatz is that he is a vain and pompous twit.

(I also do not enjoy his glib dismissal of the American experiment as a colossal failure [if he arrives at similar conclusions about China, he will do well to keep them to himself!], but he is entitled to his opinion, of course, and to his credit, at least he had the decency to leave.)

The objections you made were precisely those that I would have made had I been there myself. In response, he offers remarks like "If you don't see a paradox, let's keep moving," which put me in mind of a used-car salesman in a plaid sportcoat:

"What's that noise coming from the transmission?"
"Hey, check out the radio on this beauty!"

Reading on:

And in the end, yes, color mixing does have a resolution, just as do the particle and wave, the magnetic and electrical. But this resolution requires both rational and intuitive formal components.

What twaddle. "Rational and intuitive formal components." Good Lord.

The resolution of wave and particle has an elegant mathematical description; its careful elucidation is one of the highest products, to date, of human reason. The fact that the behavior of the quantum-mechanical world is not representable in the macroscopic terms and models that we are accustomed to dealing in is simply due to the fact that our cognitive apparatus, in particular our spatial and causative modeling, is the product of an evolutionary history that didn't require us to manipulate quarks and gluons in order to eat and breed.

Am I denying that intuition is an essential human talent? Of course not. What bothers me is [Shatz's] blithe indifference to rigor, the easy dismissal of a unified underlying truth (all the while, of course, expecting us to imagine that his own claims are unparadoxically true), the New-Agey appropriation of esoteric scientific ideas at their most superficial level, the allegation of enthusiastic support by "world-class scientists" who then, conveniently, won't "get on board" because their shallow interest in worldly careers trump, presumably, their pursuit of truth (which is just about the worst insult you could make to a good scientist).

Finally, when you ask him to present his opaque and impenetrable mumbo-jumbo in a way that might actually be amenable to analysis (and therefore refutation), he makes the all-time classic dodge:

This is a huge question that I must sadly answer by saying a lengthier explication will not serve the purpose. When you integrate such broad categories as physics, psychology and theology, this encompasses quite a scope. To unpack would require a huge work of many volumes that wouldn't be accessible to most readers.

Oh, I get it. Your ideas are simply too deep for us to understand, so we should just take your word for it, or figure out how to make sense of it on our own. We'll pass. Thanks for nothing.

What a huckster. The world may run out of petroleum one of these days, but as always, snake oil appears to be available in infinite supply. Thanks for exposing this mountebank.

My readers aren't aware that I ended up telling Shatz to fuck off the very next day after I had posted the interview. The above reader's email arrived before I had blown my stack at Shatz, but it reflected the negative impression I had been forming of the man over the past few months. I plan to post a rather telling behind-the-scenes email exchange between Shatz and myself in its entirety. I also have further comments about Zach's metaphysical insights, but they probably won't be as morbidly interesting as that email exchange. God help me, I tried to be as polite as I could for as long as I could, but eventually I had to say something about Shatz's behavior. You can judge for yourself who the greater asshole was when the exchange is made public on Saturday.

Another person wrote in to me separately, making remarks very similar to those in the above email; neither emailer knew the other had written me. Coincidence, or simply the sign of rigorous thinking?


1 comment:

Unknown said...

In case you're interested in further woo busting, may I recommend Dr. Been Goldacre's site. Classic stuff!