Non-Fiction Reviews


What We Believe But Cannot Prove

(2005) John Brockman, Pocket Books, 7.99, pbk, 266pp, ISBN 1-416-5-2261-1

This is the 2006 Pocket Books' paperback edition of the 2005 hardback from the Free Press.   Now, there are many times in the lifetimes of many people, but more so scientists, when one is dying to ask 'what do you really believe'? I have lost count in my time dealing with science policy issues how many times I have been asked what I personally believe as opposed to the considered view of the stakeholders I have represented, or the scientific consensus or whatever. What will climate change do in the course of the century? Is the MMR vaccine really dangerous? Is Brent Spar and ecological disaster? Paxman asks 'what do you really believe?' of politicians all the time. However with scientists there are those questions of which we may very well have a personal view but do we dare speak them?

What Brockman has done is take this a step further. After all what I personally believe, outside of those with whom I have a professional or personal contact really is not of interest to the general public. However it would be a different story if the person being asked was really famous. Further if this famous person had acknowledge expertise. So Brockman has called a few score of scientists to the plate such as the likes of Paul Davies, Susan Blackmore, Craig Venter, Jared Diamond, Stephen Schneider, Ian Wilmut, Laurence Krauss, John Barrow, Lee Smolin and Richard Dawkins... you get the idea. Then he has asked them what they really think.

Each person then gets three or four pages to state what they really believe but cannot prove. This is a fascinating book that is intellectually fun. There is no space for me to spoil it for you but if a few of these folk are right (to take just a few examples that more than one contributor believes in) then there really is intelligent life elsewhere in the Galaxy and we really will be able to create artificial (electronic) intelligence. Other examples are nearer to the scientists area of expertise. Jared Diamond believes that humans first arrived in America well before we have evidence of them and he bases this on mega-faunal extinctions. (Incidentally he may well be right given some very recent evidence.) Though this book might not prove the existence of aliens it certainly shows that scientists are not stuffy with closed minds.

Jonathan Cowie


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