Monty Python it is not

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As the verdict in the Dover Trial is about to be handed down, I would like to revisit a parody article at the Discovery Institute (DI) that was inspired, in part, by this trial. Once again, the DI shows a surprising amount of hamfistedness and cluelessness while trying to be funny. In an attempt to cast the ID movement in the role of Newton in the evolution wars, David Berlinski tries to make Newton a downtrodden genius ridiculed by the establishment. Once again, the truth is very different. Now, Berlinski's article is meant to be parody, but good (heck, even mediocre) parody is rooted in reality. This latest effort from the DI is so far removed from reality that even people with the vaguest notion of history will find it bizarre. Not bizarre funny, as a Monty Python fan I'm right alongside bizarre funny, but bizarre strange. The strangest thing is that the author, David Berlinski, has actually written on the history of science, and should know better.
Copernicus Stages A Comeback

By: David Berlinski
Discovery Institute
September 27, 2005
Special to the London Gazette

More than sixty years after the famous Galileo "The Earth it Moves" trial in Rome, Copernicus is in the news again, this time in the form of a so-called theory of universal gravitation (or UG, as it has come to be known).
Copernicus wasn't in the news. "Copernicanism", that is, a heliocentric solar system with _circular_ orbits, was long dead. Keplerianism, with elliptical orbits and Kepler's three laws of motion as its centre piece, was at the focus. The issue was could one derive a theoretical justification for Kepler's empirically derived laws.

Headquartered at the Royal Society, a think tank in London funded by well-heeled royalist donors,

The Royal Society was anything but a think tank. It was the first truly scientific society, and the model for national scientific societies to come. It was the first society dedicated to experimental science, and it's motto "Nullius in Verba" means literally "On the words of no one" reflected their aim to establishing the truth of scientific matters through experiment rather than via citation of authority.

With their dedication to public experimental demonstration, open, vigorous debate and publication, they were the very antithesis of the DI and the ID movement.

members of the universal gravitation movement argue that the facts of astronomy are so complicated that they require the introduction of a mysterious "universal force of gravitation".

Nothing of the sort occurred. There was no argument that the Universe was too complicated, what was happening was the unification of the empirically derived laws of planetary motion and empirically derived laws of motion on earth into a theoretical explanatory framework, which was started by finding a theoretical basis for Kepler's laws of planetary motion. Kepler's laws were simple, but empirical: no one knew why they worked and they wanted a deeper understanding of these simple laws.

Unlike the DI and the ID movement, who just say, it's all too complex, and introduce an unidentified intelligent agent about whom they can give us no information.

But when queried, members decline to specify the author of this force, saying only (according to a public spokesman) that "In this, we are agnostic".

There was no "author" of this force, the question was what was the nature of gravity. The then current explanation for gravity and planetary motion was the vortex theory proposed by Descartes, which involved interaction of vortex in the ether that filled the space between the planets. In contrast, Newton's gravity, although mathematically rigorous, had no mechanism, and Newton refused to speculate on a mechanism in the absence of data.

"I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction. " Newton, Pricipia Mathematica, 1687

Unlike the ID creationists, Newton had a solidly grounded mathematical theory which explained existing phenomenon, unified a variety of disparate phenomenon and made testable predictions. Whereas the ID creationists only assert that biology is so complex that it must have been designed.

Unlike the old breed of Copernicists,

Copernicus studied at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, then studied law and medicine at the renowned universities of Bologna and Padua. Galileo was Professor of Mathematics at the prestigious University of Padua, having studied at Pisa. Kepler graduated from the well known University of  Tübingen and was a professor of mathematics at the University of Graz. Galileo could be reasonably claimed as one of the founders of the modern experimental method, and Newton his heir.

The ID creationists on the other hand have never come up with an experiment that would support their claims.

universal gravitation theorists sport established degrees from well-known universities

Just like the Copernicans.

and claim to be doing cutting edge science.

As with Galileo and Kepler, they were dedicated to testing their detailed theories with systematic observations and experiments. Again, the direct antithesis of the DI fellows, who have never tested their poorly-articulated theories against real world biology.

"Look" said one prominent member of the Royal Society, "there's plainly some sort of force at work on the surface of the earth. Unsupported objects always fall. All we're saying is that it is perfectly reasonable to follow the evidence. If the evidence leads to some sort of universal force, that's where the evidence leads".

They never said anything remotely like that. The path to universal gravitation was one of constant dialog between theory and observational evidence. Gravity was already known, but Newton unified planetary and Earthly gravitational events in a single mathematical enterprise which had empirical support.

Unlike the ID creationists, who have no empirical evidence to back their assertions up (and whose assertions have been shown to be wrong in many cases). In 1987 evolutionary biologist Russell Doolittle predicted that fish would lack one arm of the clotting pathway based on a range of evidence, IDist Michael Behe claimed in 1996 that the clotting could not evolve, and must be completely present. When the fish clotting pathway was examined, it lacked the arm that Doolittle predicted would be missing. Yet no ID creationist has addressed this falsification of Behe's claim (and successful evolutionary prediction).

Critics have not been impressed,

They were quite impressed. From http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Newton.html

"Newton explained a wide range of previously unrelated phenomena: the eccentric orbits of comets, the tides and their variations, the precession of the Earth's axis, and motion of the Moon as perturbed by the gravity of the Sun. This work made Newton an international leader in scientific research. The Continental scientists certainly did not accept the idea of action at a distance and continued to believe in Descartes' vortex theory  where forces work through contact. However this did not stop the universal admiration for Newton's technical expertise. "

pointing to the fact that members of the movement do not publish in peer-reviewed journals

Peer-review, as it is currently practised today, did not exist then. The first scholarly Journal, the one which would set the standards for other scholarly journals, was ironically the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the first issue published in 1665. Even though modern peer-review did not exist, papers were usually read before the Royal Society, vigorously debated and corrected, before being published (usually with some degree of editorial review). Newton's De Motu Corporum (1684) was read before the Society, debated and corrections made (Hooke, who Newton detested, pointed out an error that Newton corrected) before publication. The Principia Mathematica was read by the Society in manuscript form and recommended for publication .

In other words, Newton and his contemporaries working on gravitation (Halley, Wren, Hooke), used the scholarly communication methods of the day to put their work before their scientific and mathematical peers for critical analysis. Again, this is the antithesis of the ID movement, who have mostly published in non-academic media and avoided or ignored critical comment on their work. For Newton and his contemporaries to act like the ID movement, they would have to publish in penny pamphlets hawked on street corners.

and instead rely on the Royal Society itself to put out their slick products. "It's all smoke and mirrors," claimed one member of the astronomy faculty at the University of Augsburg.

Almost every one was impressed with Newton's mathematical tour-de-force, the derivation of Kepler's laws from basic principles was particularly applauded. But, especially with the European Cartesians, there was a sticking point.

It's a classic force of the gaps argument. All they're really saying is that there are some things established science can't explain yet, so there must be a mysterious force at work. If science has taught us anything over two thousand years, it's that sooner or later the gaps get filled in a perfectly natural way.

And the sticking point was that Newton had no mechanism for the action of gravity, indeed he had dispensed with the Cartesian ether as a mechanism of action. Gravity was effectively "spooky action at a distance" which upset people no end. Even Newton was bothered a bit by it.

"That gravity should be innate, inherent and essential to matter, so that one body should act upon another at a distance, through a vacuum, without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has, in philosophical matters, a competent faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it. Gravity must be caused by an agent, acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial, I leave to the consideration of my reader." Newton

But despite having no mechanism, Newton had a testable, verifiable theory. And verified it was, various experiments of increasing refinement showed Newton right, again and again.

Whereas all the ID movement has is "It can't evolve". They have made no predictions that can be verified, and have not tested their theories on real world biology.

Said another critic, the professor of Ptolemaic Understanding at Oxford University: "Nothing in astronomy makes sense except in the light of Ptolemaic astronomy. There is overwhelming evidence in support of the idea that the sun revolves around the earth. It has been one of the most fruitful and productive ideas in the entire history of science."

This is absolute nonsense. At stake was the mechanism by which gravity acted, not heliocentrism vs geocentrism. The Ptolemaic theory was well and truly gone, and the Keplerian version of heliocentrism was well and truly established. What was at stake was the physical models proposed for gravity. The Cartesian model, whereby gravity was produced by a material agency, the ether, and Newton's model , which was mathematically rigorous but had no physical mechanism, only spooky action at a distance (this was a lot more subtle and complicated than I have time or space to elaborate on. This lead to the interesting spectacle of Huygens championing Newton's mathematics and derivation of Kepler's law, while denying that the maths meant anything physically)

Still another critic observed that "to claim that Ptolemy's theory is just a theory is as absurd as arguing that Galen's theory of the humours is just a theory. It betrays a fundamental ignorance of the way in which science works".

Again, no one was debating the reality of the Ptolemaic model, it was irrelevant. What was debated was the absence of a mechanism for gravity in Newton's model.

UG's most well-known figure has been Isaac Newton, a notoriously reclusive mathematician with a known taste for bizarre theology and a penchant for dangerous chemical experiments. His Principia Mathematica has been a surprise best-seller, one of those books, as one wag quipped, which it is "easy to get into and impossible to get out of". Real mathematicians have been almost universal in their scorn, however. .

In fact, real mathematicians were almost universal in their praise, including the Cartesians who rejected his lack of a physical model for gravity. Even Leibniz, who was locked in a bitter feud with Newton over the invention of the calculus, praised the mathematics of the Principia and the derivation of Kepler's laws, and urged Newton to keep up his mathematical work. Huygens, who rejected the "action at a distance" aspect of Newtons theory, greatly admired his mathematics and said "I admire greatly the beautiful discoveries [in mathematics] that I find in the work he has sent me" http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/perspectives_on_science/v011/11.2maglo.html.

"The worst sort of pretentious posturing," said the professor of counting and arithmetic at the University of London, adding "that for all this Newton's so-called arithmetical expertise, there is just nothing in this book that indicates that it has any relevance at all to the real data of astronomy."

Which was completely untrue, not only did it provide the basis for Keplers' laws, which was near universally praised, it made definite predictions about the nature of planetary and cometary orbits which were soon shown to be borne out. It particularly predicted that the Earth and the Sun rotate around a common gravitational center, which was soon proved.

Colleagues at the department of counting and arithmetic agreed. "Let's face it," said one "The idea that the moon is falling is just insane. Falling? How come it never hits the earth? Where is it falling from? Who or why was it dropped? The idea that heavenly bodies are held in place by some sort of invisible force isn't even bad science. It's not science at all."

Again, this is nonsense. Cartesian vortex theory (whereby interactions between the planets was due to vortices in the ether in the space between them) was the principal explanation of the motion of planets and gravity. It actually did rather badly, but it had a mechanism.

Still other mathematicians have argued that Newton's book is riddled with obvious blunders and betrays a fundamental lack of scholarly rigor. Commenting on the so-called differential calculus, the professor of Applied Numbers at the University of Manchester remarked that the "whole subject was just written in Suet," adding that "Newton seems to believe there are numbers greater than zero but less than any other number," adding, "I know of no idea likely to be less productive."

The Principia was notoriously difficult, and only a handful of mathematicians and physicists were able to grasp it fully. Also, it DID have errors in it. Yet almost immediately the tools of calculus were abstracted from the Prinicpia(and ironically, translated into Leibniz's calculus notation), and used.

In contrast, the ID creationists use simplistic analogies and simple mathematics.

When reached in his London office, Newton declined to comment, saying only that he had "no use for little smatterers in mathematics."

Newton did say this. He was a very prickly person and took criticism badly, it took all Halley's skills in diplomacy to nurse the Principia to publication.

However, to paraphrase a saying about Galileo, being prickly and averse to criticism doesn't make one a Newton, one also has to be right. The ID creationists have yet to be shown correct on anything.

"Typical", said the professor of Epicycles at the University of Canterbury. "These people can quibble about tiny details in Ptolemaic astronomy, but when anyone criticizes their own work, they start babbling about conspiracies to marginalize their views. It's all just Copernicus in a cheap tuxedo."

Again, it was never about epicycles or Ptolemaic astronomy vs Copernicus. The Ptolemic and Copernican models of the solar system were long gone. The model universally accepted was Kepler's heliocentric solar system with elliptical orbits. Newton succeeded in deriving Kepler's laws from first principles (and unifying planetary motion and the motion of mundane things on earth, such as arrows and cannon balls). Almost everyone, even Newton's fiercest critics, acknowledged the mathematical tour-de-force of Newton's achievement. But the fact that Newton's gravity had no mechanism for its action at a distance was a severe barrier to many (but not all) continental scientists (while in England his theory was immediately accepted).

Nonetheless, the most recent polls indicate that over sixty percent of the English public believes that the earth revolves around the sun

Which was never in dispute in the Newtonian vs Cartesian debate

and that it is kept in its orbit by some sort of mysterious force.

The English public, that part of it that thought about such things in the late 17th century, would almost certainly have heard of the Cartesian gravitational system, where Earth's orbit (or rather Vortex) was determined by an unmysterious ether.

The DI want to compare themselves to downtrodden and scoffed at geniuses who eventually triumphed. They have tried to recruit Newton to their cause, but to do so they have to twist the facts of Newton's story into a parody. This should not be surprising, because their approach to biology is a parody. However, their point is exceedingly confused. They are trying to draw parallels between the inquisition of plucky Galileo over heliocentric theory (which Galileo lost) and the continental brouhaha over the Principia with the Edwards v. Aguillard trial (where "creation science" was ruled to not be science) and the Dover trial, which will rule on the teaching of ID. Did Berlinski really intend to imply that ID is equivalent to "creation science", when ID apologists have been distancing themselves from creationists?

And Newton, yes, his theory didn't have a mechanism, as ID doesn't have a mechanism. But Newton had a verifiable theory. As always in science, what carried the day for Newton was evidence. Until the ID creationists can come up with some evidence, they should give parodies a miss.

13 Comments

Perhaps you shouldn’t be surprised that Berlinski could write rubbish. Here’s a review of one of his science history books - “Newtons Gift”

“Personally, I am infuriated when an author deliberately writes obtusely to show off how “artsy” he is, or how vast a vocabulary he has. The author here does that throughout this book. Here’s one example- “the halter of specificity has been imposed on heretofore disorderly concepts.”

My other strong objection to this book is how the author takes an active voice asserting his own (incorrect, in my opinion) philosophy. He does this in numerous ways in numerous places throughout the book. For example, he indicates Aristotle’s philosophy as something that Newton needed to overcome, instead of recognizing Aristotle’s role as the originator of the scientific method. As another example, the author states that Newton’s religion, Arianism is “heresy.” He says this despite the fact he admits that Newton kept his religious views to himself. How did the author determine Newton’s religion? For that matter how did the author determine anything? The book has no bibliography, much less footnotes.

Finally even Newton’s scientific work is undercut by the author’s poor views on this subject. For example, the author sees an arbitrariness in the fact that Newton’s laws “favor” a straight line. The author asks “why a straight line?” and claims Newton had no answer.”

Regardless of the decimation of Berlinski’s ineffective parody. I found your article very interesting. The explanation of scientific thinking of that time was especially well written and informative.

Thank you.

But this parody will successfully reinforce the beliefs of the large portion of the public that has no knowledge of the background of Newton’s work and the arguments thereover. A survey of letters to the editor of various papers provides evidence of the public’s willingness to accept creationist arguments.

You can’t help wondering what happened to this guy. He wrote a great book, Tour of the Calculus…and then…well, I dunno. (A pod showed up and replaced him?) He lives in Paris, so I assume the Discovery Institute makes it worthwhile for him to write this stuff. But it truly is depressing.…

Berlinski is a humorless git who should blush when he uses the words “pretentious posturing.”

Berlinski is a phony anyway. My mom once tried to read his “Birth of the Algorithm” in order to understand my work, which involves bioinformatics algorithms. She couldn’t make her way through it and gave the book to me. I assumed that the book was simply too technical for her. But then I started to read it and my mother’s confusion was completely understandable. Despite claiming to be about algorithms, it really is just a turgid post-modernist rant similar to the sort of thing Sokal was parodying in his “Social Text” hoax.

Tour of the Calculus (the only work of Berlinski I have ever read, or intend to) was a “great book”? Ot was OK, but suffered from (as Zeno put it) “pretentious posturing”. You mean his other books are even worse?

The best such parody was called “Godless Lingusitics”

http://www.talkorigins.org/origins/[…]h/dec96.html

Ian Musgrave Wrote:

The Royal Society was anything but a think tank. It was the first truly scientific society, …

This seems a little anglo-centric to me. The Accademia dei Lincei, (which boasted Galileo as its most famous member), even though its initial incarnation was only short-lived, could certainly be described as a “scientific society”. Michael Sharratt, for instance, in his biography of Galileo, opines that after an initial period of dormancy it “turned into what may be counted as the first successful scientific society.”

David Wilson Wrote:
Ian Musgrave Wrote:

The Royal Society was anything but a think tank. It was the first truly scientific society, …

This seems a little anglo-centric to me. …

Oh, I see I should have followed Ian’s link earlier. The Royal Society’s claim is that it’s the oldest scientific society to have survived since its inception. For all I know, that’s a reasonable claim.

At least he got the “babbling about conspiracies” part right.

There is a curious, and not entirely irrelevant, footnote to the reference to the “University of London”.

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were founded in the Middle Ages, and actively retained a monopoly until the 19th Century. The University of London was created in 1836 to deal with the mess that arose from the competing foundations in the preceding decade of University College London and (as a counterblast) King’s College London.

The foundation of UCL created an absolute uproar because its proponents did not believe that university education should be restricted only to communicant members of the Church of England. The Established Church collectively foamed at the mouth at the idea of Jews, atheists and even Roman Catholics being allowed to study for degrees. Goodness knows what would have happened if UCL had got round to admitting women before the 1870s!

You can see just why the separation of Church and State was thought to be a Good Idea!

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This page contains a single entry by Ian Musgrave published on December 20, 2005 7:52 AM.

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