38 of 45 people found the following review helpful
This may be a bit esoteric for the general reader, but for those with more than a passing interest in science and its struggles with both the true believers from without and the heretics from within, this is a first class read. Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer addresses the friction within science in 14 well polished essays ranging in subject matter from playing psychic for a day to what to call rational skeptics to an in-depth look at the work of the late Stephan Jay Gould. Ten of the essays previously appeared in Skeptic or other magazines or journals.
Shermer's style reminds me somewhat of Gould himself since both men write readable prose that sometimes tends toward the ornate, replete with allusions and asides as well as a tendency toward a fine examination of relevant minutia. I was in particular somewhat surprised and amused at Shermer's lengthy, but fascinating treatment of the controversy over skeptics calling themselves "Brights" (Chapter 2, "The Big 'Bright' Brouhaha"). It seems that while fussing over whether the cause of rational skepticism is being held back by the lack of an agreeable label to pin on practitioners, somebody came up with the tag "Brights." Oh boy. Shermer and others embraced the term enthusiastically. However, one doesn't need a PhD in human psychology to realize that some people ("dims"?) might find the label arrogant and delusive. Turns out that most rational skeptics themselves rejected the term, and I presume it is now as dead as the dodo--however not before Shermer and others gave it more than the good old college try. It would appear that as objective as one can be about the self-serving delusions of others, when it comes to ourselves, we sometimes can't find a mirror anywhere in the house.
My suggestion is to live with the term "skeptic" or "rationalist" and realize that as such we will forever remain a minority within the human community--although I did kind of like the suggested term "eclectic" and think it appropriate and agreeable to wear although its meaning is not precisely descriptive of what a rational skeptic is or should be.
One idea that appears in depth in this book is what Shermer, whose doctorate is in the history of science, sometimes calls "contingent-necessity." One recalls that Gould often spoke of contingence in evolution and famously remarked that if the earth's history were played out again, chances are we wouldn't be here. Certainly the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs is an example of the kind of contingency he had in mind. But Shermer takes the reader further and explains that "History is a product of contingencies (what might have been) and necessities (what had to be)." (p. 155) He gives a number of examples to explain what he means. The QWERTY typewriter keyboard arrangement can be seen as an example of a contingency that we got stuck with (pp. 138-140), while the keyboard itself was more or less a necessity.
Shermer goes on to explore the phenomenon of "self-organized criticality" (from chaos theory). I found it especially interesting that he identified various mass hysterias as chaotic phenomena with their own self-organizing and feedback mechanisms. On pages 142-147 he recalls the witchcraft hysteria in Europe and the colonies from 1560-1620 and then demonstrates a striking parallel with the Satanic cult/false memory mass delusions from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. One is reminded of flying saucer sighting and alien abduction phenomena that followed similar patterns, and in fact Shermer mentions these as well.
One the best chapters in the book is "The New New Creationism: Intelligent Design Theory and Its Discontents" in which Shermer demolishes the new new argument from design and reveals the intellectual vacuousness of intelligent design in a most delightful manner. This chapter alone with worth the price of the book. Quite simply, Shermer exposes the naked True Believer once again hiding behind a curtain of pseudoscience.
Now it could be said that Shermer is something of a true believer himself--a true believer in science. In thinking about this recursive irony I am reminded of the admonition towards moderation in all things including moderation. (Properly speaking this is a paradox, a paradox of self-reference, as pointed out long ago by Bertrand Russell.)
But can science be taken in moderation? Is it possible to say that, well, we need to be scientific about most things, but then there are (shall we say) "affairs of the heart" to which science has properly speaking nothing to say--or indeed, should it not be the case that science and religion must forever be on separate planes? Personally, like Shermer, I am a rational skeptic and believe that science is a tool that can be applied to all of our affairs, in business and politics, history and religion, and even in choosing a mate, while recognizing that, left to our own devices, we tend to follow the scientific method willy-nilly, by starts and fits, by happenstance and sometimes only when it is thrust upon us by dire necessity.
Yes, in religion as well. Which is why Shermer is an agnostic (the only rational conclusion, based on the evidence) while I personally believe in a God without attributes (which raises the ironic question, does a God without attributes really exist?).
Here is a final word from Shermer, typical of his clear thinking and expressive prose: "...truth in science is not determined vox populi...a scientific theory stands or falls on evidence, and there are few theories in science that are more robust than the theory of evolution. The preponderance of evidence from numerous converging lines of inquiry (geology, paleontology, zoology, botany, comparative anatomy, molecular biology, population genetics, biogeography, etc.) all independently converge to the same conclusion--evolution happened." He calls this a "convergence of evidence" and adds that "By whatever name, this is how historical events are proven." (p. 174)
38 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2005
These are, for the most part, slight pieces, a somewhat haphazard collection mostly lacking thematic unity. By slight, I mean that Shermer did not provide me with much new information or many new insights into old information.
There's an account of his experience impersonating a variety of psychics; an attempt at a Darwinian interpretation of the mutiny on the "Bounty" which adds nothing, really, to what's been known for years; a thirteen-page essay called "Exorcising Laplace's Demon" in which Laplace appears only in the final paragraph; a series of top-whatever lists gathered from here and there for no very clear reason. And so on.
I would have saved myself a good deal of time if I had gone straight to page 173 ("The New New Creationism") and left it at that. This piece provides a ten-point rebuttal of the Intelligent Design argument that is useful for those of us who don't know much about this latest metamorphosis of creationism.
But by then Shermer's credibility was so damaged that even this piece I approach warily. Shermer the skeptic is so error-prone that his unintended effect is to make me skeptical of everything he says. His introduction indicates that many of these pieces have been previously published. This I find astonishing. The first chapter alone contains so many serious grammar errors that had Shermer submitted it when he was a high-school senior, at least where I grew up at about the same time period, he would have forfeited his diploma.
I'm not a scientist, and so when I find a science writer telling me that malaria is transmitted by "a virus-infested mosquito" (try "parasite" and "infected"); that helicobacter pylori is also a virus; that "flagella" is singular, I have to wonder what other nonsense is getting past me. Evidently fact checkers and proof readers have gone extinct.
In general, Shermer's essays lack structure, focus, and creative insight. To be an essayist is to be a type of poet. An accomplished essayist - Oliver Sacks, for example - takes an idea, a fact, an observation perhaps, and in elegant, graceful language explores it, expands it, teases it out until we are astonished and delighted by the insights, the connections, and by a new way of seeing our world. This is an art, and Michael Shermer, sadly, is only a fledging artist.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2008
I'll be brief here. The book is alright, and as someone who is interested in science and the philosophy of science, I had fun reading it. I'm not a scientist but I found the book to be a little too simplistic. Shermer is no scientist either, and its appearant from some of the writing and examinations of various scientific concepts; it's obvious that the author is written by a non-scientist. The book is just a collection of some 12 or 13 essays about various scientific (sometimes barely) issues. Many of these are simply defending/asserting very obvious points that are easily recognized by most people, things like the rejection of creationism as a science, the importance of skepticism, etc. He does a good job on these. However, there are a handful of chapters in which Shermer tries to scientify history, discern patterns, and just generally make the case for greater quantification of history. His attempts to do so are incredibly absurd. He claims to apply chaos theory as well as evolutionary biology to historical periods, and from this application he arrives at a handful of truisms that most gradeschoolers recognize. We should keep in mind that evolutionary biology, and chaos math especially, are very strict scientific fields. There isn't a way to apply the postulates and principles of these fields directly to a subject like history. So what he actually does is to take the broad implications of the scientific fields and tweak them so they become somewhat applicable to society and human interaction. The approach is incredibly silly on a number of levels, beginning with the premise itself. Why does he apply chaos theory and evolutionary biology towards studying history, why not string theory or the implications of general relativity? Equally silly are his arbitrary selections of eras in history to which he applies his "model". I suppose I understand what he is TRYING to do, which is argue that fields like history could stand to be more concise if we were to consider a scientific, meaning strong deterministic explanations for why events take place in history. This has been done pretty well before (Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" for example). These essays in science friction however fall miserably short of success. Unfortunately, Shermer's honest attempt to make history more scientific was betrayed by a highly irrational methodology. The attempt strikes me as fairly naive, but oh well.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2008
I bought this book hoping for something akin to Penn and Teller's B******t. I like to think of myself as a skeptical thinker and was hoping to see these psychics and televangelists get a little comeuppance but all I got was a guy who is way too enamored with himself and his chosen profession. I am not religious by any means but I found his constant carping against religion tiring. I wouldn't mind if it were a matter of merely pointing out the con men that use religion for their own purpose but you start to lose my interest when you generalize everyone in a group and than start the name calling. Pretty petty for a man of science I thought . I know several smart compassionate people who also happen to be religious just as I know smart compassionate atheists. As far as I'm concerned it's not religion that causes conflict but the "my group is right" mentality of all special interest groups. I wasn't expecting to be recruited to the Brights movement. Speaking of which, there was way too much discussion on the naming of the Bright movement and I can't help but think this would only be interesting to a Bright.
I think I could have lived with the God bashing if there had at least been something interesting here. In one chapter Shermer attacks historians for using other than comparative, scientific methods. He sites "Germs, Guns and Steel" by Jared Diamond but I was never sure to what effect. I was confused as to whether he was agreeing or disagreeing with the conclusions. I have read Diamond's book and it seemed to me Shermer was drawing the same conclusions but presenting it as a wholly original idea proving his point. Or maybe I just didn't understand what he was talking about. This book is definitely not laymen friendly (in my case anyway). I'm not a scientist but I do pride myself on being able to follow technical writing but several of the essays here are presented in a dry fashion and I had a hard time holding my attention. He reminds me of the boorish know it all at a cocktail party you can't wait to get away from.
There are several examples I could site of what seems to be the basic problem I had with this book and that is the idea that he and science are right and everyone else is wrong. In one chapter, Shermer takes historians to task for not using objective methods when evaluating events of the past. Science he assures us is the only way to the truth because it is completely objective, implying that no scientist has ever skewed data to reach the conclusion he or she wanted or needed. For someone who prides himself on being a skeptic that doesn't seem like very critical thinking to me.
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2005
I like science writers because of their obvious intelligence and (usually) great writing skills. Shermer is more that a great writer. He is a skeptic, a rationalist and humanist; he is also what one might call a member of the NPR crowd - white, educated, well-to-do, secular and left of center. He has faults and prejudices as do we all but in the end he has penned a fascinating collection of "fireside chats".
While the style and tone remain static the subject matter is joyfully varied - ranging from reviews to biography to lists to revelation. It is hard to choose a "best" when so many are fine. The article on Stephen Jay Gould has aroused about as much controversy as Gould himself. His (Gould not Shermer) real crime was suggesting that Darwin's explanation was not the last word on the matter and there might even be an error or two in his findings. The deification of Darwin, replete with quotes biographical allusions and even the old "What did Darwin say?" is solidifying into a new quasi- religion.
What drives Shermer is not science per se but the history and philosophy of science. The article on "lists" of people and events was entertaining. Perhaps the best was the story of clashes in anthropology and how revisionism and ideology affect our judgement. The author is clearly in the "progressive" camp and makes the common mistake of overstating the danger in ID and fundamentalism (the vast majority of people on Earth reject evolution and we're doing just fine. After all, we have the right to be wrong in America.)
Several personal tales are here - from his days as a student and evangelical Christian to his growing interest in science and skepticism. They range from the sublime,the death of his mother by cancer, to the absurd, the hilarious episode when
certain intellectuals renamed themselves "Brights" with all the resulting bad publicity that anyone with an atom of sense could have predicted. The breakdown of the book makes it a perfect candidate for "bathroom reading". Get it
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Being a sceptic takes courage. Scepticism means assaulting dogmas - read "entrenched stupidity" - and coping with the reaction. Shermer, who puts his scepticism on public view in his magazine, isn't lacking courage. With a flair for investigative journalism and a fine prose style to render results into words, he is always an informative and entertaining read. This collection of his articles is a delight, unmarred by the passage of time. Each one addresses a topic of enduring interest, guaranteeing a "read again" condition for these essays for some time to come.
Shermer displays his mettle up front by taking up roles in performing in the "paranormal". He "reads" Tarot cards, palms of hands and the stars. All of these experiments demonstrate the gullibility of those too inept or too lazy to learn how hollow these techniques really are. Why people believe such phenomena can answer the problems of everyday life remains one of our great mysteries. Shermer isn't addressing these topics from an "intellectual high ground" but from real experience. In his youth he was a Christian, buying into all the contrived legends and empty myths that superstition perpetuates. Discovering reality, he abandoned the trappings of deceptive teachings and struck out against them - all of them. This collection of essays isn't only a display of his experiences, it's ammunition we may all use in dealing with other misleading or manipulative teachings.
As a collection of writings on various topics, this book is naturally difficult to categorise. He discusses the difficulties the "secular humanists" endured with the creation of The Brights. The Brights are an attempt to coalesce the various non-theists in our society. While the name is logical, especially given its true meaning, American society has granted it the rank of a slur on those who refuse to accept easy dogmas. Essays on "heresies of science" and "spin-doctoring science" are a depressing indication of how the public lacks understanding of what science does and has done. If a particular column must be selected as noteworthy, it's Shermer's discussion of the Cancer in the Classroom, "intelligent design". Although much has been written on this insidious threat from Christians attempting to destroy scientific education, Shermer's essay "The New New Creationism" is an excellent overview. He summarises the history and tactics of the movement, recognising that only reality can counter it. Understanding of reality comes through education. It's a vicious circle.
Shermer concludes the collection with an adulatory essay on Stephen J. Gould. It's almost embarrassing to read. Shermer recounts John Maynard Smith's assessment that Gould's ideas were "so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with". Although intending to praise Gould, Shermer then goes on to prove Maynard Smith correct. Following the US academic theme of "publish or perish", Shermer does his sums - even to the level of word count. How much did Gould publish and on what? After gathering his numbers, Shermer goes on to shuffle them around by categories. We are given line, bar and pie charts as tokens of Gould's worth. That Gould had wide interests is a given. Baseball, a topic that puzzled Maynard Smith, loomed largest. Evolution, of course, was a major theme, with history of science close behind. What Shermer omits is Gould's approach to these topics. He enjoyed lifting people from obscurity and defending the indefenisble. Shermer notes Gould's resurrection of Jimmie Ussher's reputation [while misspelling his name], but ignores Gould's constant chipping away of Darwin's or Wallace's. Perhaps Shermer should have included a category for this approach in his counts. This flawed essay is the low point of the book, yet it is well presented and informative. Gould was a friend and Shermer's applause for him is understandable. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
28 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2005
This collection of essays is enjoyable, but not overall his best writing. A few of the essays are interesting histories of science, skeptical method, and biography; the rest are dry lists of data that read like endnotes in some unwritten, more interesting book.
on January 11, 2009
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
"Science Friction - Where the Known Meets the Unknown" by Michael Shermer, © 2005
Skeptical religious doctrine enclosed. Mr. Shermer was a theology student when he first started college, he knows what religious folks say about his cause. He also understands that they need to defend the position that they have had for the past hundred and fifty (150) years or more. I do not think he cares if people believe in God of not, just that they have to believe in science as well. After all, how are you suppose to talk on the phone if you do not believe in it working.
His big story in this book is about evolution, as you might expect. But there was a surprise in `Exorcising Laplace's Demon' where he starts to discuss loops and repeating loops, the subject of "Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid," another book I am reading right now, sort of (heavy going, you know, I am not all that smart). Mr. Shermer relates the loops to history and reoccurrences that seem to happen. It is also interesting about how he parses history into various simple to complex developments. He sort of like explains how sometimes things change and sometimes not. Like the scoring for tennis is the same as it has been since its inception, yet it is vary convoluted and difficult to understand. Why not have a simple one, two, three, or two, four, six scoring system? But this is a simple system, as he would have explained, that the players have accommodated themselves to, and there is little to no reason to change the scoring system, so it stays as confusing as ever.
The last chapter is an eulogy for Stephen Jay Gould because Mr. Gould was instrumental in the authors career.
Throughout this book, I had to keep on reminding myself or making sure of why I believed in God and Jesus, and the best I could come up with is that science, for all it's power and ability, it can not answer "Why?" To be sure science is not studied to answer that, but to circle around it and try to get as much information as possible otherwise.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
There are two kinds of people in the world; those who question what they see and hear and those who prefer to leave the contemplation to others. Society is a delicate balance between these two forces. Too much faith in conventional wisdom can lead to stagnation while too much questioning can lead to paralysis by analysis and chaos. What Michael Shermer does is try to encourage healthy skepticism without such excessive skepticism that we can't draw conclusions. Mr. Shermer quotes Paul Kurtz saying, "If there are any lessons to be learned from history, it is that we should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics"
As the founder of Skeptic magazine Michael Shermer knows a little something about skepticism. In fact Mr. Shermer along James (The Amazing) Randi and Martin Gardner have essentially created a new skeptic movement. The Skeptic philosophy is a non-partisan, scientific movement using the tools of logic and the scientific method to determine the truth or falsity of claims both large and small. Skeptic targets range from New Age mysticism to fundamentalist Creationism to Holocaust deniers.
Mr. Shermer goes beyond analysis and sees science as the next stage in the evolution of morality beyond organized religion stating that, "What we really need is a new set of morals and an ethical system designed for our time and place, not one scripted for a pastoral/agricultural people who live 4000 years ago". Later he states that, "Just as science has been our candle in the dark illuminating our path into the heart of human nature, science is our greatest hope for the future, showing us how best we can utilize our natures to ensure our survival." I'm not sure that science is quite up to the task of defining morality but I do agree that it holds a better chance than fundamentalist Christianity.
Science Friction is a collection of articles written by Mr. Shermer so don't expect any overarching theme. The articles range from an ill-advised attempt by a group of atheists, agnostics and progressives to label themselves as `Brights' to an analysis of the true cause of the mutiny on the bounty. As a long time reader of Skeptic magazine I have to warn other readers that you may find many of the chapters in Science Friction very familiar. The chapters range from breezy and readable to extremely dense as in the chapter `Exorcising Laplace's Demon'. I have to say that I prefer the books of Martin Gardner but Mr. Shermer is a fine heir apparent to the king of debunking.
on June 2, 2011
I've read a few books by Dr. Shermer and I suppose I had high expectations of this book because of the ones I had previously read. This book is a composition of several essays. To put it plainly, some of the essays were great, some were rather boring or he went into far too much detail for my interests.
It's not a bad book to have for several of the chapters but if you're like me you will just eventually skip the one on captain Bligh and the last chapter on Stephen Jay Gould.