At the Fringes of Science

Author: Michael W. Friedlander
Date: 1995
Publisher: Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado
ISBN: 0813322006
Reviewed by: Allan H. Harvey, steamdoc@aol.com


The Author

Michael Friedlander is a professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis.

Preliminary Comments

If I were Michael Friedlander, I would have a complaint with my publisher. Westview Press put two quotes on the book's jacket - one from Arthur C. Clarke and one from Martin Gardner. Both make it sound like the book is devoted to debunking "cranks, crooks, and charlatans" (Clarke's words), much as Gardner has done in several books. However, At the Fringes of Science is not primarily a "debunking" book. It tries to do something more difficult and worthwhile by covering the entire landscape of "fringe science," from legitimate but non-mainstream science at one end to sheer crackpottery at the other. Debunking is easy; anyone can scoff at nonsense like astrology. It is a harder task to explain what it is that characterizes legitimate science and differentiates it from pseudoscience, and to provide guidance for judging things that do not fall neatly into either category. Friedlander attempts to do this, and to the extent he is successful he has written something more valuable than any debunking book could ever be.

To those of us who work in science, this book may seem unnecessary. While we may not be able to define pseudoscience, it is like the Supreme Court's definition of obscenity: we know it when we see it. But to the rest of the population, it is not so clear why some scientific claims carry weight and others don't. Why were Einstein's relativity theories generally (though not universally) embraced, while Wegener's continental drift theory was largely dismissed for many years before being accepted? Why was cold fusion given a fair examination and ultimately rejected, while most claims of young-Earth creationism are just laughed at? The line between science and pseudoscience is sometimes difficult to draw, and it is even more difficult to explain to the nonscientist. But we must try to make the general public understand these distinctions, because the issues are important to everybody.

We live in a society where juries award millions of dollars in cases without scientific merit, where a recent US presidency was tainted by astrology, where huge sums are being spent to mitigate alleged effects of electromagnetic fields, where politicians are questioning efforts to curb stratospheric ozone depletion, where school science curricula are endangered by creationism, and where homeopathy, therapeutic touch, and other "alternative medicine" is widespread. Both policymakers and ordinary citizens need to be better equipped to discern good science from bad science from crackpottery. Understanding the material in this book would be a big step in the right direction.

Summary of the Book

After a brief introduction, the book begins by examining four cases of "fringe science," chosen to illustrate the variety that term encompasses. The first example is the classic case of Immanuel Velikovsky. Velikovsky's 1950 book Worlds in Collision provided an engagingly written but scientifically ludicrous account of how Earth's history had been shaped by near-collisions with various planets and comets. Velikovsky's work impressed many who did not have the background to recognize the gaping holes in his physics (or, for that matter, his anthropology, geology, etc.), and still attracts some support. Friedlander, who has debated Velikovsky, explains the history of the controversy well and provides plausible speculation as to why so many were willing to ignore scientists and follow such nonsense. A second, more obscure, example is the AD-X2 battery additive, which was promoted using political connections despite the lack of evidence for its efficacy. The next two examples are continental drift and cold fusion. Both of these started as revolutionary ideas advanced by competent people working somewhat outside their areas of expertise. The author explains why both got a skeptical reception but how the mechanisms of science ultimately worked to establish the truth of continental drift and the probable falsity of cold fusion. These initial examples demonstrate that not all unorthodox science is alike, and illustrate principles that will arise again in subsequent chapters.

The next two chapters describe science itself. The first draws heavily on Thomas Kuhn in articulating a view of how science works. However, Friedlander rejects the relativism that some attribute to Kuhn (and that is more evident in other philosophers of science). He unapologetically views science as scientists do - as an effort to describe and understand an objective physical reality. The effort itself may be imperfectly objective because humans are involved, but reality is the ultimate arbiter. The next chapter describes the way the scientific community works through journals, meetings, etc. It also describes the training of scientists (noting the unfortunate fact that science education pays little attention to the difficulties, false starts, and tentative nature of science), and discusses the interactions (or lack thereof) between scientists and the public at large. This material would be old hat to scientific readers, but to the nonscientist it would provide useful insight into how science works, since it is not entirely like the picture most laymen get from portrayals in the media and from their high-school and college science courses.

After this, Friedlander returns to case studies. The next set of cases is termed "respectable maverick ideas." These ideas, all of which were radical when first proposed, include the impact theory of dinosaur extinction, relativity, the possibility of a "fifth force," the Big Bang theory, and quantum mechanics. The key point is that science is willing to listen to unorthodox ideas, if they are backed by supporting evidence and are put forth by people who do not demonstrate gross ignorance. The frequent complaint by pseudoscientists that science is closed to unorthodox ideas is simply false.

The next chapter describes two episodes that might not belong together had they not both involved water. The "polywater" fad of the late 60's was legitimate science that ultimately turned out to be an artifact of experimental impurities. The Benveniste case of 1988 (in which it was claimed that solute molecules left behind effects in water even if they were no longer there) was a result that nobody believed because it made no physical sense, but which was published since it came from a respected laboratory. Friedlander gives a good account of the strange aftermath of the publication, which included an investigation by a team including professional magician James Randi. This episode shows that it is not always simple to distinguish between honest error, self-delusion, and fraud.

The book then explores some cases that are more in the realm of pseudoscience proper. These include astrology, UFO's, and the 1990 Missouri earthquake prediction of Iben Browning. The discussion of the Browning case and the way it was handled in the media is especially insightful - Friedlander teaches in St. Louis and thus had a closer view of the circus than most. Parapsychology gets its own chapter, which points out instances of clear pseudoscience but is somewhat sympathetic toward some current work that takes a more scientific approach to the alleged phenomena.

The next chapter discusses fraud in science, including some cases that are not truly fraud. The most interesting example is N-rays, the turn-of-the-century "discovery" that is often listed as a fraud but which is probably more a case of self-delusion. Another category is correct findings where the experimenter may have been careless or less than fully honest in reporting the results; these include the IQ results of Cyril Burt and Millikan's determination of the electron's charge. The varied examples reinforce the point that, though science has some clear cases of fraud, often the lines between fraud, honest error, and sloppy science are not clear.

The next chapter, titled "Political Pseudoscience," describes "what can happen when the content of science is dictated by nonscientific forces." The first two examples chosen clearly fit the bill: the forced adoption of Lysenko's biological ideas in the Soviet Union and the push for "Aryan physics" (as opposed to "Jewish physics" like relativity) in Nazi Germany. The third example is "creation science." This initially surprised me a little, but upon reflection it clearly fits. Just as in the other cases, nonscientific forces (in this case, commitment to one interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis) have been the determining factor in what this movement accepts as "science."

I was, however, mildly disappointed with the presentation of the creation science issue. Friedlander makes the same mistake as many creationists by writing as if there were only two positions: the theory of evolution on one side and creation science (in young-Earth form) on the other. The broad term "evolution" is used without distinguishing between the established fact of natural selection, the well-supported hypothesis that species developed historically by this process, and the non-scientific philosophical position that therefore the universe is Godless and without purpose. There is a vast middle ground of those who accept the scientifically determined age of the Earth but take a position short of random Godless evolution. This includes not only traditional "old-Earth" creationists, but also recent scholarly critiques of evolutionism such as Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial and advocates of "intelligent design," and also those who hold to various forms of theistic evolution. Most Christians, even many who would be classed as "conservative," have no quarrel with the age of the Earth, and many can accept part or all of evolutionary theory. The young-Earth creationist movement is unfortunately loud and visible, but it is not the Christian position. One can't expect to capture all the nuances of this issue in a single short section, but it would be nice (given the laudable effort made in, for example, the chapter on fraud to show that all was not black and white) if there had been some attempt to show the continuum of positions rather than focusing on the most extreme of those Christians who oppose various aspects of evolution. If there is one thing this issue does not need, it is further polarization into extremes.

On the positive side, the section does point out some of the philosophical problems in the famous 1982 Arkansas creationism trial (where the court seemed fuzzy on whether "creation science" was just bad science or not science at all). It also refers readers to Ronald Numbers' excellent history The Creationists, which illuminates the history and shaping forces behind the young-Earth creationist movement.

The penultimate chapter takes a step back and surveys the landscape, doing a fine job at putting the preceding case studies into perspective. Friedlander reiterates that, while some things can be clearly distinguished as pseudoscience, there will always be a fringe that is difficult to classify. He offers some guidelines, mostly aimed at scientists, for the evaluation of unorthodox ideas. As for how nonscientists should respond to these ideas, his advice is mainly "trust the experts," with some caveats as to what are legitimate factors in determining expertise. There is also the useful advice that ideas presented through normal, peer-reviewed scientific channels are less likely to be pseudoscience than those accompanied by press conferences, personal testimonials, and a paranoid attitude toward critics.

The final chapter mainly discusses what the response of scientists should be. Friedlander advocates the sensible idea that science education at all levels should be not just a presentation of "facts" but should also instill an appreciation for rational thinking and an accurate picture of the process of science. He also offers specific advice, gleaned in part from his own debates with Velikovskians, for those who choose to confront pseudoscience directly. Finally, he states that the media should be more responsible, deliberative, and skeptical in its reporting of the myriad of fringe science claims.

Evaluation

A temptation is to complain about all the fringe science this book left out. Examples that come to mind include the alleged health effects of electromagnetic fields, the rampant pseudoscience in "alternative medicine," environmental pseudoscience as advocated by Rush Limbaugh on one end of the political spectrum and Jeremy Rifkin on the other, and the bizarre manifestations such as "Afrocentric science" that are documented in Gross and Levitt's Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. But the potential list of omissions is nearly endless (for example, in graduate school I helped put to rest a mistaken claim about "ultrapurity" that had excited some in the chemical engineering community), and it must be recognized that the book is not intended to be encyclopedic.

Instead, it uses enough examples and commentary to accurately portray the scientific effort, the characteristics of nonsense masquerading as science, and the many gray areas in between. I felt like I had a fair grasp of these issues before reading the book, but I still found it enlightening. It is also entertainingly written, with a number of fascinating anecdotes such as the story of the investigator who pocketed a prism being used to bend N-rays (with no effect on the claimed results), and the story of how some university ESP researchers were fooled by professional magicians.

Does At the Fringes of Science succeed in equipping its readers to judge fringe claims that are presented as scientific? I think it does as good a job as can be hoped for. Certainly for the scientific community it will provide perspective and clarity that is lacking in our formal educations, and will help us to exercise better discernment when dealing with the fringe areas that we may encounter in the work of others or even ourselves. It also provides good supporting material for those in science who wish to speak out in society at large.

I am less sure about whether this book can have an impact on nonscientists. Its message was clear to me, but might not be to the majority of the public for whom science is forbidding and alien. I cannot put myself in their shoes well enough to judge whether they would understand the book. That is unfortunate, because those most in need of this understanding are not professional scientists, but rather congressional staffers, reporters, educators, judges, and others who shape our society. My fear is that most people in such positions are so far out of touch with the world of science that they will not even think to read this book, much less be able to grasp the material. Unless we can make society as a whole more scientifically literate, we may have to settle for increasing understanding in small increments, one reporter or school board member at a time. But perhaps societal change only works one person at a time anyway.

Finally, why should Christians, particularly those in science, be interested in this book? While it has a section on creation science, there are better and more complete treatments of that elsewhere. Instead, I see two major reasons. The first is that creation science is not the only pseudoscience that has invaded the church. I know of efforts to label quantum mechanics and relativity as anti-Christian and remake physics accordingly; while I have yet to see what these people offer in place of modern physics, the history of such efforts is littered with crackpots and political pseudoscience. There are also inroads of "alternative medicine" and other quackery; I remember watching a Christian talk show once where some kind of peroxide treatment was touted as a miracle cure for which God was to be praised. When Christians stray into such nonsense, it harms the witness of the faith and distracts the church from doing the things God calls it to do, like sharing Christ's love with the world. The second, more fundamental reason is that we serve a God who embodies truth. As salt and light in the world, we should combat falsehood wherever it may be found. Working to educate and influence the public toward reason and truth in scientific matters may not be quite as urgent as working against poverty or racism, but it is still worth doing. We are not loving and serving our neighbors fully if we passively allow pseudoscience to continue taking its toll on their lives and on the society in which they live.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this review are the opinion of the author of this review alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Review originally written May 1996.
Page last modified September 2, 2000