120 of 129 people found the following review helpful
A World of Glasshouses,
This review is from: The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense (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.
I liked the idea of the chapter on the "Amadeus Myth," which is a topic worthy of comment, but not the execution. We like to make myths of our heroes. But here is another straw man, where Shermer's "genius" is equated to practicing math tricks and never very well characterized. Prodigies are not discussed.
Cosmology is noted as suffering from a bias against "historical science." This is far from true, I assure you. Origins programs in astronomy get funding far ABOVE their non-historical competitors.
A whole chapter is spent discussing whether or not punctuated equilibrium represents a "paradigm shift" of evolution. This is the semantic playing field of a science historian, and of little interest to actual scientists.
Shermer indeed would seem to have such a bias against what he calls "nonscience" topics that he gives them almost no mention. While he lumps, for instance, "Big Foot" in with some poor company, he later quotes anthropologist Krantz in another chapter on another subject; Krantz is one of a number of credible scientists who take the topic seriously. The same cannot be said for his other "nonscience" topics, yet all get rated equally at 0.1 with no discussion.
Indeed, despite Shermer's interesting discussion about a spectrum of "science," his spectrum seems to correspond to his idea of the ideas' correctness, NOT their scientific validity. What is validity (to play Shermer's word games)? All topics can be validly studied using the tools of science. Some are routinely, and some are not. He should have used a different term. I found myself losing trust in Shermer.
When Shermer finds that SETI pioneers are primarily first-born rather than later siblings as in most other scientific revolutions, he finds a way to argue it away in terms of their religion. I did not see this sort of multiple parameter analysis in the comparison sample, so should I believe it? Or did he just invoke the same kind of wishful thinking he criticizes in others?
I had many more problem points that kept my "doubt-o-meter" ringing at regular intervals.
What my criticisms mostly boil down to is that Shermer writes and acts as a science historian much better than he does as a scientist. He gives hints all too often that he doesn't think like a scientist, and this made me distrustful while reading.
This is a shame. I used to subscribe to the Skeptical Inquirer, but let that lapse since that magazine too often took lazy pot shots at the same easy targets again and again. Shermer, and Shermer's magazine the Skeptic, for the most part shoot at more interesting targets, but I'm afraid not as well as they should.
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Initial post: Dec 3, 2012 7:56:26 AM PST
D. Lawrence says:
Thank you for this review. While I admire Mr. Shermer for taking on psuedo science and fundamentalist religion's claims, too often he ventures out of his area of expertise in the evangelical pursuit of promoting his own beliefs. He has made a good fortune of doing this and so becomes less a serious scholar and more of a commerical enterprize. And your comments about Carl Sagan are spot on. He too, was an evangelical for his own beliefs and not a strict scientist per se. The public is disserved by such people, just as they are disserved by the likes of Jerry Falwell.
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