Non-Fiction Reviews

On the Fringe
Where science meets pseudoscience

(2021) Michael D. Gordin, Oxford University Press, 14.99, hrdbk, viii +122pp, ISBN 978-0-197-55576-7


Pseudoscience is not just a 'bit of fun'.  Yes, Yuri Geller bending spoons entertains some, the legend of the Loch Ness monster is the mainstay of a local tourist trade, as does a belief in UFOs are aliens for the township of Roswell.  While, scientists into science fiction and SF fans with a serious enthusiasm for science (the principal visitors to SF² Concatenation) recognise that aliens currently visiting the Earth and cryptozoological monsters are entertaining science fiction concepts, they recognise that science fiction is just that 'fiction'. They note that, while SF can inspire science, motivate technological development and even enthuse folk to become scientists, it is important to be clear as to which is which: fact is quite distinct from fiction even if they do interact.  Yet, masquerading science fiction as science fact or denying scientifically proven phenomena takes us into the world of pseudoscience and here there are real-life consequences.

Whether it is long-term existential threats such as climate change (with the need to make drastic greenhouse emission cuts to prevent impacts such as the extinction of species assemblages) or short-term, immediate threats such as SARS-CoV-2 / CoVID-19 (with at its peak hundreds of thousands of new cases each day and millions dying), there have been denialists who wrap up their arguments in the cloak of pseudoscience masquerading as the real thing. So getting a handle on pseudoscience is something we need to embrace.

Much has already been written about crackpot beliefs, science fraud and pseudoscience, but still these persist and so do the consequences. Here the literature needs to grow, and so we come to Michael Gordin's offering: On the Fringe: Where science meets pseudoscience.

In a world of CoVID and climate denialism Michael Gordin reviews past and recent instances of pseudoscience: cryptozoology, flat-Earths, ancient aliens creationism, astrology, cold fusion, polywater, Lysenkoism etc. He makes an evidence-based case that comes to the uncomfortable conclusion that pseudoscience is an almost inevitable product of science; it being science's shadow. By recognising this and some of the mechanisms causing pseudoscience which he outlines we can begin to combat it.

He begins by pointing out that in one sense pseudoscience is no real thing: people who expose fringe ideas do not think of themselves as pseudoscientists, they think their views are logical and true. No believer ever thinks of themselves as a heretic or an artist the producer of bad art. Yet, pseudoscience is patently real.

Indeed, respected past thinkers including some still respected today held what today we would consider pseudoscientific views. For example, as the author points out, Hippocrates and the causes of epilepsy. Indeed, Hippocrates chastised those who thought they knew what caused epilepsy and so it is that every claim to scientific authority creates exiles from it.

Mardin then gives us a whistle-stop tour of numerous examples of pseudoscience and how they came into being. The gullibility revealed (sometimes even self-gullibility), the deception practiced and sometimes the consequences, is depressing.

He then goes on to discuss some of the causes before coming to some conclusions.  Among these are that as science has grown both in degree (quantity) and complexity, so too has the room for pseudoscience. In this sense, pseudoscience is a product of science. This is likely to be an uncomfortable thought for some but in recognising it we can see how easily, if given the opportunity, pseudoscience rises.

This book is concise at just 130 pages and so not that expensive nor time consuming for the reader. Scientists should be interested so as to be on their guard against science fraud and pseudoscience. This book is therefore a welcome addition to others that should also be on scientists' (and perhaps science enthusiasts) bookshelves, such as: John Grant's Bogus Science and Corrupted Science, The Geek Manifesto, Uncertain Science: Uncertain World and Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction.  Michael Gordin's On the Fringe: Where science meets pseudoscience complements these with a slightly different take.

Jonathan Cowie


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