I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the interplay between popular science writing and crackpotism. And in this case, by popular science I don’t mean reviews of quantum mechanics and the like. I mean reviews or introductions to emerging ideas presented to the public. I think there’s a connection between people (generally established scientists) trying to argue their new theories in popular book form (rather than settling it within their journals first) by appealing to common sense and crackpot theories in general.
I was thinking about this yesterday, when listening to the Savage Love Podcast, during which Dan was interviewing one of the authors of Sex at Dawn. Christopher Ryan was arguing some very controversial points about the evolution of human sexuality. Dan was particularly taken with Ryan’s argument against tendencies toward monogamy. The book sounds fascinating, but also, based on everything I’ve read by, say, Jared Diamond (in particular in “The Third Chimpanzee”), completely at odds with physiological evidence.
In case you’re wondering, Ryan argues that during pre-agricultural times there was no property and thus no advantage to an individual child to claiming a particular parentage. Thus, within a tribe virtually all men could be the father of any child (if you catch my drift), and it was only with the advent of agriculture and property that this changed. Diamond, on the other hand, claims that, because of the relative size of human men and women (compared to the differences in other primates — think giant male gorillas compared to the females) as well as our proportions, um, downtown, we have all the biological hallmarks of a species that is only mildly non-monogamous.
I’m not in a position to weigh the evidence myself. This is way outside my area of expertise. What I will say is that when you read a book which appeals to your common sense and it accords with your pre-existing notions (as “Sex at Dawn” did with Dan Savage) you’re going to adopt that position, and feel that you were justified in holding it all along. You are also going to believe that this is how science is done, by making reasonable arguments to the uninitiated, rather than by making a case to others in the field who have virtually all of the pre-existing data at their disposal.
Whenever I get manuscripts from people trying to disprove special relativity, they always begin as though their arguments were being made in a vacuum, rather than in a world in which we’ve seen atomic bombs and have made models of stars, both of which require Einstein to be right. You simply can’t do that.
What’s the solution? A blanket ban on laymen accounts of non-settled science? That’s a bit too Big Brother for my taste. And it often takes generations before new ideas are accepted entirely (and until the proponents of the conflicting position have died out). Besides, these ideas are fascinating to read about. I’m almost certainly going to read Ryan’s book. But somehow I think there’s a responsibility to temper the more controversial ideas out there with the caveat that these are not settled issues. But whose responsibility? I’m not foolish enough to think that the authors themselves will do it, and who does that leave?