Curtis White's book, The Science Delusion, makes two broad points: that science is based upon 'assumptions that are deluded,' and that scientists can be real jerks. He provides ample proof for one of those claims.

The title of the The Science Delusion, published on May 28th, is an obvious reference Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. It's no surprise, then, when Dawkins is one of the many scientists that populate its pages. They're not an attractive bunch. Through anecdotes and commentary, Curtis White paints various scientists as dismissive snobs, smug pseudo-intellectuals, manipulative showmen, immoral politicos, and people who make bad faith arguments from behind a protective screen of elite supporters.

It's an unsavory picture, but - while it is fortunate that such people are rare in the world of art, religion, and philosophy - it doesn't support the title and premise of Curtis' book. Unpleasant people can have many failings without perpetuating a delusion, and the fact that the book digresses into personal sniping makes it seem less like an argument and more like one of those spiraling flame wars that are often seen on message boards. In fact, the book is less an argument and more a polemic aimed at other polemics, intensifying the sense of animosity, but not necessarily of credibility.

White's thesis states that scientist's "claims are based upon assumptions many of which are dubious if not outright deluded, and that the kind of culture their delusions support is lamentable." He urges people to use, in place of that science-oriented culture, the intellectual romanticism of the 18th century, particularly its focus on the need for individually-created meaning in the face of the loss of external sources of meaning like the church, the state, and the familial clan. White then claims that the culture of science actively discourages and scorns that search for meaning. While, in between insults, White makes some good points regarding the first two claims, he sabotages himself when it comes to the third.


The best parts of White's polemic come when he shows that certain intellectual traditions are largely used by scientists when they are convenient, and dismissed when they are not. He points out that scientists, from biology to astrophysics, adorn their discoveries with the trappings of meaning to guide people into thinking about these discoveries in certain ways. Evolution should be more impressive than creationism because of its marvelous time scale and simple driving principle. The nebulae and supernovae out there in the infinite universe are wonders. Quantum mechanics is revolutionary. However, when looking at the concept of "marvel," of "wonder," and of "revolutionary," and why they are intrinsically valuable - and thus might apply to other intellectual pursuits - they can be dismissive.

White also points out the bad habit scientists and science writers have of, when faced with a concept seemingly beyond the grasp of hard science, defining it as a measurable commodity, measuring it, and then announcing that they have a grasp on it. White puts it in terms of neuroscientists announcing that they're on the verge of understanding things like "intellect," and "creativity," by mapping certain parts of the brain. I would add to that scientists running personality experiments on different animals, but only after defining personality in a way that allows it to be measurable through experimentation. White argues that, from Richard Dawkins to Lawrence Krauss, many scientists pretend to have the answers to questions about meaning, but instead redefine the question to fit the answers they have.

Unfortunately, White does some redefining of his own. This happens often in the book, such as when White quotes Richard Feynman as saying, "all things are made of atoms, and . . . everything that living things do can be understood in terms of the jigglings and wigglings of atoms." White calls this a "mechanistic claim," and goes on to talk about how the symbolic systems that humans create are not made of atoms. We are more than our physics. Feynman's over-reaching claim was misguided at best.

This is an expanded quote:

"Certainly no subject or field is making more progress on so many fronts at the present moment, as biology, and if we were to name the most powerful assumption of all, which leads one on and on in an attempt to understand life, it is that all things are made of atoms, and that everything that living things do can be understood in terms of jiggling and wiggling atoms."


It already looks less reductionist, with its qualifiers like, "in an attempt to understand life," and "at the present moment." More importantly, it's from Six Easy Pieces, a book intended to explain physics concepts to casual readers. Specifically, it is from a section that is meant to demonstrate how physics works in relation to other sciences. It's not a claim that Richard Feynman, in his capacity as physicist, made about all life on Earth, negating all other schools of thought. It's a way for Feynman to explain how physics relates to biology, and how fundamentally the study of physics could expand an understanding of biology.

The most egregious redefinition, though, is at the beginning of the book. The Science Delusion begins with an anecdote, told by Richard Dawkins, about Dawkins and Jim Watson having lunch together. They talk about how people claim that religion, unlike science, is meant to explain what the universe is for. Dawkins quotes Watson as saying, "Well, I don't think we are for anything. We're just products of evolution. You can say, 'Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don't think there's a purpose,' But I'm having a good lunch."

White goes on to say that, if Watson and Dawkins are "just products," then a good lunch shouldn't mean anything to them. A good lunch and a bad lunch are equal products of the meaningless universe. For that matter, the Eagle Nebula can't mean anything to them, if they and it are merely products. This continues for the rest of the chapter, and pops up in subsequent chapters. If Watson and Dawkins were arguing that they truly are "just" products, it would be a good point. They weren't arguing that. They weren't even making an argument. They were making a counter-argument. People had said to Watson that his life was meaningless and grim unless a creator god had given it specific purpose. Watson and Dawkins refuted that idea by saying they believed they were alive by coincidence and nothing more, but still found meaning in good food and a good time with a colleague. To say that, in that anecdote, they pretended there was no meaning in life is ignoring the context.

What's maddening about this is this is exactly the kind of culture that White argues for when he talks about romanticism. He doesn't advocate for the soft definition of romanticism - the exaltation of emotion over everything else. Instead he explains the alienation of the romantics, the way they saw the corrupt and corrupting systems that ruled the world using dogma, and how they intellectually broke away from it all. Although they sometimes lost their faith and their sense of belonging, they chose to make their own mental framework for the world and how they should interact with it. This is what Dawkins and Watson were doing in that story. Although their conclusions might not be what everyone agrees with, they were finding meaning outside of the framework dictated by others. The only way to assert otherwise is to shear the quote of its contextual meaning. For a book that was written as an appeal to restore meaning to a mechanistic view of the universe, that's not the way to argue the point.