Non-Fiction Reviews


Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction
Where real science end and pseudoscience begins

() , Oxford University Press, ???, hrdbk, xiii + 187pp, ISBN 978-0-190-62029-5

 

This is a very readable and concise review of popular misconceptions ranging from UFOs and astrology to creationism and ESP. It is wonderfully illustrated by numerous, humorous cartoons by Sidney Harris. A must read for non-scientists sometimes confused by sensationalist claims in the popular media and especially for parents to give their teenage offspring. Those into science will also enjoy the cartoons plus, they get some questions others may pose ready-packaged for them to pass on.

Now, make no mistake, this is not just a book that looks at false beliefs such as UFO bodily probing or homeopathy (though there are in there), it also provides a toolkit as to rationale thinking when contemplating any issue irrespective of whether it is an exotic urban myth or something more mundane (such as whether you should take a lump sum early retirement or an annualised pension?). The opening chapter looks at science and that there are differences among the 'ologies': astrology vs. astronomy, or psychology vs. palmistry. It also covers things like Occam's razor and inductive reasoning.

Chapter 2 takes some historic examples of scientific reasoning in action over the centuries as to how some key ideas have evolved. Principal exemplar here is the way we have viewed matter from ancient Greece to atomic theory. Chapter 3 compares the attractiveness of pseudoscience with how the scientific method works.

Chapter 4 focuses on UFOs and the extraterrestrial hypothesis from ancient astronauts to Roswell, via Easter Island and alien abductions. There is also a look at nonfalsifiable UFO hypotheses, SETI and the Drake equation.

Chapter 5 takes us from what I personally call SF-type concepts to fantasy-type with out of boy experiences and entities. Included is the concept of reincarnation, astral projection and spirit possession. Chapter 6 builds on this with astrology. This was the hardest chapter for me, but then I am a Sagittarian. Here astrology is taken in the broadest sense of divining the future and so includes palmistry and reading entrails amongst other hokum.

Chapter 7 looks at creationism. This concept is disturbingly big in the US (the authors' home) but also though more of a minority belief over here (Britain) still has too many advocating it. At least in Britain we do not have some parts of the country trying to ban Darwinian evolution from school curricula. Along the way there is an examination of the Worldwide flood claim, humans being contemporary with dinosaurs (again a difficult chapter for my given my fondness for Raquel Welch). Chapters 8 and 9 look at superpowers (ESP etc) and alternative medicine. Finally, there is in effect a catch all chapter that briefly recaps short science explanations/understandings as to various phenomena. Some of these (such as UFO abductions) were covered earlier in the book and some like Loch Ness are fresh.

There is also a useful glossary, additional reading and a subject index appended. But for me by far the other entertaining dimension to this book are the science cartoons drawn by Sidney Harris: brilliant. Indeed, I was going to pass on this title to my now teenage Science son (not God son as I have a duty to impart the arcane rites of the randomised, double blind trial as opposed to the Holy Trinity) but alas these cartoons are too good to give up on. Nonetheless, this brings me to whom this book is aimed at. Well, as you may have guessed from the preceding sentence, I'd recommend this for any young-to-mid teenager, hence a must-buy for parents or friends of parents seeking a Christmas or birthday gift. However, I would also recommend it to specialist scientists who regularly engage in public outreach and for whom from time-to-time get suckered in to debate about creationism or quack cures for cancer. Not all specialist scientists are expert communicators (after all, they spend their time honing their expert knowledge to become specialists) and so a book like this provides a ready package of concise assorted arguments: this is that useful a book. Finally, this is the book's second edition, and that itself means that you do not have to take my word for it as enough must have bought the first edition for Oxford University Press to consider publishing this one. (A look at Amazon suggest that the first edition was in 2001, however a good many references are after this date which suggests substantive updating.) If you are buying just one public outreach book this year or just one non-fiction title for a teenager then make it this one.

Jonathan Cowie


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