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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Valuable Perspectives on How and Why Theories Are Proven, May 20, 2001
This review is from: The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense (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. This list will probably save you from rushing off to follow some ideas that you happen to watch on a television show. In fact, the book is very good at explaining why much of what you see on television about phenomena makes no attempt to establish the scientific fact of or disprove the claims about what is going on.
Our thinking can become sloppy. There is an excellent section on the connection between race and success in sports that will make you rethink everything that you ever thought you knew in this subject. Why is it that no one claims that the Chinese have a genetic advantage in playing ping-pong? Did you know that it was once reported that Jewish people had a genetic advantage in playing basketball? Nature, nurture, opportunities and incentives are well explained in this section.
In the people section, you see how the psychological profiles of the scientists play a big role in how they pursue their work. Those who are very open to new ideas can get drawn off into nonsense if they are not careful. You will also learn a little about how birth order affects our willingness to accept or challenge existing scientific ideas. With too little openness, the plain truth can be missed.
There is a detailed example of how Darwin's approach to natural selection was more successful than the work of his closest counterpart, Alfred Russel Wallace. I found the example to be a trifle extended for my taste.
You will also get a look at why Copernicus was so revolutionary, and engendered such a strong reaction. Carl Sagan is explored and explained in a nicely balanced way that added to my understanding of the man.
In the history section, the eco-terrorism of destroying the trees on Easter Island to move the statues is told as a cautionary tale of how we can create problems for ourselves if we are not far-sighted enough. Mr. Shermer also makes a good argument for making scientific debate into an opportunity for a plus-sum game (where everyone benefits) rather than a zero-sum game where only one scientist can win.
The book ends on a humorous note as the Piltdown man hoax originally fools people, but is eventually exposed. We need discipline in our science or it can be as foolish as not using the scientific method.
Although Mr. Shermer doesn't say so in the book, you will definitely get the impression that he assumes that any scientifically untested idea is probably junk. On the other hand, many areas of human experience will probably not get scientific testing anytime soon. There simply isn't the interest or the money available to do so. It seems to me that we need some method to move ideas that look promising along towards science at a faster rate. I was struck recently that although it has been known for many years that people in Okinawa live a long time, it inexplicably took scientists more decades than necessary to get organized to study what this might mean. The result can be read about in The Okinawa Program. In the meantime, many less worthy projects were pursued on how to "cure" sick people who are just being hurt by their lifestyle. Mr. Shermer needed to address this problem of scientific slowness to work on the obviously important in order to make this a five-star book.
After you finish enjoying this book, I suggest that you try out the ten tests on an area where you think you are dealing with a borderland issue. This might be how the stock market works, whether chiropractic care is helpful in some situations, or the effectiveness of acupuncture. See if the tests help you to take more useful actions as a result.
Advance rapidly toward knowledge through carefully-tested observation!
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Donald Mitchell
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