Pharyngula

Do not respect authority

I’m sorry to inflict this on you, and it’s OK if you decide not to torture your brain watching it. This is Kary Mullis, Nobel prize winner for the discovery of PCR, giving a talk. It’s long and rambling, and at various points he endorses global warming denialism and HIV denialism, but somehow thinks maybe there is something to astrology. It’s a terrible, awful, embarrassingly bad talk from a prestigious kook. Mullis has one point of pride with me: when anyone asks me to name a book by a legitimate, successful scientist that demonstrates that even smart people can be awesomely stupid, Mullis’s Dancing in the Mind Field beats out even Collins’ Language of God.

There are funny moments in the video, but they’re mostly funny because they expose the inanity and hypocrisy of Mullis. For instance, he says that he will not take statins to control cholesterol because they might damage his brain…but anyone who knows Mullis’s history knows he’s been extraordinarily indulgent in mind-altering recreational pharmaceuticals.

Really, though, the only reason to listen to this mess is at the end, somewhere past the one hour mark, where he’s dealing with the Q&A, and two people, a student and a faculty member, actually have the guts to question him critically. Mullis can’t answer them; he basically makes an argument from authority, claiming that he’s been studying diseases since before the student was born, and even stooping to calling him a “little boy”. It got ugly there. Mullis not only is incapable of assembling a coherent thought, but turns surly when anyone does not fawn over him.

The student and the professor who are willing to argue with the credentialed buffoon are the only shining lights in this depressing spectacle. I’d ask for someone to tell me their names, except I’m a little concerned that calling out an idiotic Nobelist in public may have some repercussions. It ought to enhance their reputations, but you never know…especially among a faculty that thought it was a good idea to invite Mullis (he does have a reputation, and it’s not a good one) in the first place.

Comments

  1. #1 Antiochus Epiphanes
    February 11, 2010

    Mullis essentially won the Nobel on the importance of a technique in molecular biology. He didn’t discover anything. As important as PCR is, Mullis is the most glorified lab tech to have roamed the earth.

  2. #2 mattheath
    February 11, 2010

    Yes professor, I will not respect authority!

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    February 11, 2010

    Read his book. He doesn’t understand science at all, yet here he is pontificating on the nature of science.

  4. #4 Sven DiMilo
    February 11, 2010

    the most glorified lab tech to have roamed the earth

    we have a winnah

  5. #5 daveau
    February 11, 2010

    Do not respect authority

    You’re not the boss of me!

    Really, my innate disrespect for phony authority has gotten me the fine stunted career that I now enjoy…

  6. #6 raven
    February 11, 2010

    Intelligence and sanity are orthogonal concepts.

    There is more to the Mad Scientist stereotype than you think.

    Kary Mullis is far from the only scientist to go off the deep end. Usually they turn into drunks or join weird Eastern religious cults.

  7. #7 CanonicalKoi
    February 11, 2010

    C’mon now; be fair. Statins might lower your cholesterol, but they don’t get you high. It seems Mullis has his priorities.

  8. #8 Carlie
    February 11, 2010
  9. #9 mothra
    February 11, 2010

    Read the book was expecting something wonderful akin to Surely you’re Joking Mr. Feynman(Feynman anecdotes transcribed by Ralph Leighton). It wasn’t- don’t buy, why support a crank? To re-employ Mullis’ title pun- as Gimli from LOTR might say: “They call it a mind, a mind!”

  10. #10 tommorris
    February 11, 2010

    I’d never heard of Saddleback College. My first thought was “No, please, Rick Warren has a college – and they teach science? Say it ain’t so!” Thankfully, it isn’t.

  11. #11 Poor Wandering One
    February 11, 2010

    I read “Dancing” back in the day. It was comedy gold. Seriously it was one of the funniest books I had ever come across. Then I realized he was serious. That this wasn’t some glorious satire. Then I just felt kind of sad and vaguely uncomfortable.

    Still it’s a good example of why one should stay away from recreational pharmaceuticals.

    ~will

  12. #12 raven
    February 11, 2010

    and HIV denialism,

    google:

    Christine Joy Maggiore (July 25, 1956?December 27, 2008) was an HIV-positive activist who promoted the view that HIV was not the cause of AIDS. …

    Early life and career – AIDS diagnosis and activism – Eliza Jane
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christine_Maggiore – Cached – Similar
    Christine Maggiore Memorial Christine Maggiore died unexpectedly on December 27th leaving behind her husband, Robin Scovill, their son Charlie and the memory of their daughter Eliza …

    There aren’t all that many HIV denialists. The ones who are HIV+ have a habit of dying of AIDS. There are rather long lists of those who have done so.

    Christine’s infant daughter died of AIDS. It didn’t change her mind. She died recently, almost certainly of AIDS. It is too late for her to change her mind.

    The human brain has vast resources for self delusion.

  13. #13 chuckgoecke
    February 11, 2010

    That hurt! I think I just lost more brain cells that 6 years of college partying caused. Is there such a thing as a science Poe?

  14. #14 Glen Davidson
    February 11, 2010

    At least he’s well-known as a kook, so I doubt the students are likely to get into any trouble for questioning him.

    Being a Nobelist gets you a lot of regard, but it hardly protects one from being considered to be weird, etc.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  15. #15 Sven DiMilo
    February 11, 2010

    Still it’s a good example of why one should stay away from recreational pharmaceuticals.

    bah.
    I’ll post some counterexamples when I can…um…

    what?

  16. #16 Sven DiMilo
    February 11, 2010

    What a fucking ego to perch on a stool and ramble for an hour without visuals or, like, a point to make. I could not have sat in that room all that time.

  17. #17 Levi in NY
    February 11, 2010

    What kind of pharmaceuticals are we talking about, specifically? Opiates?

  18. #18 Antiochus Epiphanes
    February 11, 2010

    Sven’s right. Sagan was strictly wake and bake from what I understand. And without drugs, we would just have sex and rock and roll.

    Blake, Poe, Kerouac, Hendrix, Burroughs, MacGowan?

  19. #19 ex-Texan Barb
    February 11, 2010

    A teaching moment: We humans are not consistent in our use of reason. Consider Shockley on eugenics, for example.

    Of course this doesn’t apply to me and thee.

  20. #20 Bernard Bumner
    February 11, 2010

    Would anybody like to buy a vat of credulity? I have just found a a swollen tit full of the stuff that needs to be milked…

    I will answer questions about anything. In particular, I would like to rant about the fact that science is deluded in its certainty.

    What an offensive, patronising, arrogant, insane, idiot.

  21. #21 SC OM
    February 11, 2010

    Wow.

    The matadors.

    Wow.*

    Mullis can’t answer them; he basically makes an argument from authority, claiming that he’s been studying diseases since before the student was born, and even stooping to calling him a “little boy”. It got ugly there. Mullis not only is incapable of assembling a coherent thought, but turns surly when anyone does not fawn over him.

    And he got applause for that!

    Wow.

    *I was amused imagining Dennett’s reaction to his letter, though.

  22. #22 wlrube
    February 11, 2010

    Yes professor, I will not respect authority!

    Reminds me of the old joke where the professor tells his students on the first day of class to think critically about what he says and not just copy it down reverently into their notebooks, and they all get out their notebooks and write, “think about what professor says, not just copy down info.”

  23. #23 Peter H
    February 11, 2010

    Following the adage, “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas,” I’ll take PZ’s description as sufficient warning that the clip is not useful except as an opportunity to expose buffoons.

  24. #24 James Sweet
    February 11, 2010

    I believe the title of the book is Dancing Naked in the Mind Field (emph. mine).

    @Sven #15: hahaha, bravo. I was going to take exception to that characterization as well, but you said it better than I possibly could have.

    It reminds me a little bit of Terrence McKenna, but without the Nobel prize…

  25. #25 umkomasia
    February 11, 2010

    Even the great Linus Pauling spent his later years embarrassingly rambling on about vitamin C being the fountain of youth.

  26. #26 redmjoel
    February 11, 2010

    Discussion before invite:

    “We need someone famous to come talk to students while i’m off at a conference … maybe a Nobel Prize winner?”

    “I hear Mullis isn’t doing much these days”

    “Who?”

    “Mullis — he won a Nobel a few years back”

    “Yeah get him”

  27. #27 metacephalon
    February 11, 2010

    Mullis is a certified looney tune. However, it is unfair to label him the most glorified lab tech. The invention of PCR yielded tremendous, almost incalculable, advances to molecular biology. Nobels aren’t awarded to the smartest people, they are awarded for discoveries. Mullis certainly deserved his Nobel.

  28. #28 Lissamphibia
    February 11, 2010

    No, not opiates — LSD. (See the last paragraph of this article, for example: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2006/01/70015 )

    That’s the thing that bothers me the most about Mullis — not only is he a kook, but he gives a bad name to scientists and other folks who use psychedelics as a tool for tackling complex problems. (Researchers studying the psychotherapeutic uses of psychedelics say the same thing about Timothy Leary: his egocentrism and sensationalism prompted a backlash that stalled productive, aboveground work for decades.)

    Sven, here are some counterexamples:

    – Francis Crick reportedly used small doses of LSD to assist in visualizing the structure of DNA
    http://www.miqel.com/entheogens/francis_crick_dna_lsd.html

    – Richard Feynman experimented with marijuana and ketamine in John C. Lilly’s isolation tanks
    (see ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!’)

    For more information, here’s a very interesting excerpt from a book called ‘LSD: The Problem-Solving Psychedelic’: http://www.psychedelic-library.org/staf3.htm

    It describes a lot of the (then-legal) research that was done in the 50′s and early 60′s, including tests where engineers, architects, designers and others were given LSD as a study of its effects on creative and technical work.

    Here’s another excerpt, focusing on the experiences of an architect: http://www.psychedelic-library.org/books/ecstatic18.htm

  29. #29 cervantes
    February 11, 2010

    It’s difficult to explain these guys — Peter Duesberg being another. Somehow the brain can go off the rails in its grasp of large scale reality, while specific faculties appear to remain intact. Strange.

  30. #30 Bernard Bumner
    February 11, 2010

    The invention of PCR yielded tremendous, almost incalculable, advances to molecular biology.

    Mullis doesn’t have sole claim to the invention of PCR; the story is certainly not as simple as that. He made a very significant contribution to the story, but probably ended up with more than his fair share of the credit.

    Nobels aren’t awarded to the smartest people, they are awarded for discoveries.

    Nobels often tend to attribute credit to the few at the cost of recognition of others.

  31. #31 God
    February 11, 2010

    There’s nothing wrong with recreational pharmaceuticals. I created them to enhance My own creativity.

  32. #32 Amazona farinosa farinosa
    February 11, 2010

    A lab I worked in back in the early nineties brought him in as a guest speaker. He certainly has gotten loonier.

    Back then, instead of AGW denialism, he was a big pusher of the failed Duesberg hypothesis (HIV not neccessary or sufficent for AIDS) as raven alludes to @ #12. Some of the lab’s scientists actually bought into it whole-heartedly. And for no other reason, it seems, than that it was a good enough line of reasoning for a Nobel laureate.

    Re Sven @ #16: At least back then he would show slides of nude models with mandelbrot sets projected onto their nubile forms.

  33. #33 Amenhotepstein
    February 11, 2010

    I was fortunate to see Mullis talk way back when I was a wee grad student, shortly after he won the Nobel Prize. He was certainly no great thinker, but did seem like a clever, innovative fellow. I’m sad to see that the character in this video is all that remains

    @ metacephalon

    Mullis didn’t invent PCR, which was conceived of in the 70′s, but he was credited with the innovation of combining the PCR technique with a thermostabile DNA polymerase that wasn’t denatured after each cycle, making it far easier to use.

  34. #34 Becca
    February 11, 2010

    @God

    There’s nothing wrong with recreational pharmaceuticals. I created them to enhance My own creativity

    well, that certainly explains some of the design flaws.

  35. #35 jennyxyzzy
    February 11, 2010

    All right, ‘fess up – who let Sven out of the Never-ending Thread?

  36. #36 xixidu
    February 11, 2010

    What makes me think is that really ‘smart’ people, who have a very good education and know all the arguments, can turn into, or are at the same time batshit crazy.

    An example is John C. Wright (science fiction author and former atheist). You can read on his blog – http://bit.ly/m6qeP – that he not only turned into a crazy christian but has visions and is talking to angels and mother Mary. Even better, a neuroscietist who tried to suicide bomb in Afghanistan: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/27/nyregion/27siddiqui.html?_r=1

    There are more examples. Take Kevin Kelly – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Kelly_%28editor%29 – or these two famous evolutionary biologists who are devoted Christians: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_J._Ayala (…has been called the “Renaissance Man of Evolutionary Biology”) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Collins_%28geneticist%29

  37. #37 Feynmaniac
    February 11, 2010

    Wow, total crack pot!

  38. #38 Sven DiMilo
    February 11, 2010

    jennyxyzzy:
    We Are Everywhere

  39. #39 Kraid
    February 11, 2010

    Sheesh. Arguments from authority are bad enough even when the person is actually has some authority in the field. But if one is going to pontificate in matters beyond their own depth of knowledge, the least they can do is acknowledge that. Why does Kary Mullis think I care about his opinions on dark matter and AGW? I think the relevant researchers are probably better informed there.

    Does he get many speaking engagements? He seems a bit rambling and unprepared. And really, what’s with the lack of visuals? Once you get a Nobel Prize then your mere presence is visual enough for your presentations?

  40. #40 Sili
    February 11, 2010

    Mullis is a certified looney tune. However, it is unfair to label him the most glorified lab tech. The invention of PCR yielded tremendous, almost incalculable, advances to molecular biology. Nobels aren’t awarded to the smartest people, they are awarded for discoveries. Mullis certainly deserved his Nobel.

    Indeed. And too much prestige has become associated with the Nobel prizes, of course.

    For instance, who here knows Nils Gustaf Dalén without looking him up? Should he be dismissed as a glorified engineer? Or should the Nobel Prize, rather than the glorified, be blamed for the glorification?

  41. #41 jachra
    February 11, 2010

    I actually attended Saddleback College for a number of years. Typically, it’s fairly respectable (particularly its nursing school.)

    I only wish I’d been able to be here so I could have taken him to task like those others (who I wish I could identify so I could thank them.)

  42. #42 DLC
    February 11, 2010

    at least they made a funny song about it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5yPkxCLads

  43. #43 moya
    February 11, 2010

    I read his book Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. One of the early chapters was about his role in the OJ Simpson case, as an expert witness for the defense. He essentially admitted that OJ couldn’t have done it because he and OJ talked about hot women during the trial — no one who was guilty could have done that, according to Mullis. Additionally, it appeared that he didn’t like Clark/Darden/the prosecution because they didn’t faun all over him and, in fact, never even deigned to acknowledge him. How dare they!

    I finished the book, but had a hard time taking any of it seriously after that.

    I’m definitely NOT going to watch the video. I’ve wasted enough of my life on this buffoon already!

  44. #44 Hyperon
    February 11, 2010

    PZ, I’m looking forward to your forthcoming (I hope) evisceration of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini. Much more interesting than this pitiful, rather typical kind of kookery.

  45. #45 mothra
    February 11, 2010

    Major edit failure back at #9. I was greatly disappointed by his book. The one interesting tidbit therein- KM expresses dismay as he received steadily fewer speaking invitations (as his HIV stance became known) He was unable to grasp that his opinion on a subject would not only be less valuable than that of an active researcher but, that his views could (did) cause real harm to disease victims. Former President M’becki (sp) of South Africa embraced the opinion of KM.

  46. #46 BoxNDox
    February 11, 2010

    There are actually two afflictions involved here.

    The first is what Herzog called being an “anything authority”. This is the tendency for someone who is undeniably expert in some fairly narrow field to pontificate at great length on topics on which they are, shall we say, less than well informed.

    The Nobel Prize has a nasty habit of turning people into anything authorities. Back when I was in high school I attended a lecture given by George Wald. Had it been on the physiology of the eye it would have been great, but it was on environmentalism. Even the knowledge of a high school student was sufficient to find the whole thing to be rather embarrassing. And yet Wald went on to advise Gorbachev on environmental issues. (To be fair, he apparently did some good on the human rights front while he was there, but still…)

    But the other part of the affliction is simply being a crank. Unfortunately this is a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with, because it seems to afflict engineers to a much greater degree than it does scientists, likely because good engineering is more amenable to narrowness of focus than good science is.

    Indeed, I’ve met any number of good, and several great, engineers who are really hard to take because off their crank views. Often as not the object of their “crankiness” is political, and usually, but not always, on the right side of the spectrum. Gun nuts, extreme libertarianism, and various other nonsense seems to go with the territory. There are also a fair number of religious zealots in the mix.

    But I have to say it’s both sad and dangerous when someone who is/was quite talented comes down with both of these afflictions at once. As in this case…

  47. #47 fireweaver
    February 11, 2010

    God @ 31.

    You should have laid off them. Billions and billions of fuckups.

  48. #48 madamX
    February 11, 2010

    He called Daniel Dennett? Any kook in their right mind knows you don’t call an Aries with delusional insights! That’s a call best saved for Pisces – they are not just good for bull fighting.

  49. #49 frog, Inc.
    February 11, 2010

    He’s from South Carolina. Explains a bit.
    And he’s boring, and he’s a dick, and a crackpot.

    But, that may be the very qualities that lead to innovation in your field of specialization — when put hand in hand with extensive knowledge, being arrogant and being willing to dismiss the received knowledge makes innovation possible.

    But when you step outside of your area of expertise, you start to risk crankiness and asshattery. But it also gives you the confidence to delve into new areas.

    Take Rod MacKinnon. He’s well-known for not being the kindest human being, and for making extremely questionable statements outside of his specialization. It also leads him to take risky proposition (and invest years in risky research outside of his earlier training) that has been very productive — it’s also lead him to do risky research that fails miserably, misleads people outside his field, and are frankly embarrassing to him. The same attitude that lead to the Nobel worthy victory of crystallizing the K+ channel pore also lead to the nonsensical waste of a decade of the “voltage sensor paddle”.

    That’s science.

  50. #50 Sven DiMilo
    February 11, 2010

    One of the early chapters was about his role in the OJ Simpson case,

    I watched most of that trial in real time. I’ll never forget Johnny Cochran describing Mullis as having won the “Nobel Peace Prize”. What a doofus.

  51. #51 bulletproofcourier
    February 11, 2010

    That Vimeo video is annoying, it doesn’t allow you to skip ahead.

  52. #52 Diane G.
    February 11, 2010

    I, too, read Dancing Naked at least a decade ago. Amongst all the appalling chapters (thanks for reminding me of the ~”Have slides, will stay at home” chapter, mothra!) was one that I thought had at least a little worth. I believe it was called “Who’s Minding the Store,” and its point was roughly ‘altho we’re brought up to think that the people in charge know what they’re doing, they’re actually as likely or moreso to be incompetent as any bozo off the streets.’

    Ironic, considering. I think of it with every new government screw-up…

  53. #53 Rokkaku
    February 11, 2010

    His objection to environmentalism is absolutely bizarre. He appears to subscribe to some weird form of gaia theory at first, saying that it is by the grace of nature that we evolved in the first place. He then critiques environmentalism by saying that we need to not worry about saving the earth as a result of this – we are as moss on a rock, and not the be-all end-all of this planet. Certainly there’s a lot to agree with here – we shouldn’t think without reason (and there is no reason) that this earth was ‘made’ with us in mind, for down this road creationism lies. But objecting to human-driven desires to reverse climate change is *itself* an anthropic argument. We’d be as well telling a rabbit not to burrow a hole and sleep on the grass instead, for if the wolf wants to eat it, it’s just moss on a rock there for the rolling.

    Then there’s the ad hominem about climatologists “not knowing what they’re talking about” and producing “boring” work that is “not meant for you to understand.”Perhaps there is a lack of popular writing on climate change, but really, scientific work isn’t always supposed to be readily accessible to the layperson. That isn’t one of its criteria. It must be accessible to people willing to do the work and run the science, sure (and as someone else blogged on here recently the amount of closed-source software in climate research is in this sense a concern) but the idea that it’s boring and dry is… well, his motivation appears when he says it’s “inaccessible to the non-specialist.” Dude, virtually all of science is in accessible to a non-specialist. From physics to economics, this is the case. Yet what’s the big conspiracy with physics?

    I got around 30 minutes into this and was too depressed to watch more of his talk, so I skipped on to the Q&A. I got to the part of his saying that there is no evidence for the Big Bang, and that background radiation had a thousand other explanations that he wouldn’t get into… fast forward a bit more… ah, there’s now evidence that astrology is true (complete with a “Don’t laugh!” plea)… best matadors born under Taurus… yeah, this guy is a professional creep. “A scientist doesn’t have to be a specialist.”

  54. #54 Eric O
    February 11, 2010

    I took a course in biomolecular archaeology last semester where we learned about PCR, including the theory and thought process behind its invention. I was thoroughly impressed. It’s disappointing to learn that the inventor is a kook.

  55. #55 Rokkaku
    February 11, 2010

    @bulletproofcourier 50: It does let you skip ahead but only once it’s loaded that far.

  56. #56 weexy2000
    February 11, 2010

    I read Dancing about 10 years ago as well when I was in my early teens.

    If I remember correctly he said he came up with PCR while tripping on acid, conversed with a glowing raccoon in the woods behind his house, talked about some bullshit numerology about his 10,000th day, said we should do away with measurements like Mole, and denied HIV caused AIDS.

    He sounds like every 20 year old stoned philosopher you meet at 3 am after 10 Bud Lights and a dime bag Sophomore year of college.

  57. #57 Peter G.
    February 11, 2010

    Is that header authoritative?

  58. #58 duras
    February 11, 2010

    I think that John C Sanford is a much better example of a successful scientist who is a kook. You’re talking about a guy who co-invented the Gene Gun, but is now a young Earth creationist.

    I guess you can’t say he was ever a GREAT scientist, but he’s definitely a MUCH bigger kook than Collins.

  59. #59 Peter G.
    February 11, 2010

    If anyone thinks that a Nobel Prize is any guarantee of sanity they would do well to review the histories of people like Philip Lenard (compulsive and delusional anti-Semite), John Nash (paranoid schizophrenic) or Linus Pauling (nobody’s quite sure what he was).

  60. #60 MikeyM
    February 11, 2010

    Damn. I used to refer to my time as a low-level assay tech at Cetus corporation as a “brush with greatness” because Mullis worked there at the same time. “Brush with asshatery” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

  61. #61 Quagmire
    February 11, 2010

    What is “PCR”?

  62. #62 frog, Inc.
    February 11, 2010

    And don’t forget Watson’s racist and sexist remarks.

    Crankery and asshatery goes with the landscape. Sensible, reasonable, consensus builders rarely make huge breakthroughs.

    On the other hand, being a crank and an asshole does not imply the reverse; most cranks are merely cranks.

  63. #63 Louis
    February 11, 2010

    Just another datapoint that technical competence in one area doesn’t guarantee it in another.

    I suppose part of me has “underdog sympathy” towards Mullis, he has always been an outsider laureate, in part due to his psychedelic tendancies. However, my sympathy can only go so far because whenever I’ve seen the guy talk, read anything he’s written or talked to anyone who’s worked with him he comes across as a total lunatic. HIV/AGW denialism are the hallmarks of a loon.

    Mind you it does show something rather humbling, that even a total loon can possibly have (at least) one decent idea that is genuinely of worth. I think trying to abuse Mullis by minimising his genuinely worthwhile contribution is a mistake. After all, he’s given us so many other things to bash him over the head with, why use one of dubious utility?

    Louis

  64. #64 Mu
    February 11, 2010

    PCR polymerase chain reaction, it’s used to multiply traces of DNA for analysis.

  65. #65 pjgrinstead
    February 11, 2010

    This guy sounds fun. Here is a passage from his wikipedia entry:

    “In his [autobiography], Mullis chronicles his romantic relationships, use of LSD, synthesis and self-testing of novel psychoactive substances, belief in astrology and an encounter with an extraterrestrial in the form of a fluorescent raccoon.

  66. #66 a_ray_in_dilbert_space
    February 11, 2010

    Frog, Inc., says, “But, that may be the very qualities that lead to innovation in your field of specialization — when put hand in hand with extensive knowledge, being arrogant and being willing to dismiss the received knowledge makes innovation possible.”

    Having known about a dozen Nobel Laureates (including a couple or 3 even before they won the prize), I’m afraid I disagree. Most Nobel Laureates are well aware of the limitations of their own expertise. Most of them played quite well with others–pretty much a prerequisite for success in science these days. Keep in mind that they award 3 Nobels in science every year. So, you will likely have 50-100 living Nobel Laureates at any given time. Even if the distribution of kookery were the same as the general population, you’d be bound to have a couple. And, admittedly, the standard deviation for what is acceptable behavior or belief is probably broader in such a rarefied group. After, these are probably folks who have been told they’re the smartest in the class all their lives.

    Actually, I’d say kookery is a lot stronger among Nobel wannabes than among Nobel Laureates.

  67. #67 MultiTool
    February 11, 2010

    I believe this is right on topic:

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1776

    “When will people wise up and elect Hitler’s ghost?”

  68. #68 Citizen Z
    February 11, 2010

    I wish I had been there to ask him this question:

    Dr. Mullis, do you think that out of the membership of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the group that decided to award you the Nobel Prize, that there is even a single member of that body that would agree with your statements on HIV? Or the Big Bang? Or astrology?

  69. #69 Timaahy
    February 11, 2010

    “You’re not supposed to shake hands with a hundred people and then eat finger food.”

    HAHAAAAAAAAA… ah man, comedy gold.

  70. #70 Timaahy
    February 11, 2010

    I tried… I really tried to get to the end. But the constant clicking of his dry mouth is driving me NUTS.

    “Paradigm… click click click… plausible fable… click click click…”

  71. #71 bubbabubba666
    February 11, 2010

    BoxNDox $ 45 said:
    “The first is what Herzog called being an anything authority”.

    This sounds very interesting but a Google search did not find any reference to it. Do you have any links you can provide?

    Thank You

  72. #72 'Tis Himself, OM
    February 11, 2010

    Sometimes I wonder about the criteria for awarding a Nobel. In 1974 the Nobel Prize for Economics* was awarded to Gunnar Myrdal and Friedrich von Hayek “for their pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena.” What’s funny about this is Myrdal was a socialist and Hayek was a laissez faire free marketeer. They both wrote on the theory of money but their conclusions were about 180° apart from each others.

    *Officially the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

  73. #73 waynerobinson4
    February 11, 2010

    Talking about kooks winning the Nobel Prize, Alexis Carrel, the 1912 winner for Medicine or Physiology, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexis_Carrel
    should get a mention, for his eugenics.
    He gets a roasting in Rebecca Skloot’s book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, for his claim that he’d successfully had cultured chicken heart muscle fibres for years, besides his doubtful ethics.

  74. #74 Travis
    February 11, 2010

    #65, a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    I agree with that. People like Mullis seem to be outliers but they are expected. I have only had a single real-life run in with a Nobel Laureate. Carl Wieman was talking about science education at my previous school and he opened his talk with some cautionary words about listening to what he had to say. Basically he said that no one should listen to him just because he has a Nobel Prize. That it does not make you an expert on everything.

    Similarly, when watching a number of the 2009 winners talk on the BBC this year I noticed that for the most part they were very cautious about stepping outside their fields. They would answer questions about what it was like to win but largely appeared to be uncomfortable giving answers about questions about topics like climate change, often deferring to people in the field or prefacing their answers with their concerns.

    And I think that touches on one of the big problems with the Nobel Prizes. For the most part it does not seem the winners go off and think they are experts in all fields but many people seem to think being a Nobel Laureate does that.

  75. #75 llewelly
    February 11, 2010

    Rokkaku | February 11, 2010 2:37 PM:

    Perhaps there is a lack of popular writing on climate change, but really, scientific work isn’t always supposed to be readily accessible to the layperson.

    • The Discovery of Global Warming, Spencer Weart
    • Storms Of My Grandchildren, Jim Hansen
    • Science As A Contact Sport, Stephen H. Schneider
    • Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas
    • High Tide, Mark Lynas
    • Hell And High Water, Joe Romm
    • Under A Green Sky, Peter Ward
    • The Two-Mile Time Machine, Richard Alley
    • What’s the Worst That Could Happen, Greg Craven
    • The Tree Rings’ Tale: Understanding Our Changing Climate, John Fleck
    • The Weather Makers: The History & Future Impact of Climate Change, Tim Flannery
    • Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, Elizabeth Kolbert
    • The Great Warming, Brian Fagan
    • The Little Ice age, Brian Fagan
    • The Long Summer, Brian Fagan
    • Fish On Friday, Brian Fagan
    • The Ice Finders, Edmund Blair Bolles
    • The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change, David Archer and Stefan Rahmstorf
    • Our Threatened Oceans, Stefan Rahmstorf and K. Richardson
    • Climate Change: Picturing the Science, Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe
    • The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth?s Climate, David Archer
    • Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming, Michael Mann and Lee Kump, DK/Pearson
    • Global warming: Understanding the Forecast, David Archer
    • Solar Activity and Earth?s Climate, Rasmus Benestad

    Just to emphasize the sarcasm in Rokkaku’s first clause.

    I will also mention the The Climate Cover-up, James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore, which is not about climate change, per se, but about the deceitful, very well funded, and thoroughly dishonest PR campaign which deliberately misleads people into thinking human-caused global warming is either not real, not dangerous, good for us, or not caused by humans. Highly recommended. In a related vein, I recommend Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming, Mark Bowen.

  76. #76 Quantumburrito
    February 11, 2010

    OK guys, I know that Mullis is as much of a kook as anyone out there but I think it’s wrong to dismiss PCR as just another clever lab idea. On that count many other ideas (including Sanger sequencing) would also be dismissed. Sure, PCR is not of the same fundamental scientific importance as say Bohr’s model of the atom or Watson and Crick’s DNA model or the discovery of phosphorylation, but it’s simply phenomenally important for modern biology and medicine. Recall that Nobel’s will actually called for the prize to be given to someone who does something of importance for humanity, and by that definition Mullis’s invention is as important as any other Nobel-winning invention, even if it may not have been a basic science discovery.

  77. #77 Sven DiMilo
    February 11, 2010

    Did Erlenmeyer get a Nobel for inventing the flask?
    Pity.

  78. #78 John Harshman
    February 11, 2010

    Two comments:

    1. Kerry Mullis may be crazy, but he did invent the second-coolest, most important lab technique in molecular biology. And I think that deserves some kind of prize. (If you’re keeping score, the coolest is Sanger dideoxy sequencing.)

    2. Apropos of nutty Nobelists, I once spent an evening with Nobel neuroscientist Roger Sperry (in company with several other Caltech freshmen), during which he tried to convert everyone to his religion of biology. Never did figure out exactly what the religion entailed. He also explained to us that life violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics. To the credit of freshmen everywhere, nobody was buying it.

  79. #79 tamakazura
    February 11, 2010

    I have a professor that I really respected who half jokingly stated during a lecture that he admired Mullis for comming out of nowhere, inventing PCR and then becomming a professional beach-bum / hippie. I think he’d probably had a daydream or two about winning the Nobel Prize and retiring to a beach somewhere with a joint.
    That he’s a bit of a douche personally doesn’t diminish that the discovery of PCR has revolutionized molecular biology. In my mind, he’s little different from an idolized rockstar who turns out to be a complete wanker in person. You can appreciate what he did without liking him personally or endorsing his ideas, and you should be able to dismiss his brain-excrements without shortchanging PCR as a technique that has changed the world of biology.

  80. #80 tamakazura
    February 11, 2010

    Excuse me. In previous paragraph, replace all mention of PCR with PCR+Taq polymerase.

  81. #81 Petzl
    February 11, 2010

    Mullis is positively infuriating when he starts up with his astrology anecdotes around 63:00. He kept saying you could “look it up.” OK, so I looked it up.

    CLAIM: “Apollo astronauts are all Pisces.”
    Of 29 Apollo astronauts (those who took off in an Apollo moonshot and including the fatal Apollo 1 accident): 2 Aries, 0 Taurus, 2 Gemini, 1 Cancer, 2 Leo, 3 Virgo, 5 Libra, 5 Scorpio, 0 Sag, 0 Capr, 3 Aqua, 6 Pisces.
    6 out of 29. A whopping 20%. That couldn’t have anything to do with using such a small statistical sample could it? Naah… I’m sure if I flipped a coin 20 times, i’d get 10 heads and 10 tails (the odds are 50%, right?).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Apollo_astronauts

    CLAIM: “70% of the conductors of the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra are Pisces.”
    Of 13 chief conductors: 2 Aries, 2 Taurus, 0 Gemini, 0 Cancer, 2 Leo, 3 Virgo, 0 Libra, 0 Scorpio, 0 Sag, 2 Capr, 1 Aqua, 1 Pisces.
    Wait– ONE? Not even a spike. 70% would imply 9 conductors.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_Symphony

    Remaining claim (left as exercise to the reader):
    * Matadors (presumably from Spain) “going back to the 18th century” are “mostly” Taurus.

  82. #82 BoxNDox
    February 11, 2010

    bubbabubba666 -

    The book you want is Herzog’s The BS Factor. Part II – New Directions in Cant – is a kind of dictionary of BS categories including Americant, Candor Con, Double-Bind Abstractions, Quote Facts, SciSpeak, and of course, Anything Authorities.

    His list of Anything Authorities includes Linus Pauling, Jane Fonda, and George Wald. (I actually heard Wald speak before reading this book and I recall being delighted to have my opinion confirmed.) Herzog sums them all up by saying:

    The trouble with an Anything Authority is not that he takes a position or works for a cause but that he seldom seems to apply the same standards of research and documentation to the field in which he is not an expert as he would to his own.

    Which sums it up nicely, I think.

    According to Amazon, The BS Factor is still in print. And since you just got me to drag my (1975 reprint) copy off the shelf, I think it’s time to reread it after I finish Norman Borlaug’s biography. (Borlaug is someone who truly deserved his Nobel, not to mention pretty every other award in existence.)

  83. #83 JJ
    February 11, 2010

    @10

    I’d never heard of Saddleback College

    Saddleback College is Junior college in the Saddleback valley (South Orange County). Same area as Saddleback Church. Beleive me, although its’ an OK JC, it’s a shithole. I’ve had many many many friends go there (it’s the JC right next door to where I grew up). We used to have some funny acronyms for the place (I wish I could remember them all)
    1.UCLA – University of California Left at Avery (that’s how you get tehre, take the 5 exit on Avery and take a left)
    2.USC – University of Saddleback College.

    There were a bunch more, and we’d always make fun of the friends who were goign to “UCLA, not that UCLA”

    Though, they do have a very nice driving range.

  84. #84 BoxNDox
    February 11, 2010

    Petzl @ #80 – I’m truly impressed you were able to listen to that much of it. I couldn’t manage more than a minute or two.

    But geez, you think he’d be smart enough to at least pick something that would fail a simple check. There are plenty of real skewed distributions to choose from, like the fact that top-ranked Canadian hockey players tend to have Capricorn or Aquarius as their sign. (This is from Malcom Gladwell’s The Outliers – and of course the explanation has nothing to do with astrology.)

  85. #85 bubbabubba666
    February 11, 2010

    BoxNDox,

    Thanks for the info.

    I also found this guy painful to watch, and I went straight to the 60 minute part. The more I watch these types of guys, the more I see the same personality traits. That in and of itself would make for an interesting study.

  86. #86 Citizen Z
    February 11, 2010

    CLAIM: “Apollo astronauts are all Pisces.”
    Of 29 Apollo astronauts (those who took off in an Apollo moonshot and including the fatal Apollo 1 accident): 2 Aries, 0 Taurus, 2 Gemini, 1 Cancer, 2 Leo, 3 Virgo, 5 Libra, 5 Scorpio, 0 Sag, 0 Capr, 3 Aqua, 6 Pisces.
    6 out of 29. A whopping 20%. That couldn’t have anything to do with using such a small statistical sample could it? Naah… I’m sure if I flipped a coin 20 times, i’d get 10 heads and 10 tails (the odds are 50%, right?).

    I get a p-value of 0.0528 using this calculator, which is not significant. Granted, the sample size is too small to begin with…

  87. #87 Midnight Rambler
    February 11, 2010

    Lynn Margulis is another scientist who came up with important ideas only to go off the deep end. She formulated the symbiont hypothesis, that mitochondria and chloroplasts started out as bacterial endosymbionts in eukaryotic cells. But she went overboard into claiming that every organelle was derived from an endosymbiont, and recently sponsored this crackpot paper in PNAS, which claims that insect larvae are derived from hybridization of hemimetabolous (non-metamorphosing) insects with onychophorans (velvet worms). Um, yeah.

  88. #88 frog, Inc.
    February 11, 2010

    a_ray: Having known about a dozen Nobel Laureates (including a couple or 3 even before they won the prize), I’m afraid I disagree. Most Nobel Laureates are well aware of the limitations of their own expertise. Most of them played quite well with others–pretty much a prerequisite for success in science these days.

    Ok, I’ll backpeddle a bit. I’d argue that crackpots are merely over-represented among both Nobel winners, and the Nobel possible pool (including wannabes), as opposed to your regular, hum-drum scientist, or the general population.

    I think it’s helpful, but not necessary (and definitely not sufficient). Probably for the same reason that crackpots are over-represented among engineers — being arrogant about your knowledge does tend to lead to riskier proposition. You only need to be right once for a Nobel — or just often enough to be a decent engineer (since you can backtrack (!) on most errors during testing).

    Most folks are conservative about their positions. You can still win that way — but it shifts the probability down. And if you’re in science as a business, you’re both unlikely to win a Nobel or run risks, but primarily stay right in the safe middle.

    Mullis isn’t as unusual among top scientists as he is among your run of the mill faculty member. He’s a bit more extreme than most though, true enough.

    Compare a bit more ambiguous case of Chomsky (not a Nobel winner — but that’s more an issue of what you get Nobel’s for). He takes radical positions — he’s quite often right. But they do verge on being over-speculative, from linguistics to neuroscience to politics. If you don’t get into a huge background, the natural inclination is to take him as a crackpot (NB: Some of his proposition that I first took as crackpottery, further investigation has lead me to be surprised).

  89. #89 lenoxuss
    February 11, 2010

    #80 Petzl: If most matadors are Taurus, what does that make Virgos? Or Gemini? I suddenly feel nervous on behalf of twins everywhere?

    Okay, to be fair, I did make a statistics fallacy right there (most X are Y means most Y are X? what’s the phrase for that?). So I guess scales are safe from being murdered by Libras. Still, if I were a professional waterboy for some sport or other, I’d worry about all the Aquariuses in the arena?

  90. #90 WCorvi
    February 11, 2010

    Petzl #80, I wish I’d read your post before going to the trouble to look up all those birth dates. You are spang on. Evidence ALWAYS supports your theory, when you make it up.

    It is, by the way, the Vienna PHILHARMONIC he meant to say. I guess they’ll just have to change their name, to make him right.

    When PZ said this was bad, I didn’t expect it to be THIS bad.

  91. #91 WCorvi
    February 11, 2010

    Petzl #80, I wish I’d read your post before going to the trouble to look up all those birth dates. You are spang on. Evidence ALWAYS supports your theory, when you make it up.

    It is, by the way, the Vienna PHILHARMONIC he meant to say. I guess they’ll just have to change their name, to make him right.

    When PZ said this was bad, I didn’t expect it to be THIS bad.

  92. #92 Midnight Rambler
    February 11, 2010

    Regarding astrological signs, let’s not forget that when bringing up correlations (even if you’re not making stuff up out of thin air like Mullis), you have to compare it against the general population. For example, in most temperate countries, birth dates are more concentrated in August through March compared to the rest of the year. Go back nine months and you can probably figure out why.

  93. #93 Mr. Mxpklk
    February 11, 2010

    Nice one Petzl.
    I couldn’t believe my ears when he started on the astrology thing. My favourite quote: “They’re all Pisces – 70% of ‘em…”. I suggest they don’t have him back as guest speaker for a stats course.

    Let’s create a brand new zodiac sign for loony haz-beens with too much time on their hands and no people skills or grace. That way we can guarantee 100% hit rate (or at least 70%, which is close enough). ANY IDEAS? My suggestion the sign of the ass.

  94. #94 startlingmoniker
    February 11, 2010

    While I know that it usually gets me flamed at Pharyngula, I’ve yet to shake the feeling that astrology might work. Hear me out for a second, then show me where I’m wrong: if the universe has no “supernatural” elements, then it stands to reason that all things could be understood by scientific methods. ALL things– alligator mating, the possible sounds that could emanate from a paper cup, the motion of clouds on Venus, etc. Having laws and understanding of all these things would also lead to seeing how one thing affects another; nothing exists on its own in the universe, so it must affect (or be affected by) something else.

    Keeping all this in mind, wouldn’t it be possible to chart the complete life of a person (or hell, the movement of my car keys from 1990 to 1998) using any information at any starting point? I fully understand that this information does not exist yet, hence making astrology complete bullshit guessing, but what about in the situation I describe?

  95. #95 frog, Inc.
    February 11, 2010

    startlingmoniker: Keeping all this in mind, wouldn’t it be possible to chart the complete life of a person (or hell, the movement of my car keys from 1990 to 1998) using any information at any starting point? I fully understand that this information does not exist yet, hence making astrology complete bullshit guessing, but what about in the situation I describe?

    Short answer — no. First, not everything is related — information flows at the speed of light or less. Second, we have entropy — information becomes difficult to extract, ultimately require infinite computational capacity to determine.

    Grab a box of ping pong balls and shake them. Figure out their original positions. The more you shake them, the more computations you require to recreate the original state. That grows super-exponentially. Soon, you’d need more computational capacity than that of the universe. It is, in fact, stochastic then.

  96. #96 Old Rasputin
    February 11, 2010

    Wow – I only watched from 57min to 67 or so, but this definitely brightened my day.

  97. #97 thedolcelife#276f1
    February 12, 2010

    I once met Arno Penzias (co-discoverer of the Cosmic Microwave Background and nobel prize winner). It was a dinner/talk with about 16 people, plenty of time for a presentation of his discovery for the uneducated. I asked him if he had had that moment of excitement when he realized he knew something no other human knew. He said, not really, he was more concerned about finding theoretical cover for the explanation on the chance they were wrong.

    It became apparent that this nobel winner was a smart and thorough engineer/scientist, but I wasn’t impressed.

    His subsequent discussion about his current work as a green energy consultant left me disappointed. Not due to his opinions, but his knowledge and willingness to be challenged. My wife (decidedly not a scientist) ran circles around him based upon her knowledge from The Wall Street Journal.

    On the other hand, I once sat in on a lecture with Herb Simon. That man was a true genius.

  98. #98 Canman
    February 12, 2010

    #74

    Rokkaku: “Perhaps there is a lack of popular writing on climate change, but really, scientific work isn’t always supposed to be readily accessible to the layperson.”

    llewelly: [big list of books]

    Thanks.

  99. #99 hznfrst
    February 12, 2010

    There’s a place for everyone, and Dr Mullis’ place is as science advisor for Fox News.

  100. #100 echidna
    February 12, 2010

    StartlingMoniker,
    Astrology is wrong. Read this:
    http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/astrology.html

  101. #101 Stephen Wells
    February 12, 2010

    @94: There’s another reason, from relativity, why perfect prediction isn’t possible even in theory. There are events taking place elsewhere in the universe which will affect us causally in future and about which we cannot possibly have any current knowledge.

    And of course there’s the quantum issue where some events seem to have genuinely random, or at least not predictable even in principle, outcomes.

  102. #102 startlingmoniker
    February 12, 2010

    @94– I don’t understand how the speed of information means that not everything in the universe is related in some way.

    As for the ping-pong balls, you might be right. Then again, maybe it’s not that complex. Aren’t there a lot of complex-looking things that turn out to have simple or elegant mathematical formula governing them? What looks complex now might just need more processing power.

    @99– I read that before. It doesn’t seem to address my question, though it is a good resource otherwise.

    @100– Whenever the woo freaks come out, they quickly point to quantum mechanics as a reason why such-and-such weirdness takes place. I don’t think you understand this stuff either.

  103. #103 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    February 12, 2010

    Startlingmoniker, you are the one who needs to prove your claims with the rigor required by science. Something like astrology cannot be absolutely disproved, as there can always be some proof yet to be discovered. Science will not look at astrology, as there is no rational basis for doing so. It is a failure as an idea. Therefore, the proponents of the idea of astrology must do the looking. And they must be rigorous in their data, including the cases where their ideas fail. Which is where woo tends to fall down. If they get one in ten hits, they try to ignore the nine times it didn’t work right. Science can’t ignore the nine failures.

  104. #104 Miki Z
    February 12, 2010

    The universe behaves chaotically, in the mathematical sense. Very simple systems, such as the movement of the sun, earth, and moon can be shown to be chaotic even if they are viewed deterministically (3-body problem).

    The practical effect of chaotic systems is that you have to measure to infinite precision the current state to know what the state will be some time in the future — again, even for a deterministic system. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, while often misapplied, does apply in this case: there are physically relevant properties of the universe which would need to be measured to infinite precision simultaneously in order to have enough state for prediction.

    Astrology is woo. All the physics in the universe cannot rescue it.

  105. #105 Stephen Wells
    February 12, 2010

    @101: to recap, there are at least three good physical reasons why, even in the hypothetical situation you describe (having complete information about a situation at some moment in time and), you cannot even in principle predict their future accurately.

    Reason 1 is the computational issue. The amount of computation required to extend that kind of calculation for a given span into the future grows very rapidly with the time you’re trying to predict over, so even if you turned the entire universe into a calculating machine to run your calculations, you couldn’t do it.

    Reason 2 is the relativistic reason. In the future you will be affected by events about which you can’t even in principle know, because they lie outside your past light cone at the moment- you can’t have any information about them, and you will only learn of them later, when they enter your past light cone and affect you causally. So the maximum knowledge you could possibly have at a particular place and time is insufficient to predict the future.

    Reason 3 is a quantum reason and it’s neither woo nor weirdness. It is simply the case that quantum events appear to be genuinely unpredictable. You can’t predict exactly when a given radioactive nucleus will decay, for example, only the probability of it decaying within a given time. Don’t mistake me for Deepak Chopra (hawk, spit).

    In sum, the future contains events which are genuinely unpredictable; it will be affected by events of which you can have no knowledge at the moment; and you couldn’t possibly do enough computation to make the prediction anyway.

  106. #106 startlingmoniker
    February 12, 2010

    @102– I’m going to turn you down on this, because I’m not making any claims. I’m asking a hypothetical question, one which doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. I’m also getting pretty good answers.

    @104– Concerning part one: my whole life has been nothing but watching computers get more and more amazing. It is very hard for me to overturn this 30+ years experience and think that something might be too difficult for an advanced machine. I’ll leave this point alone, though– I surely don’t have any data on this, and don’t think it can really be resolved.

    Concerning part two: After reading this paragraph a few times slowly (it’s morning!) I see what you’re saying, and I do actually understand it. On one hand, I’m still quite tempted to say that a complete knowledge of universal laws would let you definitively predict what had yet to arrive, but on the other hand, I wonder if things which had come to pass BEFORE but were un-noticed by anyone would give us an incomplete picture, thus disallowing a complete knowledge of universal laws in the first place. Seriously, you’re talking with a curious person who just may be totally wrong. Does this make any sense?

    Concerning part three: I’ve read about this issue. It breaks my common sense completely, and I just don’t like it. While I’m in no position whatsoever to argue with scientists conclusions on quantum matters, you’ll have to forgive my inability to accept this as anything but an incomplete understanding of what’s going on in the atom.

    To sum up, I have some dogs to go feed, and I’m very happy that their food is not behaving in a quantum manner, otherwise I’d never find it unless I built an enormous computer a little bit bigger than the universe. Thanks all!

  107. #107 creating trons
    February 12, 2010

    no capricorn matadors?

    I would think that if astrology had anything to do with anything, it would seem to me that what house the moon was in would have more influence on your conception rather than the first day you appear outside the womb.

    capricorn out…

  108. #108 Kemist
    February 12, 2010

    startlingmoniker:

    In computation science, there are ways to qualify the complexity of an algorithm (the way that is used to solve a problem). This has to do with how the time needed to solve the problem grows with the number of iterations and data you need to have an acceptable answer.

    Some problems grow linearly, some geometrically, and some grow exponentially, and very rapidly become unsolvable in a practical amount of time. Even if you imagine a computing device in which the time per step is very, very small (it cannot be zero for theoretical reasons), you still have computation times for your problem which are greater than the age of the universe.

    The other problem is precision – no computing device can have infinite precision, since it has to have finite memory. Therefore, you have to truncate data at one point, which limits precision.

  109. #109 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    February 12, 2010

    I’m asking a hypothetical question, one which doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

    Your question seems totally inane and unreasonable to me (but then, I’m a skeptic). Even a cursory investigation would say you are wrong. I think you are just trolling.

  110. #110 Kemist
    February 12, 2010

    On one hand, I’m still quite tempted to say that a complete knowledge of universal laws would let you definitively predict what had yet to arrive

    You are assuming that all mathematical models (the tools by which understanding from physics can be used to predict outcomes) can be solved exactly – that is not the case. Even the simple three-body problems mentionned by MikiZ(what happens to three particles interacting together, be they atoms or planets) cannot be solved exactly – you can only approximate an answer by numerical iteration – which brings us back to the precision and computation time problems.

  111. #111 frog, Inc.
    February 12, 2010

    @#105: Concerning part one: my whole life has been nothing but watching computers get more and more amazing. It is very hard for me to overturn this 30+ years experience and think that something might be too difficult for an advanced machine. I’ll leave this point alone, though– I surely don’t have any data on this, and don’t think it can really be resolved.

    The point is that we can calculate how large a computer must be to calculate the box of ping pongs. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter how big your computer gets — it would have to have almost the full computational capability of the universe.

    In other words, the ping pong balls are extremely sensitive to “initial conditions”. They depend on everything within their light cones — so there is nothing simpler than everything to calculate their position beyond a certain approximation.

    This isn’t about having “data”. This is about the definition of computations, and the structure of certain problems.

    No — it’s not intuitive to the enlightenment mind. But this is a problem that has come up in weather, in biology and in physics. If you want to understand it, read up on Poincare and unintegrability.

    It’s also known as the “three body problem”. It’s actually mathematically impossible, in principle, to calculate the orbits of three massive objects to an arbitrary level of precision. So, the orbit of the moon around the earth around the sun can only be approximated — we can’t know the orbits exactly. It doesn’t matter how “advanced” your computer is — it will never be “advanced” enough.

    This is a very important principle. Thermodynamics comes out of this, therefore biology and time. There are essential limits to knowledge — they are not technical limits, but mathematical limits.

    This is why you die.

  112. #112 phoenixwoman
    February 12, 2010

    I read his book Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. One of the early chapters was about his role in the OJ Simpson case, as an expert witness for the defense. He essentially admitted that OJ couldn’t have done it because he and OJ talked about hot women during the trial — no one who was guilty could have done that, according to Mullis.

    What what WHAAAT?!

    Words. Flipping. Fail.

  113. #113 David Marjanovi?
    February 12, 2010

    Former President M’becki (sp) of South Africa

    Mbeki. Thabo Mbeki.

    Then there’s the ad hominem about climatologists “not knowing what they’re talking about”

    That’s by no means an ad-hominem argument. It’s a conclusion ? though a completely ludicrous one.

    and producing “boring” work that is “not meant for you to understand.”

    This is an ad-hominem argument.

    Crankery and asshatery goes with the landscape. Sensible, reasonable, consensus builders rarely make huge breakthroughs.

    Scientists aren’t usually consensus builders. If you’re too much into consensus-building, you can only publish in a Journal of Negative Results? :-)

    Mind you it does show something rather humbling, that even a total loon can possibly have (at least) one decent idea that is genuinely of worth.

    This is the best way of looking at it.

    Kerry Mullis may be crazy, but he did invent the second-coolest, most important lab technique in molecular biology. And I think that deserves some kind of prize. (If you’re keeping score, the coolest is Sanger dideoxy sequencing.)

    Fully agreed.

    Having laws and understanding of all these things would also lead to seeing how one thing affects another; nothing exists on its own in the universe, so it must affect (or be affected by) something else.

    But that doesn’t mean that everything affects everything.

    Not everything, in fact, can affect everything. Billions of neutrinos zoom through you every second, but there’s no interaction, because neutrinos lack electric charge. They don’t notice the very existence of your atoms or vice versa. (?Except if they get so close that the weak nuclear force comes into play, but that practically never happens.)

    Keeping all this in mind, wouldn’t it be possible to chart the complete life of a person (or hell, the movement of my car keys from 1990 to 1998) using any information at any starting point?

    No, determinism is dead even in theory, never mind the limits of computation ? Heisenberg killed it.

    Concerning part three: I’ve read about this issue. It breaks my common sense completely, and I just don’t like it. While I’m in no position whatsoever to argue with scientists conclusions on quantum matters, you’ll have to forgive my inability to accept this as anything but an incomplete understanding of what’s going on in the atom.

    Many people were tempted to come up with a hidden-variable theory. However, it seems that this is not possible and the random is almost certainly genuine.

  114. #114 Kemist
    February 12, 2010

    [about quantum mechanics] It breaks my common sense completely, and I just don’t like it. While I’m in no position whatsoever to argue with scientists conclusions on quantum matters, you’ll have to forgive my inability to accept this as anything but an incomplete understanding of what’s going on in the atom.

    Your common sense evolved to deal with things at the human-sized scale. Things that are close to our everyday life – Newtonian physics – are more familiar to us than what goes on at subatomic scale. That is why common sense is a poor guide in science, especially when you explore very unfamiliar things.

    Of course, quantum mechanics is an incomplete understanding, all models are, by definition. But the thing that reassure physicists about it is that when you wade through the equations and apply it to our human scale of things, you obtain (somewhat more painstakingly) the same results you would obtain with good old Newtonian, common sense physics.

  115. #115 David Marjanovi?
    February 12, 2010

    Your question seems totally inane and unreasonable to me (but then, I’m a skeptic). Even a cursory investigation would say you are wrong. I think you are just trolling.

    Sometimes, Nerd, you’re just annoying. “A cursory investigation” ? yes, if you already know enough about quantum physics, chaos theory, computation and so on and so forth! startlingmoniker obviously doesn’t! What good can it possibly do to treat him as an asshole till proven innocent!?!

    All startlingmoniker needs to do is to learn a bit more.

  116. #116 frog, Inc.
    February 12, 2010

    DM: No, determinism is dead even in theory, never mind the limits of computation ? Heisenberg killed it.

    The limits of computation are more interesting than Heisenberg. Heisenberg is just a limit of a particular set of physical laws — the limits of computation apply to any possible set of physical laws. We could, conceivably, discover that modern physics just happens to be wrong — it would be “merely” an empirical finding. That would be like finding out that you were switched at birth.

    But if we find that our idea of computational limits is wrong… well, that would be a serious blow to the entire program of rationality. Finding out that the maths themselves are wrong is serious. It’s like realizing that real life is a dream, and your dreams are real life.

  117. #117 David Marjanovi?
    February 12, 2010

    him

    Him/her/it/squid. Sorry.

  118. #118 David Marjanovi?
    February 12, 2010

    Finding out that the maths themselves are wrong is serious.

    Point taken!

  119. #119 Quantumburrito
    February 12, 2010

    -Did Erlenmeyer win a Nobel for inventing the flask?

    Seriously, I hope you are not comparing the importance of the Erlenmeyer flask to PCR or Sanger sequencing. Modern chemistry would have very much been possible without the flask (we could have used beakers…) but modern molecular biology and biochemistry cannot be imagined without Western Blots (for which a Nobel still awaits), Sanger and PCR.

  120. #120 startlingmoniker
    February 12, 2010

    @116— Couldn’t have said it better myself!

    @100– I’ll look those two subjects up on Wikipedia. I’m pretty sure they’ll be well beyond my math abilities, unfortunately.

    @107– It’s depressing to think that there is a hard wall that will eventually limit our understanding. What a terrible thought.

  121. #121 Sara
    February 12, 2010

    Mullins is not to be blamed for being nuts. He is who he is.
    The idiots at this school who brought him in to discuss (well whatever they thought he might talk about). Did they not look into what he was up to. I am imagining his “talk” is typical of his style. Astrology? He didn’t just make that up. He’s talked about it before. Research! Find out who the hell you are bringing in before you invite them.
    Why would you bring in someone who can segue from cholesterol to the big bang in one sentence.

    He needs to be sitting on the beach or in some coffee den somewhere, smoking and spouting. That’s where he belongs. He doesn’t belong in a classroom.

  122. #122 startlingmoniker
    February 12, 2010

    @100, again– I found “Integrable system,” but didn’t understand a word of what it said. I think I would need an entire new math education before I could make use of the information you’re trying to share with me.

    I also found “n-body problem” which I think is the three-body thing you mentioned. I don’t get all of this, just basically that they can’t figure it out. Not sure what Poincare added to the discussion at all. My overall impression is that perhaps math just fails at some level– and that’s not to say that I have a substitute for it– but it’s just an idea that makes for an intriguing possible opening. I like to think about things like this sometimes. Like… at some time, humanity had no concept of math. Someone (or maybe a group of people) had to think something pretty amazing to start considering their world in this abstract manner, this thinking that now frames so much of our experience that it is almost forgotten to be an abstract concept (like words, or justice, I suppose). Could there be something in our future that is as big a development as math or language? Makes you wonder!

  123. #123 Miki Z
    February 12, 2010

    The “n-body problem” is indeed just a generalization of the “3-body problem”. (The two-body problem is non-chaotic, and is also sometimes used to refer satirically to the trick of finding geographically compatible university jobs for married science/math professors.)

    It’s not that they can’t figure it out: it is that it is impossible, rather than just difficult. Before Poincare it was thought that maybe just nobody had figured out how to do it but it could be solved. Poincare proved that it would never be solved. There are no comparable problems today.*

    You might read up on the Central Limit Theorem. In a nutshell, this lets us be confident about the general state of things even when the specific state of things is unpredictable. Stephen Wells’s example is a good one: we can’t predict when any given radioactive atom will decay, but we can still calculate half-lives.

    Math fails at a lot of things, but on telling the future with certainty, it’s quite clear: if you can tell the future with complete accuracy all of the time, the universe does not operate according to physical laws. You can’t have both.

    * P = NP is close, but most of us think that proposition is false, i.e., there is no polynomial function for satisfiability, and most thought that the 3-body problem had a solution. Poincare’s negative result was a surprise.

  124. #124 BoxNDox
    February 12, 2010

    Kemist #107 – adding to what you said:

    Precision is actually not the main problem with models in a lot of cases, at least not in the sense of computational precision.

    A lot of models take the form of couple differential equations of one sort or another, and differential equations provide a great example of this.

    Although a closed form solution doesn’t exist for many, if not most, interesting differential systems, it’s often possible to show that fairly simple iterative numeral methods can produce a result that’s within a given error of the actual solution.

    Then there are other cases, like so-called stiff systems. Formally speaking a system is “stiff” when the characteristic eigenvalues vary widely in magnitude, but what this means in a practical sense is that there are both very low and very high frequency components in the solution. If you iterate slowly enough to catch all the fine detail of the high frequency component, it takes way too many iterations to track the slow stuff.

    However, there are numerical techniques available to deal with most sorts of stiff systems. (I’ll spare everyone the details – you’ll find them in any decent book on numerical analysis.) And once again even with finite precision you can get pretty good results.

    But there are also classes of equations which, while they can usually be solved numerically, are incredibly sensitive to the initial conditions of the system. Change one of the initial values by the tiniest amount, and you get a completely different result.

    There’s an entire area of mathematics – chaos theory – that deals with the analysis and characterization of such systems. But all the theory does, really is characterize these things – find the points at which system behavior changes abruptly, determine overall complexity, and so on. This doesn’t really help in solving them for purposes of modeling physical behavior.

    Unfortunately the models for quite a few sorts of physical systems – weather modeling is the usual example – are chaotic in nature. So, even when we’re able to solve such systems with sufficient accuracy – we cannot possibly measure the initial conditions accurately enough for the solution to match up with the physical reality. So such models only work over very limited ranges of time, which is why weather forecasts are reasonably accurate looking forward a few days but no further.

    And finally, there are differential systems for which is can be shown that for a given algorithm infinite numerical accuracy is required to get a numerical result that doesn’t immediately diverge from the actual solution. Sometimes changing the algorithm helps, other times it doesn’t.

    A good example of this are models for forced extraction of oil from wells. For some of these it can be shown that no rectangular grid method, no matter how fine you make the grid, will produce an accurate result. But if you switch to a hexagonal grid – or use what are called multigrid methods – you can get a result that has acceptable accuracy.

    In summary, whether or not different sorts of precision matter very much depends on the sort of model you’ve come up with. In some cases it’s a total nonissue while in others it can easily make the model worthless for all practical purposes. And I have to say that sorting between the two is what makes mathematical modeling a really fun thing to do.

  125. #125 Miki Z
    February 12, 2010

    BoxNDox,

    As a complete aside: meshless methods look like an intriguing field for some of the problems that require multigrids. I’ve done some work on the Galerkin and FEM modeling for PDEs, but nothing meshless yet.

  126. #126 Good Dr. Laura
    February 12, 2010

    The astrology thing irks me for reasons beyond the lack of statistical support.

    Of those supposed taurus matadors, how many knew their birth sign and were influenced by it, how many lied and said they were born under the sign of the bull to get the job?

    Did he decide that pisces was the best sign for astronauts before or after he found out that several of the astronauts were pisces?

  127. #127 co
    February 12, 2010

    startlingmoniker (how self-referential can one get?!?):

    You might be interested in Lloyd’s semi-famous (to some of us) paper on the limits of computation. It will likely be a little too math-ish, but it gives a nice overview on some ultimate limits, and what it would take to computer some things:

    http://puhep1.princeton.edu/~mcdonald/examples/QM/lloyd_nature_406_1047_00.pdf

  128. #128 ivo
    February 13, 2010

    …most X are Y means most Y are X? what’s the phrase for that?

    Dyslexia.

  129. #129 0bserver
    February 20, 2010

    Do not respect authority?
    So on what basis would you expect to influence the millions of non-college graduates?
    For those without the academic wherewithall there’s a need to develop a trust relationship with the academic community. How many times do we hear ‘The vast majority of scientists agree that humans are influencing the climate’ as a rebuff to anybody who dares to challenge the predominant view of climate change?
    Let me hasten to say that I am not a climate change nay-sayer but I think there is a growing epistemological problem between the scientific community (which I regard myself as being part of)and those outside the science cadre.
    As sections of the science community seem to become less tolerant and less willing to explain their position (again and again), resorting to exasperation and (worst case) name calling they begin to mirror just the behaviours that they criticise outside the science-mainstream.
    The ability of groups of mainstream scientists to heap scorn on those who think differently has been shown in history to not be a sound basis for judging the longevity of competing ideas.
    We should always be ready to challenge ideas that make no sense to us. We should all be ready to justify our views or admit ‘Actually I don’t know but I trust scientist XXX and they seem to be convinced’.’

  130. #130 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    February 20, 2010

    For those without the academic wherewithall there’s a need to develop a trust relationship with the academic community.

    Yawn, your concern is noted. Science has evidence. We know that. People who ignore the evidence should be treated like the ignorant people they are. People who see conspiracies everywhere should be mocked and ridiculed. Otherwise, one ends up wasting energy in pissing argument where the other side thinks the loudest voice wins. The evidence wins. They don’t recognize that yet, and aren’t listening. Ridicule might get their attention. Anything less, no.

  131. #131 'Tis Himself, OM
    February 20, 2010

    I can’t speak for anyone else but when I’ve refuted the same argument for the tenth time I tend to get a little testy. The creationists/climate deniers/libertarians/whatever use the same arguments to deny reality and get the same rebuttals.

    For instance I’ve explained problems with the gold standard at least three times on this blog alone and probably ten times total in various places on the interweb. The arguments pro and con aren’t very interesting and become even less so with repetition. I try to be polite when some looneytarian whines about FDR taking the US off the gold standard and prolonging the Great Depression for several years. It’s all I can do to keep from saying “No, idiot, there were good reasons why every industrialized country dropped the gold standard, it didn’t prolong the Depression, even Milton Friedman agreed staying on the gold standard would have been disastrous, and you are a seriously fucked up economic illiterate if you think we should go back to the gold standard.”

    Somehow I suspect various scientists have the same problem when confronting scientific illiterates propounding the same stupidities time after time.

  132. #132 0bserver
    February 21, 2010

    @Nerd of Redhead:

    You say “People who ignore the evidence should be treated like the ignorant people they are.”

    And how, in society should we treat the ignorant? Educate them? Berate them? Engage with them? Ignore them? Lock them up?

    @Tis Himself Om

    Of course one can get frustrated. I do think that there’s a problem that letting that frustration spill into ‘losing it’ with the person on the other side of the argument is unlikely to be convincing, though it may do one’s spleen good :)

    I find myself returning to the question, “How do we best convince those without scientific skills about the prevailing scientific views most successfully?” When we drift away from the highest standards of objective scientific reporting (which many find dry and impenetrable) and allow our ‘natural human nature’ out for a run around we can fall into the problems that the have arisen with the University of East Anglia and the climate change argument. Of course, the evidence is the foundation, but when the evidence isn’t immediately clear it’s hard to convey it without sounding partisan, unless one has the humility to admit not being certain.