The Borderlands of Science: Reviews
Quick-witted, shrewd, open-minded–these barely describe Michael Shermer’s latest confection of intriguing stories, arguments, and insightful observations. His cruise through the shadowlands of science makes a fascinating expedition of the mind.
Whether the issue is alternative medicine or environmental threats, cloning or race, cosmology or hypnosis, Shermer keeps his focus on the central question: Where do we draw the line between solid science, pseudoscience, and the untamed territory inbetween? This is a detailed, multi-faceted exploration of these ever-shifting borderlands, as well as the fascinating people who populate them.
Superstring theory is one of the latest inhabitants of what Shermer 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).
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 website, 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.