So, the good news is, Gregg Easterbrook is writing about football for ESPN again. His “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” columns are some of the most entertaining football writing around. Here’s hoping he can make it through the whole season without saying something stupid to get himself fired.
The bad news is, Gregg Easterbrook is writing about science for Slate. Actually, Gregg Easterbrook writing about anything other than football is bad news, but science is particularly bad. His knowledge of the subject always seems to operate at the Star Trek sort of level– like he’s read the glossary of a bunch of general science books, but never really understood how it all fits together.
The basic article is a “string theory is a bunch of crap” piece (and Peter Woit is just thrilled), with the problematic paragraph being this one near the end:
Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised for incredible sophistication. If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank.
There are a lot of things to dislike about this, starting from the fact that it’s recycled. Most of the commentary on this paragraph, from the usual suspects, has complained about Easterbrook having the temerity to say anything positive about religion, but that’s not what bug me. he’s a religious guy, he can say nice things about religion if he likes. Hooting him down as a superstitious crank is sort of pointless.
The problem is, he’s chosen a particularly idiotic way of working religion into his column. I’m sure he just about dislocated a shoulder patting himself on the back for this zinger (he liked it so much, he used it twice, after all), but it works only because he uses the word “dimension” to mean two different things in the same sentence. In the context of string theory, “dimension” has a precise scientific meaning– roughly, “a direction of motion perpendicular to all other directions of motion.” In the context of religion, “dimension” is a metaphor.
Equating the scientific and “spiritual” meanings of dimension, the way Easterbrook does, makes about as much sense as saying “A big drop in stock prices could lead to a bear market, which would be bad because bears ripped apart that guy in Grizzly Man.” It lends a wonderful Lemony Snicket quality to the article, but doesn’t exactly mark him as a Deep Thinker.
(Drawing a parallel between this and the war-on-science misuse of terms like “theory” or “uncertainty” is left as an exercise for the reader.)
I wish people would stop hiring Easterbrook to write serious pieces, because I really enjoy his football stuff. Every time he writes about science, though, he comes off as a pinhead.