Non-Fiction Reviews

The Primacy of Doubt

From climate change to quantum physics,
how the science of uncertainty can help predict
and understand our chaotic world

(2022) Tim Palmer, Oxford University Press, £22.99, hrdbk, xx + 287pp, ISBN 978-0-192-84359-3


In The Primacy of Doubt Tim Palmer provides an interesting, sometimes debatable (but still interesting) journey through aspects of chaos theory as it applies to climate change, the CoVID pandemic and predicting financial crashes. It then goes on to fly some heavy duty kites, including that aspects of quantum theory may actually be chaotic and from that, speculate as to the possible the nature of the Universe. Even if you don't always agree with him, the speculation is most engaging. It will be fascinating to see how well this book does: whether it breaks out of the mid-list to become a best-seller.

The book is divided into three parts:  a look at the science of uncertainty – chaos theory (Lorenz attractors and so forth, as well as uncertainty in quantum theory);  how chaos theory helps predict climate change, pandemics etc.;  and finally, chaos in the universe (from the quantum to the cosmological via consciousness). This could so easily have become bogged down with mathematics but, mercifully, the author has written this for those who do not have advanced mathematics, though some is there tucked in appendices and a couple of cartoons. What it does have are plenty (46 no less) of line diagram illustrations and some of these do some rather heavy lifting in a very digestible way. (Well, they say one picture is worth a thousand words.)

Now the author, a physicist, in addition to recounting the fundamentals of chaos theory (the idea that systems can end up in wildly different places with just a tiny difference in their starting conditions – such as, an example of my own I give you, in the opening break of a snooker game) is also flying a few kites: he speculates about the nature of biological cognition, reconciling quantum theory with Einsteinian relativity, and even the nature of the universe. Fortunately for him and his physicist peers, and even us gentle readers, he does clearly signal when he is in speculation mode and flying a kite. Unfortunately for us, as he himself states, some of these speculations are at the moment untestable and so in that sense are not strictly scientific. Lets look at some of these a little further.

One of his kites could explain on how the remarkable human brain runs on only 20 watts. It could be that our brains have two modes of operation a messy quick mode that uses little energy, and a higher precision, higher energy consumptive mode? He notes that for the most part we employ the low energy, messy route. So, if I were to ask you a question then you'd be likely to use the messy mode, but if you are faced with a question in a career-changing exam then you would really focus on it and literally bring more brain power to bear. The author gives an example used on Harvard students…

A bat and a ball together costs $1.10.  The bat costs just $1 more than the ball.  So how much does the ball cost?

Now if you answered 10 cents then you would be in the company of roughly half the Harvard students, which is disturbing as they were selected for being among the brightest of their generation and were incorrect!

The actual answer is 5 cents.

If you got it wrong then don't worry, Tim Palmer says it is because you were using the low-energy, chaotic system method of solving the problem. (If you still don't understand why it is not 10 cents then I will explain below this interview at the bottom of the page.

The author speculates that maybe there is a quantum aspect to signal processing in our brains. This is a concept that I (a bioscientist) have myself idly contemplated, but there is no hard evidence for such quantum biology, though it is possible (quite likely) that quantum physics does play a part in photosynthesis. However, personally, I do feel it is more than a stretch to not only go beyond, saying that chaos theory may be applicable to quantum theory (as a bioscientist I am not qualified though, as said, such musings are interesting) but, that this might explain God!  It is with this tease that the author ends his book, but does so with doubt in his mind. This last is appropriate enough for a book with 'doubt' in its title and on chaos theory, and the author himself does not mind his readers having doubts.

OK, so where does this book stand in the genealogy of popular science books?   Well, for my money The Primacy of Doubt is a cousin to biologist Jack Cohen's and mathematician Ian Stewart's highly readable book The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering simplicity in a complex world (1994) written over a quarter of a century ago and still worth reading today.

The Primacy of Doubt also contains very informative explanations as to the application of chaos theory in climate and meteorological models, and why meteorologists failed to predict southern Britain's 1987 hurricane. To my mind this were probably the book's strongest areas and are 'must reads' for those with an interest in climate forecasting.

Even so, it has to be said that while The Primacy of Doubt is written in plain-ish English, it does at times slip into technical or philosophical terms that can obscure the meaning to non-technical readers. So he uses 'invariant set' instead of 'cosmological attractor' (though does initially explain this), 'epistemic' and 'ontological' and I guess that while the author is attempting to speak to the interested lay person, subconsciously I suspect he is talking to his physicist and mathematician peers.  Having said that, for most of the time, The Primacy of Doubt's text will be lucid to non-physicists even if on occasion (such as when discussing Bell's experiment on entangled particles) the more casual reader will struggle: I know that at times I did. I also disagreed with a couple of the basic examples he explores. For example, while I agree with the author as to the state of economists models, I do not believe that this was the reason they failed to predict the 2008 financial crash: that crash was due to bankers repackaging and self-valuing (very incorrectly) bundles of US sub-prime mortgages to investors. You see, we have a saying in biology 'garbage in, garbage out' and this is also used by computer modellers as a reminder that if you input rubbish data into a model then you will get rubbish output. This was what happened in the 2000s when bankers were lying to themselves and their investors as to their investments' value. The modellers just put the bankers' incorrect valuations into their models which invalidated their models' outputs. Not surprisingly, they failed to predict the crash.

Nonetheless, don't let this put you off, as I said earlier this the book provides an interesting journey and it will make you think even if you do have doubts about The Primacy of Doubt.


Jonathan Cowie


An explanation to the above bat and ball cost question (copied below)

A bat and a ball together costs $1.10.  The bat costs just $1 more than the ball.  So how much does the ball cost?

The wrong answer is 10 cents.

If the ball cost 10 cents and the bat cost $1 more then the bat would cost $1.10 and so the bat and ball would cost $1.20 (not $1.10).

Here is how to calculate how much a ball costs.

Here is what we know:

Bat + Ball = $1.10

Bat = Ball + $1


Bat + Ball = $1.10  =  (ball + $1) + ball

= 2 balls + $1 = $1.10

2 balls = $1.10 – $1

Therefore  2 balls = 10 cents.

So 1 ball = 5 cents (or $0.05)

This makes a bat's cost $1.05  and the cost of a bat and ball together = $1.05 + $0.05 = $1.10.



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