Review: What Does a Martian Look Like? by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart

what-does-a-martian-look-likeCreatures… that are born pregnant; with twenty different sexes; that eat their own children; that can survive without water for a quarter of a billion years. Absurd? not at all?

These are creatures alive on planet Earth. And they show us just how different alien life could be from anything we know.

What does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life (also known in other editions as Evolving the Alien) sets out to do something seemingly impossible: to scientifically describe something we have never seen. The question it asks is what we can know about extraterrestrial life. Of course, we have never found any of that. And yet, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart also argue against imagining it will be just like life on Earth. Continue reading

Review: Biocentrism by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman


Wait, quoting Deepak Chopra? Who exactly is this being marketed to?

Biocentrism purports to outline a new scientific hypothesis strongly suggested by both the results and the blind alleys of current science. According to this theory, life and consciousness must be understood as not being merely emergent phenomena in a universe built of physics, but something fundamental that the physical universe depends on. The main arguments combine metaphysical idealism from philosophy and an interpretation of the “observer effect” in quantum mechanics to conclude that physical things do not exist (or do not exist in a definite state) other than when they’re observed. There are also other conclusions like the unreality of time and space at the fundamental level.

Apparently Robert Lanza is supposed to be some kind of a new superstar in science — someone such that if anyone was going to revolutionise things, it would be someone like him — and Berman also a notable scientist. Nevertheless, their presentation here gives little reason to be convinced.

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Review: How to Think Straight about Psychology by Keith Stanovich

How to Think Straight about Psychology is an introductory textbook for psychology students — but it’s also a great introduction to what I might call practical philosophy of science.

A lot of philosophy of science, when it’s under that label, is about things like “Can science be true if it’s socially constructed?” or “How can we prove induction works when we can’t use induction to do it?” I’ve heard it’s largely uninteresting to actual scientists. But there’s something else, too, something I’ve mainly come across in The Skeptic’s Dictionary — and psychology courses at our university, where this book (tenth international edition) is currently required reading. It’s about how science really works, the things you need to understand as a scientist. It’s also about why you need science instead of something else.

How to Think Straight about Psychology is an excellent introduction to these questions, as well as dispelling misconceptions about psychology specifically. It tells, among other things, how the public misunderstands psychology because they think of Freud and science because they think of Einstein. It goes through the basic methods of science in general and how these apply in psychology, and it keeps things colourful by using examples such as the Amazing Randi, Clever Hans the Wonder Horse who was thought to be mathematically able but was actually more of a mind reader, and of course that one guy who proved that a disease was not spread by feces by eating them. Still, these are just flavour, not arguments; everything here is scientifically based, and this is one of the rare places where it’s also made very clear why this matters. Pseudoscience is also discussed and it is shown just why it is so “pseudo-“. And why it is not harmless, either.

While much of the book is a kind of apology for psychology, there is towards the end a small but candid section about when — quite often — psychology itself is unscientific.

I recommend this book for anyone, even if not interested in psychology specifically, wanting to know the “secret” behind the success of science. It illustrates well the point I wrote recently about, that science is largely based on being really suspicious about every putative belief. If only more people understood these things, there would be a lot less nonsense around.

I’m also writing another post as it were in response to something said in this book, about essentialism in science and philosophy.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: The Folklore of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson

Folklore of Discworld 2009When I was getting to know the brilliant Discworld series of comic yet profound fantasy, I soon noticed the books were crammed full of clever things I often missed on the first go. A lot of these were references to things I’d never even heard about. Finding out what they were, say by reading the Annotated Pratchett File, taught me all kinds of random things.

This book was written by Discworld author Terry Pratchett together with folklorist Jacqueline Simpson, whom he met at a book signing when asking people what they knew about the Magpie Rhyme — another thing I’ve only heard in a Discworld book, Carpe Jugulum. It goes through numerous elements in the novels and their connection to folklore. It’s a big list of things, from many mythological creatures through old violent football customs through landmarks through obscure languages to the origin of Santa Claus, and much more. Continue reading

Review: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman

Consider the woven integrated complexity of a living cell after 3.8 billion years of evolution. Is it more awesome to suppose that a transcendent God fashioned the cell at a stroke, or to realize the truth: the living cell evolved with no Creator, no Almighty Hand, but arose on its own, created by the evolving biosphere? The truth is much more magnificent, much more worthy of awe and wonder, than our ancient creation myths.

Reinventing the Sacred proposes a new understanding of a natural divinity based on an emerging, scientifically based world view. Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman does not propose somehow to insert “god” into a cold, lifeless universe. Instead he argues that the qualities of divinity that we hold sacred — creativity, meaning, purposeful action — are in fact properties of the universe that can be investigated scientifically. (…)

-From the cover blurb

Reinventing the Sacred coverLast week, I reviewed Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos and criticised it for answering the human world/physical universe problem in a way that effectively rejected current science. Fittingly enough, this review features one of the books I think successfully integrates science with humanity, even spirituality.

Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion actually has much more scientific content than one would expect from its descriptions. Certainly, it offers a view of how we could see sacredness as a property of the evolving universe rather than a god outside of it. Continue reading

Review: Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel

Mind and CosmosThomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is subtitled “Why the Materialistic Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False,” so obviously it’s moving in controversial territory. Unsurprisingly, it has been hotly rejected by the orthodox (though not that hotly), and praised by theistic creationists even though it entirely denies creationism and theism. Nagel thinks that Darwinian explanations of evolution cannot explain the emergence of things like consciousness and that a different kind of explanation will be needed.

I’m not crazy about this book myself, but it has some good points, and I have some respect for Nagel himself. I will review it as objectively as I can and in some detail.

It should be made clear that Nagel does not actually question the fact of evolution, merely the explanation that it has been guided by natural selection. For some reason or other, Nagel is not convinced by the power of natural selection to do this. He doesn’t really say why — it’s pretty much just an argument from incredulity. The first chapter does contain enough references to sources I hadn’t read that are supposed to support his views that it left me thinking maybe there’s something there worth looking into, but that something wasn’t given here. Mind you, the only author referenced whom I had really read was Stuart Kauffman, who surely would not support Nagel’s stance. Kauffman thinks self-organisation in addition to natural selection has had a role in evolution, but his self-organisation is something you get free as a surprising result of the known laws, not something you need to add like Nagel supposes. So Kauffman’s view mainly implies everything could have evolved more easily than Darwinism supposes — not less easily. Nagel’s stance that creationist arguments against evolution have brought out good points doesn’t really inspire confidence either, considering what I know of them. Continue reading

Review: Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows

Cover of the book Thinking in Systems.I have been studying complexity theory a lot recently (as part of my own research) and read dozens of books about it and all kinds of vaguely related subjects. As such, there wasn’t much in this book that was completely new to me. In spite of this, Thinking in Systems felt like an eye-opener that brought many things together very neatly. It also put some things I’ve known for an even longer time — from reading about sociology, say — into a neat general framework. So many things are systems that operate under their own laws, but we may imagine them to be much simpler to change than that, or to be directly based on individual choices in case of social systems. So this book perfectly plausibly brings thermostats and social inequalities under the same general framework. Continue reading