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The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense

24 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195157987
ISBN-10: 0195157982
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Superstring theory is one of the latest inhabitants of what Shermer (Why People Believe Weird Things, etc.), editor of Skeptic magazine, calls the "borderlands" of science: that is, ideas that fall somewhere between established, likely explanations for reality (or some small part thereof) and pseudoscientific claims (e.g., remote viewing or alien abduction). A 10-point "boundary detection kit" helps readers determine the credibility of new scientific claims; for example, "Does this source often make similar claims?" (i.e., is he or she a publicity seeker or a crank) and "Has anyone... gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only confirmatory evidence been sought?" His treatment of Carl Sagan, fearless navigator of scientific borderlands, is stellar, as is his chapter on racial differences, where he debunks the prevalent notion that black people are better at sports than at managing. Other chapters are less successful. In attacking Freud's "blustering ego," Shermer disregards how Freud's theories in their heyday helped many people. And throughout, he portrays Darwin as the perfect scientist, succumbing to the heroizing syndrome that he criticizes in others. At times, Shermer seems like a determined gadfly buzzing at the clay feet of figures and ideas he wants to chisel down to size, but his wings end up looking pretty bruised. Still, in spite of occasional ultraviolet prose, the book provides grist for the mill of thought and debate. (July)Forecast: Shermer's Skeptic reputation should help this outsell the similar Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction, by Charles M. Wynn and Arthur W. Wiggins (Forecasts, May 21).

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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

From Booklist

Kooky but prevalent beliefs both amuse and dismay scientists, and their popular writings embrace a tradition of critiquing cranky and implausible ideas. Shermer writes accessibly about common scientific misperceptions. He runs an outfit called the Skeptics Society, which also publishes a magazine, a Web site, and books that contend with the rampancy of pseudoscience in modern culture. This eclectic title comprises essays on topics about science (e.g., human cloning, evolution) and personalities in science. The latter is Shermer's bait for readers, for in characters like Copernicus, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Carl Sagan, the author demonstrates in human-interest fashion how scientists' personal traits influence their scientific research. The recreational rationalist will have fun with Shermer's potpourri. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (November 28, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195157982
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195157987
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,828,534 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine ( and the Director of The Skeptics Society. He is a Visiting Associate at the California Institute of Technology, and hosts the Skeptics Lecture Series at Cal Tech. He has authored several popular books on science, scientific history, and the philosophy and history of science, including Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, and Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (with Alex Grobman). Shermer is also a radio personality and the host of the Fox Family Channel's Exploring the Unknown. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

121 of 130 people found the following review helpful By Michael Brotherton on July 29, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I'm a scientist, an astronomer specifically, and I'm not really the target audience here I suspect (even though in the line of work I have had to respond to a number of "Borderlands" claims). Objectively this is a 3-star book, but the sleight-of-hand marketing biases me against it.
This is a semi-scholarly work written by a science historian. Most of the essays revolve around Darwin, Wallace, and evolution. With these essays, and a handful of others, Shermer takes a historical approach to the "borderlands of science" to look at the process of how scientific theories develop to acceptance. He looks at very few cases of the current borderlands, and of those he does he makes generally weak arguments (and not scientific ones) with correspondingly weak conclusions. An early chapter on remote viewing is the exception.
The wordcount here is limited, but I wanted to point out some specific problem points. In the chapter asking if Sagan was "a great scientist," one questioning his rejection from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Shermer compares his publications to "the creme de le creme" of scientists: Gould, E. O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, and Mayr. The comparisons involve number of honorary degrees, popular articles, advisory groups, books, etc. There is NEVER a comparison of his scientific publication rate or citation rate versus NAS ASTRONOMERS, a primary criterion for the NAS membership who understands that publication practices vary from field to field. Shermer sets up a straw man and knocks it down, the same thing he accuses pseudoscientists of doing. He never comes close to making an argument about whether or not Sagan was a good scientist, merely that he was a well-known one who was highly regarded for his popularization.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By randomdreams on January 4, 2003
Format: Hardcover
What I'm looking for is a detailed users' manual for a Baloney Detection Kit (as Carl Sagan called it.) I'd hoped to find this in one of Shermer's previous works, Why People Believe Weird Things, and I'd hoped to find it here. In both cases, the first part of the book did exactly this, but somewhere along the way it turned into case studies of debunking, rather than the process of debunking. (That's okay: they're well-written.)
Michael Shermer's background is psychology and ultra-long-distance cycling; he's written a number of books on cycling and analysis of (and refutation of) Holocaust deniers. He's also president (apparently for life) of the American Skeptics society and a reasonably good writer. In this book, Shermer spends a lot of time talking about the scientific method, its strengths and potential flaws -- and, more importantly, its system for dealing with its flaws (which he claims "sets science apart from all other knowledge systems and intellectual disciplines" -- a heady claim I wish he discussed more.)
Since this is supposed to be a review of Borderlands and not Weird Things, I'll just say that if you like this, you'll like the other as well. In The Borderlands Of Science, he analyzes beliefs that are at defensible, beliefs that could (or were once thought to) be scientifically accurate. Among these are, for instance, ramifications of cloning, confirmation bias in explaining racial differences in sports (about which Malcolm Gladwell has also written), and a whole, whole lot of discussion of Alfred Wallace. Wallace and Charles Darwin were both responsible for the theory of evolution. Wallace is not remembered as widely for a number of reasons, which are explored in frightening detail in roughly 3.5 of the 16 chapters of this book.
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Format: Hardcover
Human beings have unlimited imaginations. Connect two things in time, and some people are likely to assume a cause-and-effect relationship. As a result, many beliefs are based on nothing more than coincidence. Since science is a fairly new human activity, many beliefs that are now established in science started as beliefs built on associations or thought experiments. Michael Shermer, publisher and editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine shows us the importance of that transition and how it is made. The book lacks the examples to completely establish its thesis, but will definitely give you new things to think about in the examples it does consider.
The book is divided into three parts: Borderlands Theories; Borderlands People; and Borderlands History. A borderland of science is the mental space where there is some factual evidence that is evolving to pin down how or why the phenomena occur. But the pinning down isn't very far along. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a good example. It is based on nothing more than a belief that there is intelligent life in the universe which wants to communicate with us. The approach to listening has been evolving with scientific discipline that will improve. Until we "hear" something though, it is hard for this activity to become mainstream science. Hypnosis is another good example of where science can explain some of the behavior (the "hidden observer" phenomenon in the mind), but not all. This places hypnosis in the borderlands area. I thought that the borderlands concept was a valuable one, and was glad that I learned it.
The book goes on to give you ten tests you can use to help establish whether a theory has anything to it.
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