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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions - David Berlinski Criticizing books on Intelligent Design is usually as interesting as shooting fish in a barrel, but there are exceptions to every rule. Given its title and cover, one would be forgiven for expecting The Devil's Delusion to be a collection of trivial fallacies, unified by a complete ignorance of modern science and a general inability to write. I was surprised to find that it is no such thing. I do not agree with many of the arguments that Berlinski proposes, but it is obvious, after just a few pages, that he is a well-read, highly intelligent person who knows how to produce excellent prose. He is also very funny.

I am not quite sure why Berlinski has chosen to defend ID. I think part of his reason is sincere; my impression is that he genuinely does believe in a personal God who, among other things, created the universe and in some way has steered evolution. I also think he is angry with what he sees as the slackness, complacency and hypocrisy of modern science and the New Atheist movement. Having just read Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis and its ridiculous foreword by Christopher Hitchens (one of Berlinski's main targets), I can sympathize. I love good science. The most significant chapter of Stenger's book seems to be rather poor science, and it is distasteful seeing Hitchens, who doesn't even understand the argument, picking it up and attempting to use it as a weapon in his fight against religion.

Berlinski doesn't convince me either when he tries to show that modern cosmology's account of the beginning of the universe is incoherent, but his version is more interesting and carefully thought-out than Stenger's, and raises sensible concerns. He is also much better when he talks about theodicy and the problem of evil. Stenger wheels out the usual nonsense about how a loving God could not have allowed the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps; one would think he had never read Job. Berlinski, a European Jew whose grandfather died at Auschwitz, is both moving and insightful when he writes about this difficult subject. The parts of the book which impressed me least are those where he discusses evolution, but even here he manages to come up with ideas which are not entirely silly.

What a pity that more ID people aren't like this! A vocal, well-informed opposition is essential to any functioning democracy, and it would force mainstream scientists working in speculative areas like cosmology and evolutionary psychology to raise their game; right now, they evidently feel they can get away with anything. Maybe Berlinski's real purpose in writing the book was to remind the ID crowd that they don't have to be a laughingstock, and that people might actually take them seriously if they were prepared to do the necessary work. Most likely impossible, but it's a noble goal.