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Nine Crazy Ideas in Science: A Few Might Even Be True Paperback – September 23, 2002


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Product Details

  • Series: Few Might Even Be True
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (September 23, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691094950
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691094953
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,518,298 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Do more guns mean less crime? Is AIDS caused by something other than HIV? Does our solar system have two suns? These are three of the "crazy" (some might say crackpot) ideas that physicist Robert Ehrlich explores in Nine Crazy Ideas in Science. But Ehrlich's crusade isn't to overturn established scientific thinking. His mission is to teach and promote the scientific method: techniques used to examine new ideas to see if they explain our world better than current theories do.

Ehrlich's oddball and hot-button topics keep the discussion exciting and fun. But he also points out:

Many ideas in science seemed crazy at one time but are now reported as being settled ... as in the case of plate tectonics, which grew out of an earlier "crazy" theory of continental drift.

Some of the crazy ideas relate to our lives: AIDS, gun control, sun and radiation exposure. Others are further out there, such as the double sun theory and the possibility of time travel. For each, Ehrlich scrutinizes who the idea's proponents are and what their agendas might be. He looks for internal consistency, misapplication of statistics, how open the proponents are with their data and methods, and more.

His conclusions are sometimes surprising, even to Ehrlich, who admits that his feelings about gun control changed after completing his research. Another startling finding comes in the chapter that digs into the theory that oil, coal, and gas have abiogenic origins--that they are not created from decayed vegetable matter, but were part of the Earth's original composition. A fringe, unorthodox notion, certainly. Still, substantial evidence supports the theory, and Ehrlich finds that a chemical origin for hydrocarbons better explains the observed facts.

Nine Crazy Ideas in Science makes several eccentric scientific theories accessible to general readers and, more important, it teaches methods of evaluating new ideas so we can decide for ourselves whether or not they make sense. --J.B. Peck --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Evolution was considered a "crazy idea" 150 years agoand still is by some peoplebut within 50 years of its introduction, it was accepted by most scientists. Today a handful of scientists believe that oil and gas have not been produced by the decay of organic materials and that massive reserves exist deep in the earth. How should we go about evaluating such ideas, which may appear to be "crazy" at first glance? Here, Ehrlich, a professor of physics at George Mason University and author of other popular-science books (Why Toast Lands Jelly-Side Down), looks at nine offbeat ideas to show how seriously they should be taken. He uses a rating system of zero to four cuckoos ("why not?" to "certainly false") to evaluate the plausibility of each one. Ideas such as "More guns mean less crime" and "There was no big bang" receive three cuckoos ("almost certainly not true"). However, awarding zero cuckoos to the idea that "faster-than-light particles exist" (in his own area of expertise) but three to "AIDS is not caused by HIV" may lead readers to question his objectivity, since there is still as much to be learned about retroviruses as about tachyons. Some chapters are better argued than others: Ehrlich persuasively shows how a nonbiogenic origin for oil and natural gas is at least plausible, whereas the writing gets sloppy at times in the AIDS and time travel chapters. The author says that the book is aimed at the "general reader," but science buffs won't find much here that's new and interesting; other readers may miss the spark of excitement and enthusiasm found in the best popular-science writing.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Also, the book is very fair.
S. Robert Snodgrass
Although "the great majority of strange ideas that are testable are simply wrong," Ehrlich says, "a few might even be true."
Harry Eagar
All in all, Lott makes his case despite his mistakes; Ehrlich does not.
Joel M. Kauffman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 9, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Do more guns result in less crime? (Or is it the other way around?) Is AIDS caused by HIV? Is sun exposure beneficial? Are low doses of nuclear radiation beneficial? Does the sun have an unseen companion star, the so-called Nemesis hypothesis? Do oil, gas and coal have abiogenetic origins? Is time travel possible? Do faster than light particles exist? Is the Big Bang a cosmologist's fiction?
These are the nine "crazy" ideas George Mason University Professor of Physics Robert Ehrlich examines. He rates the level of craziness of each idea by assigning zero to three "cuckoos." (A fourth cuckoo, meaning "certainly false" is not used.) Some of his conclusions might be surprising. For example, he likes the idea that oil, coal and gas have abiogenetic origins, a view I like as well, but one that goes against the conventional wisdom. He considers the idea that there was no Big Bang as "crazy"(a three cuckoo idea) as the idea that AIDS is not caused by HIV.
This certainly is a great idea for a book. Unfortunately I think Ehrlich spends too much time on the fine points of statistical analysis, especially in the first four chapters, and not enough on the crazy ideas themselves. For example on the possibility that low doses of radiation might be beneficial (Chapter 5) he gives us eleven graphs representing the data from various sources. The graphs require a significant involvement and effort on the part of the reader to appreciate, as does the accompanying analysis. If you are not familiar with statistical terms and ideas, this will be slow going.
At other times, Ehrlich seems unaware of what the reader would like to know.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Haugh VINE VOICE on February 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent idea for a book. In it, Robert Ehrlich looks at a number of scientific hypotheses that have on some level become ingrained into the public consciousness as "fact" and considers the possibility that different hypotheses might be possible. At the risk of sounding "crazy," Ehrlich tries to open our eyes a bit.
For example, many people would probably agree that sun exposure causes skin cancer. Ehrlich points out, however, that sun exposure has been shown to be quite beneficial on the whole. Though there is a risk involved, for the vast majority of people the benefits quite outweigh any potential harm.
He covers a number of topics such as these and, even though I try to keep up with what is current in science, I found a number of interesting surprises here. I was particularly interested in the chapter describing how it is very likely that oil and natural gas are not fossil fuels and may be much more abundant that we previously thought. I also found the chapter on the possibility of our solar system having two suns to be quite an eye-opener.
Unfortunately, I found Ehrlich's abilities as a writer to be a bit lacking. His prose is very uneven and often unnecessarily dense. Though I found most of his topics to be quite exciting, some chapters came across as quite boring. In the hands of a better writer this book could have been magnificent; instead, it feels rather average.
Still, as a science teacher, I try to stress that science is a field of hypothesis rather than a field of fact and this book illustrates that point very nicely. It reminds us that we must keep an open mind to a wide variety of hypotheses to solve scientific questions. Additionally, Ehrlich shows us that we cannot be open to just any hypothesis.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By S. Robert Snodgrass on May 28, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I've read many books and essays by authors who keep speaking of conspiracies, racism and other isms that blocked good ideas. Robert Ehrlich's gem of a book isn't like that at all. Ehrlich takes some contentious ideas and carefully considers the evidence. Each chapter is 20 pages or so, the reasoning is clear and most should be understandable by high school seniors. Also, the book is very fair. There are no ad hominem attacks. In the case of More Guns, Less Crime and the hypothetical nemesis planet, Ehrlich goes back to the original data and shows how enthusiasts have distorted it. The book would be a wonderful basis for a college course in science for non-scientists. Science is very important in today's world, yet few of us feel able to even roughly evaluate new claims. We rely on those who share our political persuasion. My favorite was "Oil and gas are not fossil fuels." Ehrlich's coverage of faster than light particles and time travel is clear, as would be expected from his physics background. He does very well on the life science issues as well. We should be more open to crazy ideas, and I hope that Prof. Ehrlich writes a sequel.
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33 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Joel M. Kauffman on April 22, 2004
Format: Paperback
Robert Ehrlich reveals his potential for bias as early as p10, where he dismisses die-hard enthusiasts of cold fusion. The reality of the effect, observed in at least a half dozen labs, may be seen in the book by Charles G. Baudette, Excess Heat, Why Cold Fusion Research Prevailed, 2000. The effect is being re-investigated by the Dept.of Energy.
In Chap 2, More Guns Means Less Crime, Ehrlich did indeed catch John Lott in a double faux pas in the graph on p23. First, the ordinate does not begin at zero, and this is not indicated on the Y-axis with a break, so the effect noted is exaggerated. Secondly, the perfect fit of points to the curves was an artifact of the computer graphing program in which the points calculated by the program from the real data are shown, not the real data. This may come as surprise, but I have seen this before, in a curve used by the Heart Institute of the NIH to predict all-cause death rates from blood pressure (BP) as a continuous graded thing. In fact, there is little risk until BP reaches the 90% percentile for age and sex (Port S, et al., Lancet 2000;355:T175-180).
But Ehrlich promotes trigger locks on guns in the complete absence of evidence they reduce accidental shootings of children. Ehrlich used an increase in violent crime rate without an adjustment for population growth. He tried to use a selected 10 states to give an overall picture USA robbery rates relative to gun ownership laws. Ehrlich also failed to note crime rate changes in other countries that passed anti-gun laws. All in all, Lott makes his case despite his mistakes; Ehrlich does not.
In Chapter 3, p48, a graph of HIV-positive hemophiliacs in the UK shows no drop in death rates after the year in which AZT was introduced. Ehrlich has no conception of the toxicity of AZT (Moss RW.
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