Discussion of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, by Michael Brooks

I read a review of Michael Brooks’s 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense on the Uncertain Principles blog. I haven’t read the book, but the review tickled me enough that I looked around for more info and found Jennifer Ouellette’s review in The New Scientist where Brooks is a contributor.

Both Chad Orzel and Jennifer Ouellette give Brooks weak “this book has some weak parts but also some good parts” reviews. Just from the reviews and blurbs I can tell Brooks book is destructive, part worthless speculation on the meaning of anomalous results that are almost certainly erroneous and part flattering discussion of pseudoscience.

Why are people giving Brooks such gentle reviews? The physics results are typical of the lot. John Webb’s fine-structure result is of the same sort as the Viking experiment result. Interesting if true, but not reproduced and instead contradicted by other experiments and thus uninteresting.

Brooks doesn’t understand that for something to not ‘Make Sense’ it has to be true. Anomalous *verified* results, results that can’t be explained theoretically or seem to contradict existing results are the kinds of things that ‘Don’t Make Sense’ but could be cool. These are the kinds of things that Brooks should be writing about.

One of Brooks’s topics is the mimivirus, a virus with the largest genome known so far (1.2 Mb). I can’t imagine anything particularly Earth shaking about it–it’s really big for a virus, but that’s it. Biology is littered with oddities and weird exceptions. No one tell Brooks about ttn-1, a titin protein 57X larger than the average worm protein. Or about the ostrich.

The placebo effect has two components, self-delusion and a poorly understood mechanism whereby the state of mind can affect the body. The mind->body connection is true and poorly understood, the proper subject of Brook’s book.

In Jennifer Ouellette’s review she says that Brooks includes homeopathy because of its relation to the placebo effect. This is ridiculous–any of the thousands of worthless ‘medical’ treatments known from blood letting to magic spells have this property.

Brooks’s inclusion of homeopathy and death is complete nonsense. Homeopathy is pseudoscience, bunkum. And there well understood evolutionary reasons why organisms die, death (and aging) are not even anomalous.

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