Sunday, February 26, 2006

Newton's Principia Does Not Belong In The Science Classroom

But if you want to discuss it down the hall in philosophy or religion class, that's just fine[, we'll sue you]. Excellent satire by David Berlinski:

Special to the London Gazette

More than sixty years after the famous Galileo ‘The Earth it Moves’ trial in Rome, Copernicus is in the news again, this time in the form of a so-called theory of universal gravitation (or UG, as it has come to be known). Headquartered at the Royal Society, a think tank in London funded by well-heeled royalist donors, members of the universal gravitation movement argue that the facts of astronomy are so complicated that they require the introduction of a mysterious ‘universal force of gravitation.’ But when queried, members decline to specify the author of this force, saying only (according to a public spokesman) that “In this, we are agnostic.”

Unlike the old breed of Copernicists, universal gravitation theorists sport established degrees from well-known universities and claim to be doing cutting edge science. “Look,” said one prominent member of the Royal Society, “there’s plainly some sort of force at work on the surface of the earth. Unsupported objects always fall. All we’re saying is that it is perfectly reasonable to follow the evidence. If the evidence leads to some sort of universal force, that’s where the evidence leads.”

Critics have not been impressed, pointing to the fact that members of the movement do not publish in peer-reviewed journals and instead rely on the Royal Society itself to put out their slick products.

“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” claimed one member of the astronomy faculty at the University of Augsburg. “It’s a classic force of the gaps argument. All they’re really saying is that there are some things established science can’t explain yet, so there must be a mysterious force at work. If science has taught us anything over two thousand years, it’s that sooner or later the gaps get filled in a perfectly natural way.”

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

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

UG’s most well-known figure has been Isaac Newton, a notoriously reclusive mathematician with a known taste for bizarre theology and a penchant for dangerous chemical experiments. His Principia Mathematica has been a surprise best-seller, one of those books, as one wag quipped, which it is ‘easy to get into and impossible to get out of.’ Real mathematicians have been almost universal in their scorn, however. “The worst sort of pretentious posturing,” said the professor of counting and arithmetic at the University of London, adding “that for all this Newton’s so-called arithmetical expertise, there is just nothing in this book that indicates that it has any relevance at all to the real data of astronomy.

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless, the most recent polls indicate that over sixty percent of the English public believes that the earth revolves around the sun and that it is kept in its orbit by some sort of mysterious force.

1 comment:

Michael Poole said...

That analogy is flawed on so many levels it isn't funny. Gravity is a proposed and testable mechanism; ID is not. The Royal Society *was* the 17th century equivalent of (quite adversarial) peer review. Isaac Newton was not particularly reclusive; before publishing Principia, he was the Lucasian professor at Cambridge University. Nine years after publishing it, he was appointed Warden of the Royal Mint; three years after that, he was appointed Master of the Royal Mint.

This is not to say that Newton was perfect; he had bad theories, some of which he kept at until he retired from science, but science as a whole has relegated those to the pages of history. A satire comparing ID to Newton's views on astrology or alchemy would be much closer to the truth.

Anyway, wasn't it William Dembski's role to make inappropriate comparisons of himself to Isaac Newton? (Even within the field of information theory, it seems poor form to put oneself above Claude Shannon.)