Opinion 171: Be skeptical of "skeptics" like Jeffrey Shallit who do not apply their skepticism to themselves, and worse, are dismissive of people who they disagree with

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: March 21, 2019

Self-proclaimed skeptic (and "professor of computer science at a major Canadian university") Jeffrey Outlaw Shallit is very sure of himself. He concludes that people who have different views are necessarily inferior, and this leads him to trash people he disagrees with. I agree that Intelligent Design (whatever it is) is flawed, but so is mainstream current evolutionary theory. It is good to have true skeptics (like David Berlinski) who question the current dogmas. In fact, a very good friend of Berlinski, the late formal linguist giant Marco Schutzenberger, (whose "day job" was similar to Shallit's, the study of grammars and words) also was an evolution skeptic. Another giant, Freeman Dyson, is a climate change skeptic.

Jeff Shallit is anything but a skeptic, rehashing the conventional wisdom.

If you go to Shallit's blog (I will not do him the favor of putting a link to it here, increasing his google page-rank, but you can easily google "Recursivity" and "Shallit" and "Berlinski"). You will soon enough see that Shallit calls Berlinski a "poseur", claims that his PhD was "only" in Philosophy, and most of his books are "only" popular. I have news to you, mathematical snob Jeff. "Popular" books are much more important than "technical" books, and besides, while intended to be also read by the general public, his books on Calcluls and Algorithms are major achievements in the history of scientific culture. True, his style is florid and may not agree with the average mathematical, culturally unsophisticated, "meat-heads", but disliking someone's literary style is not a good reason to dismiss them as worthless.

Another thing that really bothered me is Shallit's dismissal of a PhD in philosophy. I was curious, and went to ProQuest, and downloaded Berlinski's PhD thesis entitled "The well-tempered Wittgenstein", and loved it. Then I tried to download Shallit's PhD thesis but could not find it on-line. Instead, I went to MathSciNet, and found out that parts of it were published in the Fibonacci Quarterly, and the one paper, about the Pierce expansion, while non-trivial, is far less significant than Berlinski's fascinating thesis on Wittgenstein.

So don't be so quick to call people you disagree with "pseudo-scientists" and "poseurs". In one thousand years, all these debates will seem childish, and future humans (if they will exist) would laugh at our current science, that would all become "pseudo-science". Just remember that Astrology used to be mainstream hard science until a few hundred years ago, and even in our time, some people much smarter than Jeff Shallit believe in ESP (e.g. Turing), Spiritualism (radio pioneer Sir Edward Lodge), and many great mathematicians and scientists believe in God.

Added Aug. 18, 2019: Read Eric Rowland's comments.

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