Sunday, April 29, 2012

#324: Stuart Pivar

Stuart Pivar is without doubt a true crackpot, but his case is nevertheless interesting in illustrating what makes otherwise intelligent people crackpots. He achieved some infamy through his book “Lifecode: From egg to embryo by self-organization”. The idea promoted here is that the structure of living things is mainly determined by structural distortion/compression of an expanding body in a constrained space. Genes play a secondary role (a creature’s fundamental body plan is dictated by topological constraints). He backs it up with mathematics and testing that the mathematics works on plastic tubes (“the evolution of balloon animals” has subsequently become an idiom).

As Chu-Carrol points out, it is not a completely silly hypothesis, and Pivar does an intelligent job developing it. It’s main drawback is that it is wrong, and empirically obviously, evidently and unquestionable completely wrong.

What makes Pivar a crackpot is:

i) His relationship to evidence and testing; throughout “Lifecode” he simply asserts that his idea must be correct because it's just self-evident; he presents a multitude of sketches and models, but never a trace of testing them against reality; Pivar presents, in other words, a magnificent case of confusing a hypothesis with actual evidence for the hypothesis. In addition, he completely distorts the data already available, as true pseudo-science always does.

ii) How he deals with the fact that his hypothesis is demonstrably false.

iii) How he deals with criticism. He sent his book to PZ Myers and asked him to review it. Myers reviewed it as “flagrant crackpottery”, whereupon Pivar sued him and Seed for $ 15 million in one of the most frivolous lawsuits ever made.

That didn’t stop him from sending his next book to Myers for reviewing, however or Myers from reviewing it (same claims, same attitude toward that annoying detail of evidence) as well as other papers of his, or Pivar from getting … irate once again, or Pivar from suing other critics.

Susan Mazur is a fan, presumably because she read the press release for “Lifecode” and didn’t understand a thing.

Diagnosis: A pure and shining example of crackpottery as you’ll ever see; Pivar is an otherwise obviously intelligent guy who has become so stuck in confirmation bias that he thinks he can perceive the workings of reality by not even looking.

If the scope of this encyclopedia had been international, the entry on Pivar would have been followed by an entry on Ian Plimer, another perfect example of an otherwise intelligent and respectable scientist gone crackpot, in a different way but by many of the same mechanisms.


  1. Chu-Carol's remarks in paragraph two make me think of the film Murder by Death:

    "There is only one problem with theory. Is stupid! Is most stupid theory ever heard!"

  2. As we come up to S's I have two suggestions

    Charlie Sheen
    Ben Shapiro

  3. Shapiro is a pertinent suggestion (his conspiracy theories are certainly worthy of Len Horowitz or Alex Jones). As for Charlie Sheen, our current disposition is to deliberately avoid including him, especially now that he seems to be happily basking in and exploiting his reputation for being crazy.