L.A. Book Festival

There was a tiny local skirmish in the ongoing battle between scientists and their various critics, teasers and self-appointed scourges a few days ago at the Los Angeles Book Festival, which was shown on the defiantly uncommercial tv channel Cspan. The critic was one Jeffrey Schwartz, who made a bizarrely impassioned, over-emphatic near-oration on the perils of ‘scientism,’ the putative belief of scientists that only what can be measured is real and that science claims it knows everything worth knowing. Schwartz spoke fervently about the importance of inner experience (do a lot of people dispute that nowadays? Isn’t behaviorism kind of, like, over?) and claimed that it too should be treated as science, that there were ways (not specified) of making it measurable and reproducible, and that it’s very very important. (Odd – he’s against scientism and yet wants science to encompass inner experience and inner experience to be made measurable and reproducible – isn’t that kind of ‘scientistic’ itself?)

The other panelists were David Baltimore, John Maddox, Timothy Ferris, and Brenda Maddox, and they all disagreed with Schwartz, though Ferris also thanked him for making the discussion more interesting than it would otherwise have been. Ferris also advised Schwartz not to try to get published in Nature, to which Schwartz replied, laughing a good deal, that he had tried, several times, and been rejected. John Maddox was the editor of Nature for many years, and he did indeed seem particularly unimpressed by Schwartz’ comments. He wondered how one would go about making inner experience measurable and reproducible, and he pointed out that there are many things science doesn’t know yet, such as how life began and how the mind works. Timothy Ferris talked about seeing a panel of scientists line up to ask hostile, probing questions of researchers and remarked that one would wait a long time before seeing that happen at a panel of theologians. In short it wasn’t much of a victory for the anti-science team.

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