Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Nice Guys Finish Last

I might agree with that!

During the nine years I have maintained this blog I have come across several nice guys; William Dembski and Tim Ventura are a couple of names I can mention straight away. But both these gentleman have ended up being taken for a ride, perhaps in part because they are prepared to give even rogues some leeway: See here and here.

Another nice guy is Paul Davies, professor of physics and science broadcaster. The good professor, although no doubt a very busy and clever man, took the time to reply to an email of mine that I wrote in January 2006 after reading his fascinating book "The Goldilocks Enigma". That brief correspondence can be seen here. Recently. however, the Prof has run into a bit of aggravation because he has been caught discipline trespassing;  he has been dabbling in biology!

In his no doubt genuine desire to lend a helping hand and move things along, Davies seems to have been completely and merrily unaware that his efforts weren't really welcome, mostly because he looks to have made a dogs-dinner of it! Davies and myself share an interest in the apparent physical anomaly of life, the question of its origins and also in the enigma of the very particular physical regime that pervades our cosmos; that's why I have avidly read several of his books. However, unlike myself Davies dares to get rather immersed in biological details, details that on his own admission he may not know a great deal about. Wiki quotes him as saying:

I had the advantage of being unencumbered by knowledge. I dropped chemistry at the age of 16, and all I knew about arsenic came from Agatha Christie novels. 

So are biologists so incompetent that they need someone who is completely uninitiated into their trade secrets to causally and easily breeze in and show them how it's done? Perhaps they do, but you can guarantee they won't like it anymore than the inhabitants of a spaghetti western town like the arrival of Clint Eastward! Moreover, many biologists are none too keen on what they perceive as physics hubris at the best of times!

Reading his Wiki page we find that typical of Davies very helpful persona he unwisely jumped in to assist Felisa Wolfe-Simon with her radical and risky "Arsenic can replace phosphorus" theory, a theory which according to some should be retracted. That theory seems to be in the Martin Fleischmann, cold fusion league; Farces like this make me wonder what right minded person would want to engage in risky blue skies intellectual endeavors and have a reputation to lose as well as the salary that pays the mortgage!

But for Paul Davies, no doubt a man of independent means, none of this has dampened his enthusiasm for biological dabbling. In his latest move he has taken up theorizing about cancer along with his physics colleague, Charlie Lineweaver. Davies and Lineweaver are developing a theory that cancer is a kind of recapitulation phenomenon where cells revert to an ancient ancestral phenotype; that is, they return to simple cell division and multiplication, the very basic activity of  the first life.

The cancer problem has similarities with the problem humanity has had in the search for a sustainable energy source; scientists have worked on both problems all my life and although there have been worthy advances in both areas there have been no panacea catch-all type breakthroughs. The log-jam here has provided a space for the paranoiac cranky conspiracy theorists who feel that someone somewhere must covering up what they know. The twists and turns of devious and fanciful conspiracy theorist logic has no compunction about dreaming up what the imagined Machiavellian conspirators might have to gain from such a cover up; the usual suspects involve control freakery and money making; there may even be an alien or two thrown in for good measure.

So in all in all Paul Davies and his colleague, clever and original thinkers though they may be, are unlikely to find their latest interest a walk-in-the-park between their "real science" (!) of pondering abstruse physics equations! In fact for Davies the walk-in-the-park has already turned into what is more like a walk in Jurassic Park! For none other than PZ Myers has been viciously savaging Davies ideas on the subject of cancer! The general thrust of Myers argument is that cancer is simply a case of corrupt DNA and that can take many forms; cancer is far too pathological, random and bizarre to be identified as a living atavism.

But the even bigger sin of Davies in the eyes of someone like Myers is that he's soft on the religion. He was awarded the Templeton prize in 1995 and overall he tends to be sympathetic toward a religious outlook (See Davies Wiki page and the quote in my picture above). In this connection here's how Paul responded to a question that I slipped in at the end of my correspondence:

My Question: The moral of the story may be that artifacts in one’s perspective have a bearing. As we know, Newtonian dynamics can be developed using the “teleological” looking extremal principles. But, of course, these are mathematically equivalent to the conventional view that sees one event leading to another in sequence without recourse to end results. It is almost as if the choice of interpretation on the meaning of things is ours to make! Thus, perhaps the way we personally interpret the cosmos constitutes a kind of test that sorts out the sheep from the goats! Which are you? Some theists (but not me, I must add!) probably think you are a goat, but then some atheists probably have the same opinion! Can’t win can you?

Paul Davies: I hate being pigeonholed, so I won't respond to the sheep/goats question.

Well, I think they've well and truly pigeonholed Paul whether he likes it or not! Both Christian fundamentalists and evangelical atheists are likely to have it in for him regardless! You just can't win can you? Specially if you are Mr. Nice-Guy!

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