Home > Books and culture > Fakes and fakirs

Fakes and fakirs

April 26th, 2004

My recent posts on the Republican/rightwing campaign against science have led to reminders that this kind of thing isn’t confined to the political right – I mentioned this in a footnote, but the subsequent correspondence has raised some examples I can’t resist, as has a mildly spooky coincidence.

First, one commentator raised the examples of Jeremy Rifkin and David Suzuki. Rifkin talks an awful lot of tosh, in my view, but I can’t say I object violently to him. He’s in a line of business where it’s necessary to produce a new book with a new “big idea” every couple of years. In my judgement he’s simply not up to this task. Entropy wasn’t bad, as bestselling books of this kind go, but it wasn’t very good either, and I’ve ignored him ever since.

By contrast, Suzuki hits almost as many of my hot buttons as Bjorn Lomborg. I vividly remember going to see him when he visited James Cook University. I was mildly sceptical, but Townsville isn’t exactly flooded with high-profile international visitors, so I went along to listen. He started off by making a scene about the absence of a glass of water. This was produced and sat, untouched, for the entire talk.

The content was equally annoying. After giving a reasonably lucid (though unattributed) exposition of the ideas ofThomas Malthus he announced “Of course, no economist could ever understand this”. The audience (reasonably enough, not enamoured of economists) loved it, but I was unimpressed, to put it mildly. The rest was equally bad. Although he was a zoologist at one time, his talk showed no indication that he had any up-to-date knowledge of the scientific literature on environmental problems like global warming. And his gaffe regarding Malthus was typical of his knowledge of the intellectual history on which he presented himself as an expert. He attacked mechanistic views of life and the universe, but attributed them to Newton (a man devoted to mysticism and deism) rather than to Descartes. I can’t remember other specific instances, but the entire talk was full of errors like this, as well as being totally lacking in any positive proposals or new insights.

Finally, the coincidence. Readers of a certain age will remember posters showing a chubby Indian boy with the question “Who is Guru Maharaj Ji”, which invited the inevitable response “Who gives a f*** who Guru Maharaj Ji is”. For some reason, only a few days ago, I was suddenly struck by a desire to find out what had happened to this guy. The core of the story is predictable – lavish lifestyles, disillusioned followers, organizational splits and vicious litigation. It turns out that he now goes under the name Prem Rawat and runs an outfit called Elan Vital.

Anyway, a day or two ago I was surfing channels when I saw an ad for this very same Prem Rawat. Obviously, this is a sign that the Zeitgeist is calling for people to be separated from their money. Since I have no desire to fund Prem Rawat’s lifestyle myself, it seems clear that I have been called to pass his message on to you, my readers.

I have only one request. Before handing over all your worldly possessions in return for inner peace, remember my humble role in putting your feet on the path of bliss and send me 10 per cent.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:
  1. April 26th, 2004 at 21:49 | #1

    as your link points out, descartes views on human actions are far from mechanistic. he may have made some advances to mechanism with regards to other phenomena than the mind, but he is nonetheless the premier dualist.

    a poor choice for mechanism i would think, since he preserves dualism for the only thing that matters: the human mind.

    its trivial that car engines are mechanistic, and its clear now that humans are also.

  2. April 26th, 2004 at 22:54 | #2

    In case anyone is interested in asking “who is John Galt?”, he was an obcsure Scottish literary figure of the early nineteenth century.

  3. April 26th, 2004 at 23:02 | #3

    After falling for Bush/Hitchens three card trick of “make the world over by following these three simple steps” I am in no mood to be mugged by con artists, neo- or otherwise.
    I saw Suzuki at a the other day. He was the headline speaker at a Longevity conference in SYdney. I am a half-hearted supporter of eco-enviro politics, mainly to constrain human population growth rather than industrial growth. So I was prepared to be sympathetic, but I came away very unimpressed.
    Suzuki kicked off the lecture by bagging the very idea of humans living lengthier and healthier lives. Not a very gracious thing to do to his pro-longevity hosts.
    He then went on to denounce wealthier lives to boot. As an economist I did not find this indearing.
    But the nonsense started to fly thick and fast when he started on the native people and their better modes of life. He lost me when he cited the Inuits as having a better physical model of the world than orthodox scientist because they asserted that life created the fundamental elements earth, air, fire and water. This theory is plainly wrong, even to an non-natural scientist like me.
    Fire is a process, not an element. Suzuki confused the analysis of fire: it is the process whereby work is done and energy is dispersed, not a seperate element.
    Plant life created air, not the other way around. Original bacterial life (oxygen) came from a reducing atmosphere, mainly nitrogen in composition.
    Water came from thermal and gaseous interactions, not life, although is obviously essential to it.
    Energy comes from the celestial sources, the sun, and perhaps terrestial thermal processes. It is true that much energy does come from hydro-carbon life, but this is only a mediator for the sun ie hydrogen. Energy can be released from non-living radiation, eg air waves (wind), water waves (surf), gravity waves etc.
    So the Innuit theory, that Life created the fundamental elements in the world, is mostly wrong.
    Suzuki shovelled this nonsense down the throats of his trusting audience and they lapped it up.
    I learned a valuable lesson: celebrity scientists may be famous for their celebratory-ness not their science.

  4. Factory
    April 26th, 2004 at 23:37 | #4

    Hmm sounds to me that Suzuki is just really crap at giving lectures. The only things I have seen that Suzuki has made are some tv specials. The only thing I can remember from those was one that was about germs, it had Suzuki in the shower, naked.

  5. d
    April 27th, 2004 at 09:30 | #5

    My direct experience with Suzuki’s lack of intellectual integrity concerned a factually incorrect statement that he made about how, allegedly, gene transfer from corn to butterfly is a scientific worry when pollen from GM corn is eaten by the Monarch butterfly. He made this statement, which represents scientific absurdity, on an ABC TV interview at the peak of the Monarch Butterfly GM corn controversy. It was preserved in the program transcript which I checked too. The TV people at Australian ABC were dumb enough to include the clip on air, not realising it displayed Suzuki as clueless about the biology.

    I tracked Suzuki down to get a correction. When he was faced with his error the best he would say in response was “We obvously live in different worlds” to close the email exchange. No addressing the error at all.

    So there you have it from Suzuki himself – he no longer has any claims to treat accuracy and precision of comment about biology as a high priority. PR damage control is his mode of dealing with questions. He is thus is no longer a professional scientist. Pretty cool body though for a (65?) year old, and many of my friends lap up his “Wisdom of the Elders” lines: I think they represent the spirituality they missed when they became athiests.

    Both Suzuki and Rifkin churn out books at a great rate with the less famous co-authors presumably producing the first draft and doing the “research”. The brand name makes them profitable.

    As far as Rifkin, it’s interesting that Rifkin’s Hydrogen economy book-the latest one- proposed hydrogen as the new motor transport fuel (an intereting direction), but in his case the “Precautionary Principle” is suspended because it is a Green idea. No horrific speculations about the effects of H2 on disastrous atmospheric chemistry for us there- because coming from the “Green” camp, the technology ideas are intrinsically clean, good and moral.

  6. April 27th, 2004 at 12:08 | #6

    But Suzuki has a beard

  7. PK
    April 27th, 2004 at 13:10 | #7

    Thanks for this John. Your message was starting to sounds like RIGHT = ALWAYS DISHONEST AND STUPID, LEFT = BEYOND REPROACH.

  8. Andrew
    April 27th, 2004 at 14:54 | #8

    “RIGHT = ALWAYS DISHONEST AND STUPID”

    You’re perfectly right PK, and like Ford Prefect in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, I am prepared to update the description to:

    RIGHT = MOSTLY DISHONEST AND STUPID

  9. Brian Bahnisch
    April 28th, 2004 at 00:52 | #9

    PK I think you’re obsessing a bit. Aren’t Greens supposed to be Left? Suzuki is Green. Is Pr Q saying he is beyond reproach?

    I have always thought green advocates become almost by definition unreliable as they venture into commenting on topics where they have no more expertise than any-one else.

    Can any-one tell me how reliable Aila Keto is? She is much decorated and country people in Queensland believe she has an office next to the Premier’s (figuratively at least) with some justification.

    She has been on TV forever here and when talking about dryland farming I always thought she must be better as a rainforest ecologist.

    I believe she was given an honorary doctorate at UQ Gatton last year and in responding almost caused a walkout. She told graduating agricultural science students that agriculture has little economic worth in Oz and the time has come when much of it should be shut down.

  10. david
    April 28th, 2004 at 04:44 | #10

    I’m not a historian of ideas, but let me make a few claims:
    1. “Mechanistic views of life and the universe” is a little vague, but I will proceed as though we all know what it means. I’ll abbreviate it: “MVLU.”
    2. I would argue that even if Descartes is the father of MVLU as a philosophical position and methodology, Newton undoubtedly plays a role in the development of MVLU as a methodology in physics.
    3. There is no contradiction between MVLU and deism, as you imply. There may well be a contradiction between Newton’s “mysticism” and MVLU; however,
    4. Newton’s own views do not determine Newton’s influence on subsequent intellectual developments. There is no doubt that Newton is the thinker most responsible for physics in its present state (which is largely MVLU-oriented) even though physics in its present state contradicts Newton’s own pet views (alchemy, “mysticism,” etc.)

  11. April 28th, 2004 at 04:49 | #11

    Suzuki used to be a prime world class geneticist. Somehow something happened.

    Those TV shows he turns up on are terrible brand driven setups – commissioned to be made outside, or bought complete, with him shoved on the front or as fake inserts.

    It is a depressing sight for a documentary maker who may have to accept this debasement to get the cash.

  12. April 28th, 2004 at 13:29 | #12

    heh…present physics does contradict newton’s “pet views” like gravity and motion…

  13. Andrew
    April 28th, 2004 at 13:42 | #13

    For one brief decade in the 70′s at least, physics (or at least physicists) didn’t contradict his hairstyle.

    Ah, memories.

  14. david
    April 28th, 2004 at 16:40 | #14

    c8to: maybe to be clearer i should have said “SOME of his pet views.”

  15. Norman
    May 5th, 2004 at 11:19 | #15

    It’s pleasant to no longer be a minority of one on Suzuki. I saw him as a shyster from the start, although in those days I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and assumed he was probably conning himself. I’m less generous about that these days

Comments are closed.