Thursday, March 6, 2008

Review: "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast"

"My aim in this book," writes author Lewis Wolpert, "is to try and understand what determines what people believe about causal events...." In short, the book (the title of which is stolen unglamorously from Carroll's Through the Looking Glass) is an exposition on the biological and evolutionary origins of belief. I was quite hoping for something that would live up to its highly stated expectations. As it turned out, I was quite disappointed.
Instead of attempting to weave together some artful treatise on the book, I'll choose instead to rant indiscriminately on several key points.
  1. "Science is unnatural and goes against common sense." This statement is made a multitude of times throughout the book. Perhaps if you're speaking specifically of quantum mechanics, sure, but this guy is a professor of "biology as applied to medicine." I can appreciate that he is trying (albeit desperately and with a characteristic disinterest toward evidence) to explain that science is not easy to grasp. But science is simple, even if the math necessary to communicate it is not. There is a certain subset of the population for whom, because the mathematics come more innately, become scientists. But that is not to say that all people are not, to some extent, scientifically minded. People experiment regardless of their ability to do vector calculus.
  2. "Beliefs are overwhelmingly irrational and clung to despite a lack of (or contradictory) evidence." I'll agree that, when he speaks of beliefs in ghosts or ESP or fear of genetically modified foods or having one's aura fluffed, people tend to be pretty stupid (ok, what I really mean is gullible, or suggestible). But he's applying this statement directly to religious beliefs in many contexts. His "hero philosopher" is David Hume, so this comes as little suprise (additionally, he found William James a "wonderful" author - wonderful, perhaps, if you like dry, tasteless table crackers). Within this context, he quotes a myriad of statistics without references or backing arguments, and makes a surprising number of contradictory statements within mere paragraphs of one another. He'll refer to religious beliefs as "delusions," then state on the facing page that religious people "enjoy better mental health" than their non-religious counterparts.
  3. "Science is basically in conflict with religion." Ironically, this statement is followed immediately with "yet many scientists have been and are religious." Here, Wolpert grows insufferably arrogant. He quotes statistics on the number of scientists who believe in God and the number of "scientists of distinction - the scientific elite" who believe (most do not). Does that include you, shall we presume? The entire book is peppered with statements meant to tell the reader: "believe this because I said so; I'm substantially smarter than you are." And yet, he talks about 'authority' being a common means of passing down religious beliefs (which, as he previously mentioned, are unfounded and irrational). Are we supposed to take you on authority? For if we are, you've undermined your own argument. There is no reason to believe that science conflicts in any way with religion, unless that religion is actually a form of mysticism that tries to unnaturally explain the natural world (for example, Shintoism or other polytheistic mythologies) instead of examine it. There is a fuzzy line here, of course, but no religious scientist will tell you that God exists within nature and can therefore be shown to exist in it (oddly, Wolpert quotes such prominent scientists as Isaac Newton, Stephen Jay Gould and Francis Collins, without honestly paying attention to what they said).
  4. Wolpert displays his ignorance of many religious beliefs as he writes. Despite his background, he writes as though he was an expert in anthropology, sociology and psychology; he even goes so far as to say that he "believe[s] the Big Bang even if [he] doesn't really understand it" and would, given about five years of study, be able to fully comprehend it. Should I mention at this point it would probably take me a mere two months to learn his profession? But this is merely my pride reacting to his, and I digress. Unfortunately, however, his lack of knowledge on certain religious beliefs leads him to make sweeping generalizations: all religious beliefs are simple (consider, in contrast, the Trinity), all religious beliefs lack evidence (which is why, I'm sure, so many early Christians were willing to die for what they knew to be true), all religious beliefs are essentially the same (so salvation by faith is a common theme, versus salvation by works?). It is a simple matter to deny something you do not bother to understand, but doing so will often expose your own intellectual weaknesses.
  5. "As we shall see." This phrase occurred with unsettling (nay, alarming) frequency. Who taught this man to write? We never did see, Lewis. Quit saying that.
I'm certain that, in my frustration and general "dirty" feeling with this book, I've neglected something in an unconscious effort to repress it from my active memory. I was disappointed with the way the book was written, with the broad and undefended generalizations made, with the disgusting presumptuousness permeating the entire discourse (which Wolpert even, in the introduction, tried to excuse), and with the obvious lack of understanding on key topics. I agree wholeheartedly that one should never assume one is right simply because one believes strongly enough - something is not made true or false based on how we feel about it. Wolpert, to his credit, tries to make this point, as well as attempting to explain that our perceptions are often selective or slightly misguided. But in doing so, he overlooks key issues and ignores glaring discrepancies between beliefs based on feelings versus those based on facts.
In the end, despite the fact that is lowers me to the same level as the author, I am forced to say: Lewis Wolpert is a pretentious British jerk. I certainly hope he's more pleasant in person.


  1. This small sample of all possible complaints about this book is certainly representative. The conflict of science with common sense was a particular favourite of mine. Most of science is quantitative formulism of common-sense concepts (mechanics, thermodynamics, for example). Typically, it is only when science goes outside the realm of common experience that common sense is no longer a reliable guide. And who could possibly be surprised that extrapolations can be unreliable? Unthinkable ;)

    The reference to the scientific elite is quite simply laughable. I actually had two conflicting reactions to his “believe in the Big Bang” statement. Part of me acknowledges that he is trying to make a valid point: that science is impersonal and impartial (anyone can, in principle, study it and come to the same conclusions), and that one is generally able to trust the conclusions of specialists in fields other than our own, as they should be able to trust our conclusions. However, there are infinitely better ways to express this that his wording, which came across as an arrogant claim of his personal intellect.

    As an aside: there is a matter in regard to the presentation of books which frequently incites my suspicion; something of which this book falls foul (something which may have been a valuable alert to the author's mindset), though admittedly it does not descend to the most extreme instance of this transgression. The matter to which I refer is the inclusion of a photograph of the author. The only instance in which this seems remotely acceptable to me is in the case of an autobiography - other cases seem to be purely an outward exposition of the author's ego. I can appreciate the author's work perfectly well without the smugness of their image emblazoned on my consciousness. One might perceive the worst case to be the brandishing of a likeness of the author on the front cover. However, this approach exhibits sufficiently blatant egotism that it offends me far less than when (as in the present case) the photo is located on the inside of the dust jacket, in such a manner as to suggest an impression of discretion. This is especially enraging when it is exacerbated by contrasting the ‘discreet’ location with the selection of a bold photographic portrait with mildly dramatic lighting that would not look out of place as a mugshot for Equity. My annoyance at this is only surpassed by those who, lacking the bravado to place their photo on the front face, pusillanimously opt for the back cover instead – the place most will turn to in search of some kind of synopsis of the content. I find this practice the most disturbing in the case of a scientist, for the very nature of science is to arrive at universal (and hence entirely impersonal) conclusions. Thus, in Wolpert’s case, the warning was there for all to heed. In purposefully ironic response to this, I am proposing that all future articles in scientific journals include photographs and snappy biographic narrative for the entire author list. We might have to make a exception for the experimental particle physicists, though ;)

  2. A point I forgot (as horrible a mistake as that may be): Wolpert's idea that (1) the Greeks invented science and that, as corollaries, (2) the Greeks were purely scientific and (3) the Greeks invented logic.

    Again, if science is not quite so "unnatural" (and what a poor word choice!) as the author dictates, it does not matter if the basic premises of scientific reasoning and experimentation began with the Greeks or not. The Chinese were incredibly technologically advanced - and what is "trial and error" in technology but a mode of scientific thought? As for the second assertion, the author blatantly disregards the dozen or so gods that the Greeks actively worshipped, effectively idealizing Greek culture into exactly what he would prefer it to be. Lastly, I think Wolpert speaks for himself when he makes the unbearably idiotic comment explaining that "before the Greeks, the concept of contradiction was just not there, and so it was possible to hold totally contradictory beliefs." Are you kidding? How can you say something like that with a straight face? No one anywhere at any time before the Greeks knew what it meant for two things to not be logically compatible? The ancient Egyptians never once thought to themselves, maybe we could make a stone pyramid that is also a sphere? The Anasazi never considered that living in a desert was not the same as living in a swamp? The audacity of such a statement betrays its utter falsehood.


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