History in Review
|The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense
, By Michael Shermer. (Oxford University Press: 2002. Pg. 368.) ISBN: 0-1951-5798-2.
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - February 1, 2002
It is often easy to determine if a theory, idea or endeavor is truly scientific, as well it is often easy to tell when something is purely nonscientific, but what about that fuzzy area in-between? How can you tell if something is science or simply nonsense? In The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense Michael Shermer offers the reader a well honed set of tools with which to determine just 'where' a given theory should be categorized. He also explains exactly what the borderlands of science is, and the role it plays a proving ground for theories that have yet to prove, one way or another, just where they stand.
Geared toward the non-scientist, The Borderlands of Science is filled with a plethora of examples of scientific, borderland, and pseudo-scientific theories, along with details explaining why Shermer classified various theories as he did. For example, he classifies the Big Bang Theory as pure science, because it was developed following scientific protocols, and has been accepted by the scientific community as valid - scientifically. He forgets to mention, however, that when it was first proposed, most astronomers thought it was nonsense. By comparison, Shermer classifies the SETI (The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project as a borderland theory. Shermer admits that the program is run scientifically, and that the scientists publish their research in peer reviewed journals and that they don't make any claims of having found anything. They are also quick to debunk false reports surrounding the SETI project. However he places them in the borderland realm because they've yet to prove their theory. If their theory is proved out, SETI will migrate to the sphere of real science, and if proved wrong, will fade from existence.
Shermer also tackles, albeit briefly, pseudo-scientific theories such as Remote Viewing, UFO-ology, creationism, and recovered memory theory. Disregarding each in quick succession, he quickly points out that none of these 'theories' are based upon acceptable scientific principles nor are they being investigated by card-carrying scientist. Pseudo-scientific theories are also noted for being promulgated by individuals who are quick to make claims they cannot back up, and whose logic is often a bit on the fuzzy side.
Shermer is a world renowned skeptic, as well as a social scientist and a historian of science. Shermer is the editor Skeptic Magazine, with several well-received books on science, and the history of science to his credit. He brings all of his skills to bear in The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense. In this intriguing book, he discusses the various "fringe and borderland claims" that abound, and acting as an authoritative umpire, cataloging the claims into their 'correct' category. Topics covered range from Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Carl Sagan to Super String Theory, and just about everything in-between, including Big Foot, Mozart, and cloning. He also touches on good science gone bad, such as the Piltdown Man hoax.
The Borderlands of Science is a testament to Shermer's ideological beliefs, and Gardner reads the book in a strong, clear voice, infused with an evangelist fervor. The Borderlands of Science reads more like a history book, rather than a scientific treatise. Consequently, it is a bit light on the science, but it is filled with tantalizing historic tidbits.
Personally, I do not agree with all of Shermer's categorizations. For the simple reason that just because a theory has not been proven, or a goal turns out, in the end, to be unachievable, does not necessarily mean that the initial hypothesis was unscientific, or even suspect. True science is noted for the Eureka Factor. Scientists, adhering to scientific methods, are constantly discovering things that no one knew existed. Often these are 'things' that they were not even looking for! Once these theories and discoveries are proven valid, they actually move from the realm of pure science to the realm of technology as the new theories are but into use.
Despite this disagreement with the author, I found The Borderlands of Science to be a delightful book, and Shermer offers much to ponder. Throughout, Shermer's main point in writing this book was to provide the non-scientist with the skills to evaluate, for himself, if a given theory is real science, or simply superstition or non-science cloaked in a scientific guise. He admirably succeeded in achieving his goal, and if you read this book for no other purpose than leaning these skills, you will be well rewarded.
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