BLACK MISCHIEF: The Mechanics of Modern Science by David Berlinski

BLACK MISCHIEF: The Mechanics of Modern Science

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Delicious iconoclasm from a mathematician/philosopher, who, if he doesn't curb his tongue, may get a reputation like Bertrand Russell's: being considered a mathematician by philosophers and a philosopher by mathematicians. Berlinski takes aim at the illogic that lurks beneath the surface of ""cool"" science, the hunches and beliefs that stir much in-fighting and outrageous displays of spleen. Take the celebrated critique of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior by Noam Chomsky. As Berlinski notes, ""[Chomsky] managed in one blow to empty Skinner's reputation of its brimming content and stomped so thoroughly over behavioral psychology as a discipline that to this day the field is entirely Carthaginian."" And more: ""Chomsky's argument is a destructive dilemma: where the methods of behavioral psychology are precise (pecking pigeons), they are irrelevant; where they are relevant, they are not precise."" The focus on linguistics and current arguments pitting Chomsky's innate knowledge of structure against a variety of ""finitistic"" theories provides a fertile field for mathematical excursions. In a series of amusing short takes, Berlinski sketches concepts at the heart of mathematical dilemmas: the so-called decision problem, and the various proofs of Kurt Godel dealing with the consistency and completeness of arithmetic as a logical system. Discussions of the contributions of mathematician David Hilbert and logician Alonzo Church on the foundations of mathematics lead directly to Alan Turing's celebrated problem-solving machine (essentially an infinite tape, a tape head and a set of instructions). One infers that the endeavors of contemporary artificial-intelligence designers pale by comparison. Catastrophe theory, molecular biology, and astrophysics also come up for rapier treatment, what with Francis Crick or Fred Hoyle invoking seeds or viruses from outer space. Bemused by it all, Berlinski carries the reader along as he traipses from Paris to Vienna to San Francisco, an amiable guide to the snares and delusions--and occasional brilliances--that characterize scientists now and forever.

Pub Date: March 25th, 1986
Publisher: Morrow