Saturday, April 10, 2010

Medea Hypothesis Review Conclusion

I am wrapping up my commentary on Ward’s Medea Hypothesis. This has been an extra long and ridiculous process. When I first started out writing about the Ward’s book, I never imagined that my commentary would still be unfinished nine months later. Here and now, I wrap this up though. While this final chapter is not going to be very long, unfortunately, this is not going to be a happy ending for any Ward supporters: this will be a bit harsh.

Ward can write. His prose is entertaining and he keeps his reader engaged. He can also write convincingly. So long as you do not look too closely. If you happen to have more than a cursory knowledge on a subject you get a lot of moments that are “huh?” and cause some head scratching. I can only imagine for the specialist in the areas that he is writing about that it would cause frothing at the mouth.

Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy

Ward’s work in the Medea Hypothesis is horribly sloppy. This may or may not be true for his other works, but it is painfully apparent in this book. Fact checking is almost nonexistent here. Conjectures are passed as fact. Criticisms were obviously taken, but only sloppily added in. The editing in general is atrocious. Works that were mentioned and cited are missing from the bibliography. A number of graphs and other bits are not provide a source. Those are just problems with the book on publisher/writer level. There are deeper levels of sloppiness here.

The basic thought process behind the hypothesis is horribly as well. This is something that I would have expected from a bright but not terribly well schooled undergrad. That is someone I would be expecting would be looking at the general works and not intimate with the details at all. It’s an old Friday Night Fight argument from my Las Cruces days. The equivalent of a beer and pretzels argument between friends, not something that ought to have presented by a respected paleontologist in the public arena.

Through the examples that I mentioned in the past posts on the Medea Hypothesis, you can see where the leap from A to B to get C just didn’t happen. A was often contradictory to B and C wasn’t even in the same parsec, nevermind with the proverbial intellectual wormhole between when you look at the accurate data. Ward makes leaps and unfounded bounds between inaccuracy and misrepresentation to back his idea. This is criminally sloppy.

Is there an explanation?

Ward’s rigorous work in the past is rightly acknowledged. He has done some things that have been immensely useful in establishing the KT Extinction as being catastrophic. He has made useful contributions to the work on the PT Extinction. If his published works are so useful, why is this popular work so awful? There is a reason, but its even more awful.

I think Ward’s words speak for themselves:

This could be the end of the book. But it was never my goal just to lay siege to the Gaia, replacing the benevolent mother figure with a silent murderess. Let us move to two final chapters: the first dealing with environmental implications, and the second, a brief essay on what we might do to save our species from extinction.

The Medea Hypothesis, Pg 127.

If you view the Medea Hypothesis through the lens that the Medea Hypothesis was purely an agenda driven piece of “science,” then everything falls into place. Ward assumed his conclusion and forced, shoehorned and bent evidence so that he could show he was right. This isn’t science. This is something else.

Ward didn’t come to his idea because the evidence compelled him. There was no intuitive leap. It was that Ward wanted to knock the “Deep Greens” on the head for their silly beliefs. Don’t get me wrong: the Deep Greens frequently make me see red. However, pursuing truth by perpetuating falsehood is not the way to do it.

Summation (Duck Roast Time!)

Ward presents an interesting idea: that the Gaia Hypothesis is wrong and that there is an alternate one we ought to consider. Unfortunately, in his writing and presentation, Ward commits numerous egregious sins. Perhaps there is something to the Medea Hypothesis. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth to his idea. However, given that it seems to say that life systems are subject to entropy, too, it feels like we have been put over. What did he really prove? That the Gaia Hypothesis was wrong? Not really. In his effort to present an alternative, the book largely fails.

Ward did highlight some things that are more than worthy of our attention and have not been brought into the public eye much. The first is that there are numerous positive feedback cycles in the biosphere that need to be watched. They need to be brought out into the open as things we need to be concerned about and they are far more nuanced than comments on the tipping points in global climate change. The second is that, yes, biogenic climate change does, in fact, happen. Life changes the atmosphere enough that it will cause the climate to change. That, too, is something that needed to be exposed to the public light since by and large it has not right now. It’s a real pity that he decided to stitch these into an agenda driven ‘grand narrative’ he did rather than write about the feedbacks and biogenic climate change. He would have had a riveting book there and then on largely unknown subjects.

Instead, he overreached, warping the presentation around his agenda, and has muddied the waters. The discussions will no longer be on the merits of the science, but rather the back and forth that takes place over him and his flawed, inadequate and very agenda driven interpretation of the science. The idea of the Medea Hypothesis may, in fact, be worth considering. However, because the book needed a few more iterations through rewrites and fact checking, his idea falls flat and probably will not be considered in a rigorous manner.

Perhaps he doesn’t care. Perhaps he’s merely trolling the environmentalists, the Deep Greens, that he seems to despise while winking at the rest of us; however, perhaps I’ve lost my sense of humor, but I detect no wink. I do think he ought to have taken a little more effort, a little more care in his work rather than extruding book after book. Maybe I am wrong and simply am nitpicking. However, I don’t believe so. I have to say that I think Ward let his agenda hijack his work and because of it, now all his popular work, at least, must be subject to a very, very careful scrutiny for bias…and factuality.

I doubt that this review will have much impact on people’s purchase or view of Ward’s works. There have been numerous sources of strong commentary on Jared Diamond and his extraordinarily dodgy works. However, Diamond’s still venerated even by scientists, sadly enough. Ward isn’t Diamond. However, this latest work suggests a future of Diamondism. I sincerely hope I am wrong about that though.

That's it. I'm done. Thank the maker. This could use an edit or two, but I've had enough of Ward's idea. For all the posts, go to the Medea Hypothesis TOC.

James, there ya go. Link away.


Anonymous said...

Ward isn’t Diamond. However, this latest work suggests a future of Diamondism.

oh snap!

excellent review

thanks for the slogging.


Anonymous said...

I have read Ward's "Rare Earth," and can tell you that he uses the same sloppy thinking and "conclusions-first, select evidence to fit after" approach there, too. Now I know that it's a habit with him, and will not be buying any of his other books ever.

Thanks for writing such a comprehensive review.

Anonymous said...

The same thing goes for Future Evolution. Basically the entire book is a vehement critisism of Dougal Dixon and speculative biology in general. While the book claimed to be a look at possible life in the future, Ward basically just ranted on how the whole exercize of speculative biology is pointless and how humans are going to prevent any new large lifeforms from evolving.

Another book, which I cannot recall the name of (I think it was the Life and Death of Planet Earth), did some similar shady logic, claiming that multicellular life on Earth only has about 500 million years to go, specifically because multicellular life has lasted 500 million years so far. He also claims that the Earth is going to suffer disaster after disaster, with the planet getting to be worse and worse (and completely ignoring the fact that recovery may occur).

On the subject of Rare Earth, Ward got so much bad press over it that he had to print another book, "Life As We Do Not Know It", in a sort of "I Am Spock"-like gesture. It actually wasn't half bad, looking at extremophiles and possible unusual forms of life (nanobacteria hypotheses and such). Ward isn't too bad of a writer when he isn't trying to be angsty.

However, to paraphrase a friend, most of Ward's books seem to be able to be summarized into three arguments...

1) There is no multicellular life elsewhere in the universe
2) Sooner or later there won't be any here either
3) Probably sooner

I don't know if he does this because "disaster sells books", or what. But it seems sloppy from this reader's perspective.

Anansii said...

Sigh... "First draw your curve, then plot your points" is supposed to be a joke, blister it. Thanks for the review (and thanks James Nicoll for posting the link!)